Alternatives to Violence – A Prison-Based Restorative Programme

Alternatives to Violence Project 

Prison-Based Restorative Programme

Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) Ireland is an established charity which has delivered workshops in Irish prisons since 1994. It is a unique training, both in the way it is organised and delivered, and in its programme content. AVP workshops usually take place on weekends in a room of a prison’s school. They are facilitated by a mixed team of four to six outside- and prison-based facilitators. The workshops are advertised and participants sign up voluntarily. During a workshop, up to twenty-five participants and facilitators sit in a circle, conversing, engaging in collaborative activities, participating in role-plays and trying to find in themselves the skills and power to resolve potentially violent situations non-violently and to live a more peaceful life. Some exercises are in smaller groups between three and five, with a debriefing among the larger circle at the end of the exercise. 

The workshops consist of four different levels, documented in manuals by AVP International. The Basic Level workshop introduces participants to the AVP experience. They then progress to the Second Level, where the group can choose, by consensus, particular considerations around violence that are most relevant to them. The Third Level workshop (Male Awareness), examines how and why the social construct of masculinity can engender and indeed promote violence. The AVP team has recently done work on producing a Female Awareness workshop which, it is hoped, can be piloted soon. Participants who complete these three levels can go forward to our Training for Facilitators (T4F) level, specialising in facilitation skills. Those who complete this training will become AVP apprentice facilitators. 

An experiential training in restorative practices

The programme delivered by AVP can be considered as an experiential training in restorative practices (RP). We see RP as a value-based philosophy that aims to build healthy relationships and respond to harm in a way that respects the needs of all involved and honours their dignity and humanity. Its proactive elements help build relationships, while its reactive elements are for when harm has been done. 

AVP focuses on the proactive elements of RP, building healthy relationships and a sense of community in the group. It supports the participants to find restorative ways of dealing with conflicts and harm, past or future. If harm is done during an AVP workshop, this is dealt with in a restorative process. AVP programmes do not include restorative justice processes, where victims and offenders are invited to have dialogue. However, it can happen during a workshop that victims and offenders of comparable offences might sit together in the circle. 

AVP Ireland is committed to restorative values and restorative ways of doing things. Our vision is of a community based on honesty and respect, which can resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. AVP’s mission is to encourage workshop participants to restore a sense of self. This is facilitated by creating supportive communities based on trust. AVP believes that all individuals must take responsibility for their actions and that, ultimately, violence and conflict can be transformed. AVP does this by engaging participants in individual and group activities wherein they discuss and reflect on their past and how this learning can help them build the skills and confidence they need to deal effectively with future conflicts non-violently.

AVP began in prisons with the strong conviction that there is good in everyone. AVP adopts a non-judgmental attitude and considers all participants to be equal. It is a non-hierarchical organisation and every voice has the same weight. AVP considers that both caring for others and respect for oneself are essential to adopting non-violent ways. Participants learn by doing and not by lectures and teaching. The central theme in AVP is Transforming Power: the power, available to us all, to transform what might be a violent or destructive situation into a non-violent outcome. 

To give life to these values, AVP promotes practices that participants will experience during both workshops and business meetings. Everything in AVP is always voluntary. Decisions are reached by consensus during meetings. There is no hierarchy within AVP. During workshops, there are no teachers present in the room. Every voice is valued and worth listening to. All participants and facilitators are volunteers and, for the duration of the workshops, the prison is left on the other side of the door.

The format is a circle of chairs so that every voice is equal. It means that during all interactions with AVP, participants experience being treated with respect, being heard and having a voice in the decisions that are made. The circle setting involves participants sharing topics related to violence and harm in a safe environment. AVP circles are facilitated by a team, with the key restorative elements described by Pranis (2015): opening and closing, community agreements chosen by all participants, talking piece or agreement on speaking turns and consensus-based decision-making. We focus on storytelling and allow participants to share their story, connect with each other and support each other to deal with various situations by sharing reflections and skills. 

Other activities include reflection in smaller groups, games, collaborative tasks and role-plays. These allow participants to share skills and move out of the past, into the present experience of the workshop, then onto the future and potential ways of applying what has been learnt. This direction from past to future is also a characteristic of a restorative process.

Lastly, the skills experienced and practiced during workshops are essential to any restorative practitioner: empathising, communication and listening skills, being aware of and managing strong emotions and de-escalation techniques. 

Impact on participants

In 2017, AVP Ireland published a report which showed how the programme was impacting participants (Walsh, 2017). It was found that AVP helps participants improve communication skills, develop self-esteem and foster new and creative ways of solving problems. 

As many facilitators say, AVP is ‘planting a seed’ in participants’ minds and supporting them in becoming ‘restorative’. AVP’s programme help participants change their mind-set and the ‘lens’ through which they see the world (Zehr 1990). Our facilitators and participants report experiencing changes and transformations in themselves and witnessing the impact that AVP has on others. Weekend after weekend they see the differences in participants’attitudes and mind-set, from the start of workshops on Friday to the end of workshops on Sunday evening, and from the first to the fourth level of training: how people open up, start to consider others without defiance, develop empathy, build confidence and see their own difficulties with more insight and awareness.

We see epiphanies when, during a workshop, someone has a life-changing realisation. One facilitator reported having that kind of realisation early in the training: ‘It was like an epiphany for me that I could live this life without using violence’. Another participant shared the impact the Male Awareness training had on him and how it released him from years of struggle and anger. He felt at peace. In another prison, a facilitator said one workshop had helped him start revisiting difficult times of his life and looking for resolution and peace. When asked to give a few words to describe the programme, one participant wrote simply: ‘life changing”. 

Although AVP does not incorporate a restorative justice process, it creates a safe space where people with similar experiences can discuss the impact of what happened and the harm done. The mix of people, coming from the community or prison, from different social backgrounds, helps participants consider and learn from each other’s perspectives. For example, an outside volunteer shared how a recent burglary at her home affected her. In the circle were also two young prison-based participants, sentenced for burglary, who had already bonded with this woman. Hearing about her experience, they realised how their actions could affect people.

Impact on the prison community

AVP also seeks to tackle violence on a wider community level. We endeavour to build a sense of community and increase feelings of safety, trust and empathy within the prison population and wider prison community. A stronger and more cohesive prison community also benefits prison staff. Many participants report that getting to know each other at this level of sharing changed completely the relationship between them: it helps recognise the common struggle of difficult life conditions and the power of kindness in such an otherwise closed community. AVP creates a fertile environment for RP to grow. AVP participants have the resources to open a dialogue between themselves and staff once RP is embedded in the prison.

This can be illustrated by a few examples. When one workshop had to be cancelled by prison authorities for operational reasons, we held a restorative circle for participants, facilitators, a Governor and a Chief Officer to sit together to address the harm done by the cancellation. This created a stronger sense of community among the group by acknowledging the harm done and the interconnectedness of all in the prison. 

In another prison where feuds between gangs were creating many problems, the AVP setting was an opportunity to have facilitators from different wings and gangs working together, to a point that prison officers jokingly renamed the programme ‘Alien Versus Predator’. On one occasion, when a feud had led to violence during family visits, a prison based AVP facilitator sat with two leaders of opposing gangs and agreed on a truce to keep family visits peaceful.

Facilitators and former participants report intervening in conflicts on landings and modelling restorative ways of building relationships for newcomers. In one prison, after being trained in AVP, participants started inviting each other to ‘AVP’ a situation – ‘let’s AVP it!’ – using their conflict resolution skills and inviting newcomers to do the same. Participants regularly tell us that the more AVP workshops are run, the better the atmosphere in the prison becomes. 

Participating in AVP is a unique experience. It allows participants to experience a restorative setting, to be treated in a way that honours their ‘inherent worth’ (Vaandering, 2011), to be heard, and to connect with each other. AVP creates the conditions for people to understand and experience the paradigm shift that restorative thinking requires. It is about our mind-sets, and in that sense, it is very complementary to other types of restorative training more focused on tools and processes. 

AVP has an important role to play in any setting where restorative practices are implemented. 

Dorothée Potter-Daniau, AVP Ireland Coordinator