Irish Prison Service College – training and internal use of RP

Irish Prison Service – Irish Prison Service College

The 2019-2022 Irish Prison Service (IPS) Strategy commits the service to ‘exploring and examining mechanisms for incorporating restorative justice principles throughout the Irish Prison Service’, as well as to ‘include restorative justice principles in the training of staff including all new recruits’.

The IPS College is collaborating with external restorative practices (RP) experts to enact this strategic commitment. To date, this has involved delivering RP workshops for IPS College Tutors, developing new training materials for Recruit Prison Officers (RPOs) on RP, and exploring how the College can use RP internally, including through a new Learning Climate document. This Case Study considers each of these in turn, before giving examples of the feedback obtained from RPOs relating to their RP inputs.

Workshops and training for IPS College Tutors

This work began in 2020 with two, one-day events, organised in collaboration between the IPS College and Restorative Justice: Strategies for Change, and hosted by the College.

The first event took place in January 2020 with around 25 attendees, including College Tutors and management, and external RP experts from the justice, higher education and third sectors. The aim was to explore how to include restorative justice principles and practices in staff and recruit training.

The group were introduced to circle processes and heard presentations on the policy, research and international contexts regarding RP in prisons. Participants explored the needs and experiences of those with a stake in implementing RP in Irish prisons, and heard from those who had previously used RP in Irish prisons or trained prison officers. The group also examined the RPO curriculum to consider how to incorporate RP, before developing an action plan for further collaboration.

The second event took place, socially distanced, in August 2020. The group discussed the potential applications of RP in Irish prisons and the work undertaken so far to engage stakeholders and scope the possibilities. Two IPS College Tutors presented a new training segment for RPOs, including videos recorded to illustrate the differences between restorative and punitive responses to a prison conflict. The group also considered how the College might adopt RP internally to build a sense of community, enable RPOs and Tutors to have a voice, and respond to conflict.

Subsequently, seven IPS College Tutors have received RP training from an external provider, and an additional Tutor attended ‘train the trainers’, bringing the number of Tutors trained as trainers to two.

Development and delivery of training materials for Recruit Prison Officers (RPOs)

RPOs spend their first twelve weeks at the College, before being placed in prisons and continuing the Higher Certificate in Custodial Care (HCCC) with South East Technological University (SETU) part-time over two years. In Week 2 at the College, RPOs receive a 2.5-hour training package on RP, exploring both proactive and reactive applications. The training reflects the first day of the four-day course that two Tutors were trained to deliver by Childhood Development Initiative (CDI).

RPOs are introduced to several elements of RP values and skills, including the social discipline window (high expectations and high support), restorative values and restorative language (observing without evaluating, identifying and expressing feelings, connecting feelings with needs, and making doable requests). The session focuses on the restorative values of fairness, accountability, honesty, empathy, collaboration and problem solving, and encourages RPOs to apply these values consciously and consistently to build relationships with colleagues and people in custody, and address conflict in a healthy manner. The Tutors use discussions, group exercises and role-plays to help RPOs understand and practice RP language and skills. To help with this, they use examples of everyday conversations in their personal lives and in their new work environments.

Tutors also recorded bespoke videos to accompany these exercises, demonstrating restorative language and restorative conversations in various prison situations. The videos illustrate restorative and punitive responses to the same situations to help RPOs evaluate the merits of using a restorative approach, the differences in the reactions of the individuals involved, the outcomes achieved from the interactions, and the implications for strengthening or weakening relationships.

Two videos focus on the skills of expressing oneself restoratively. One demonstrates this through an interaction between a Prison Officer and a person in custody, and another focuses on an interaction between two Prison Officers. A third video demonstrates an officer using the restorative questions with a person in custody following a conflict. The aim is to help RPOs visualise how to use these skills in their new role when a colleague or a person in custody should be challenged on their behaviour. It shows how the questions move from the past to the future, separate the person from the behaviour, encourage empathy, and achieve accountability without blame.

Tutors have also integrated RP into later first-semester modules on communication and de-escalation. RPOs continue to develop their understanding of, and skills in, RP in later semesters of the HCCC that are provided by SETU, including as part of workplace reflective practice.

Using restorative practices within the IPS College

The College, as an educational institution, has sought to use RP internally. Firstly, Tutors use circles to facilitate discussions in class. For example, RPOs typically spend three full days in an assigned prison during their twelve-week induction. The aim is to enable RPOs to see classroom theories and lessons in practice. Tutors facilitate restorative circles following these experiential days so that each RPO can share their reflections with the group. Questions include:

  • How were you feeling before the day started?
  • How did you feel at the end of the day?
  • Tell us about something you saw in practice that you learned in a class.
  • Tell us about something negative you experienced that surprised you and how it made you feel.
  • Tell us about something positive you experienced that surprised you and how it made you feel.
  • What are you most looking forward to on your next experiential day?

Secondly, in addition to using circles in classes, a new IPS College Learning Climate for Newly Recruited Staff incorporates RP in several places. It states that the IPS College is:

committed to cultivating and nurturing a learning climate in which inductees are actively encouraged to: share their experiences and reflections; listen to, discuss and challenge different perspectives; ask questions; make and learn from mistakes; acknowledge a lack of understanding or weakness; participate in exercises; provide peer feedback; etc. without fear of ridicule, shame or insult and with the confidence that they will be provided with a positive, genuine, and supportive response.

The Learning Climate also states that Tutors:

take a restorative approach through the demonstration of an understanding of how people feel, by building, maintaining and repairing relationships and in helping RPOs understand the impact of their actions on others.

The below diagram is taken from the Learning Climate document, which outlines that Tutors should work at ‘every corner of this rectangle’.

RPOs receive communications about the high expectations the College has for them and the support they will receive to meet these expectations during their twelve-week initial training at the College. The Learning Climate states that ‘it is important that Tutors apply supportive behaviours as the normal default setting’, and that the ‘ability to move across the continuum between supportive and directive is a critical tutoring skill’.

RPOs receive regular feedback during this time, and formally at Weeks 2, 4, 8 and 12. The Learning Climate guides Tutors in providing feedback, stating that they should:

provide an opportunity for self-assessment in the first instance e.g. what were you thinking while you were undertaking that exercise? How did it make you feel? What could you have done differently? What have you learned?

It also states that feedback in relation to minor issues of misconduct ‘should be dealt with sensitively, privately, in a restorative manner and should be recorded in the Individual Development Record’.

Experiences and feedback of Recruit Prison Officers

In Week 10 of their initial twelve-week training, RPOs write a reflective piece on how their course material and experience during their training will affect how they will carry out their role as a Prison Officer. These reflections have suggested a good level of understanding of how RP can be used in various situations and of RPOs’ ability to recognise restorative language and questions. Their pieces have included such comments as:

[X] displayed very good communication skills but, more importantly, good restorative practice.

While observing the Class Officer in [Prison X] communicate with the head cleaner on the landing, you could clearly see how [X] was using restorative practices to get the work [they] wanted done to be completed.

I immediately realised the Class Officer was using the restorative practice questions and skills that we learned in our communications class.

I thought back to my training in Portlaoise and the classes on communications and restorative practices.

Finally, on their observation of a disciplinary hearing between a Governor and a person in custody, one person stated:

Sitting in on this allowed me to see how restorative practice comes into play in this type of situation.

From feedback taken from a group of 17 RPOs at the end of their twelve weeks of initial training, 66% said that they saw RP being used by established staff on their experiential days, 100% believe they will use their RP skills in their work, and 70% would like to receive further RP training. When asked what benefits they see RP as having in their roles, RPOs’ responses included:

  • Makes people accountable for their actions
  • Helps build rapport and relationships
  • Excellent way to open up dialogue and get people thinking
  • Helps with the mental well-being of the prisoners
  • Helps resolve situations
  • Helps with communication between prisoners and prison officers
  • Helps to make safer prisons
  • Helps be more understanding
  • Questions are a great way to calm prisoners and get them thinking about their actions