Our fourth research summary explores a recent study by Nowotny and Carrara (2018), The Use of Restorative Practices to Reduce Prison Gang Violence: Lessons on Transforming Cultures of Violence (Conflict Resolution Quarterly. 36(2), 131-144). In the summary, our intern Karl McGrath pulls out the most important findings from the research, which focused on efforts to implement restorative justice in a Brazilian prison.
The true potential of restorative practices to transform a prison culture will be greatly limited where the understanding of, resourcing and buy-in for it is inadequate.
Brazilian prisons have become notorious for violence and inhumane conditions, due in part to gang violence. Political leaders in Brazil have been divided about how best to deal with gang violence. Most have favoured zero-tolerance measures but advocates for alternatives such as restorative practices have made some headway in recent years. In 2015, the authors learned of a project designed to use restorative practices at one of the largest prisons in the country as an innovative conflict resolution tool to begin dialogue with gang leaders. The authors were granted access to learn more about it, and their article documents the initial attempts to incorporate restorative practices to alter a culture of prison and gang violence.
Prison X, as the authors refer to it, houses approximately 5,000 male prisoners. One of the prison staff described the population as “very young… poor… their level of education is low and that’s the profile of the large masses in the prison”. The facility was extremely overcrowded, understaffed, had few rehabilitative services and experienced extensive violence by prisoners and guards alike. The prison is one of only a few in Brazil that is managed by the military rather than Correctional Services. To understand the culture of the prison and how the restorative justice pilot was being implemented, the authors interviewed a variety of relevant people: security staff, judges, support services providers, and prisoners who were aware of, or had participated in, the project.
Dialogue between prisoners and staff was rare in Prison X. Disputes were typically settled through violence by prisoners and security staff alike, though the situation had improved over the past 20 years after an in-house courtroom was established within the prison to allow closer involvement of the judiciary. Around 2014, the prison’s leadership took part in a presentation introducing restorative justice theory and practices. An influential leader who had been interested in changing the culture and finding alternative ways to resolve conflict became supportive, and pushed for training. Prison X partnered with the State Judiciary who provided a week-long training in restorative peace circles to 15 staff. The judiciary and trained staff began providing spaces for dialogue using the restorative approaches, and the presence of a judge inside the prison provided prisoners with greater confidence that issues would be heard and followed up on.
The authors write that, at the time their article was published, Prison X’s attempts to incorporate restorative justice were ongoing as the project was still considered to be in its initial stages. There was consensus among interviewees that violence levels have improved since implementation of the project began, with a culture of dialogue beginning to emerge within the prison. One of the major catalysts for this emergence was a commitment by the in-house judge to regular mediation with prisoners to hear their concerns, which was agreed in exchange for gangs assisting in keeping the peace within the prison. One prisoner noted “Nowadays we have a judge who… will mediate if needed to… If there’s a major problem, we can talk to him in the afternoon. The prison has started to evolve”.
However, the extent to which the institution is truly committed to cultural transformation was also questioned. For example, there are intense concerns for security and control within Prison X, which seems to have shaped how many of the staff interpret and buy-in to the use of restorative practice. While security staff who were interviewed believed the intentions of the restorative practices project were honourable, they did not see its application as part of their role, unless it was to try gain compliance from prisoners. Rather, restorative practices were seen as something intended for social workers and other support services staff. Resources were also slow to follow. A dedicated physical space to carry out restorative meetings was approved by prison management after the initial 15 staff were trained. However, by the following year that space had been taken over by security staff, with no alternative space provided. Nor was a second round of training for staff ever provided, despite being promised.
It is remarkable, given these considerable barriers to implementation, that the restorative justice project has had any impact at all. This could be seen as a testament to the potential of restorative justice and practices. The authors echo this sentiment and conclude on a positive note, writing:
“…after spending time with staff members and prisoners at Prison X, we believe that it is not too late to make effective, progressive and long-lasting changes within this specific prison. We are convinced that there are strong leaders willing to try innovative new programs to make prisons better for thousands of young men”.