Restorative practices in prisons – the dóchas centre

Irish Prison Service

Restorative Practices in Prisons – Mountjoy Female Prison (the Dóchas Centre)

The Irish Prison Service (IPS) published its Three-Year Strategic Plan 2012-2014 on 30th April 2012. The third strategic action – Prisoner Programmes (p.30) committed the IPS to examining the possibility of piloting restorative justice practices in prisons. This action stated:

“Through engaging with other statutory agencies and the community and voluntary sector, we will work to enhance sentence management from pre to post imprisonment in a way which will facilitate improved prisoner outcomes. We will devise specific strategies for younger prisoners, women, older prisoners, sex offenders, protection prisoners, violent offenders and those suffering from mental illness. We will build on and enhance current programmes and services, including accredited education and vocational training.”

Under the subsequent ‘actions’, the strategy states (p.31): “We will examine the possibility of introducing, on a pilot basis, restorative justice practices in a prisons context”.

The strategic outcomes articulated in the strategic plan are as follows: “To provide prisoners with another avenue to: address and take responsibility for their offending behaviour; make reparations to the community and to; raise victim awareness among the prison population”.

To achieve this, the then Director General of the IPS nominated a multi-disciplinary steering group, which had the objectives of exploring and identifying potential opportunities for restorative practice and formulating a plan to facilitate successful attainment of the above outcomes. This plan focused on two pilot sites: Wheatfield Prison and Mountjoy Female Prison (i.e. the Dóchas Centre). This case study focuses on the work that took place in the Dóchas as part of this project.

The project was implemented in 2013, and included facilitation of training by an accredited training provider, the International Institute of Restorative Practices. This training programme was delivered to several key personnel in the Dóchas, including heads of functions, managers and supervisors. During the life of the pilot in the Dóchas:

  • twenty staff completed a one-day “RP Awareness Programme”
  • thirteen staff completed a three-day “Conference Facilitator Programme”
  • and eight staff completed one session of an “RP Awareness Programme”.

As part of the implementation plan, the RP implementation manager at Dóchas set up an RP committee consisting of eight staff that completed the three-day training programme. This allowed for attendance from those on both sides of the prison roster. During the pilot, the RP committee met regularly to discuss the potential RP initiatives that would be suitable for the prison environment. The following is an outline of some of those initiatives.

Leaflet and poster campaign

A group of Young Community Leaders (trained in RP) from a Dublin suburb came to Dóchas for two days to promote RP. They put up posters, gave out leaflets, walked around the houses and spoke to women about how they use RP in their own lives. This in itself had a restorative element as the young people and female prisoners exchanged stories; it created a “normal” space for dialogue and connection.

Restorative questions

The International Institute for Restorative Practices supplied the prison with laminated cards with the restorative questions. These were attached to all staff members’ keys in an attempt to increase their curiosity and awareness of how they might use restorative questions in their day-to-day work.

Use of restorative conferencing in response to conflict

RP-trained staff and the RP committee members identified conflicts among people in custody that could potentially be resolved with a restorative conference. The type of conferences that were facilitated revolved around people stealing from each other, assaults, hurtful gossip and minor conflicts with staff. On other occasions, prisoners themselves requested a conference upon hearing about RP or reading posters and leaflets about RP.

Of these conferences, two stand out as having particularly powerful outcomes. In each case described below, a restorative facilitator approached the parties, who had seen the posters and leaflets around the prison. Both conferences involved two participants and a facilitator.

Case Study 1, an assault, involved three preparation meetings with each participant prior to the conference. The victim agreed to meet from the outset, although the perpetrator initially tried to justify their actions according to the nature of the crimes committed by the injured party. The meetings leading up to the conference allowed the perpetrator to gain an insight into the ripple effect of “what happened” and how this affected herself, the victim and the wider prison community. This insight is what ultimately led to her voluntarily participating in an RP process.

The conference was held in the prison oratory, a place that was considered by prisoners as a “safe place”. The preparation in advance of the conference was imperative in order to avoid reigniting the conflict. During the process, the perpetrator articulated how she had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child. The victim spoke about her own abuse as a child. She said her life in prison was difficult because of her crime and her fear prevented her from engaging in positive interventions that could assist her. The conference created a platform for the parties to understand each other and, although the perpetrator expressed her feelings about certain offences, she acknowledged that prison is a difficult place to be and her actions were making life unpleasant for the victim, herself, the staff and the wider prison community.

The restorative conference finished with the perpetrator stating: “I’m not going to hug her but I understand the effects of my actions and I won’t go near her again.” Both parties agreed to put the incidents behind them and expressed the view that the process was positive. In the following years, there were no further altercations between the two.

In Case Study 2, one prisoner felt that a member of the management team was treating her unfairly by claiming that the prisoner was always under the influence of drugs, making her more aggressive. Two meetings with each participant took place prior to the conference. The member of the management team engaged in the process to support the roll out of RP and encourage further staff participation. The prisoner requested the intervention having seen the RP leaflets and posters and hearing of other conferences that took place.

The prisoner and member of management team had known each other for many years. The conference afforded them both the time and space to feel listened to, although they did not reach an agreement at the end of the conference, as the member of staff did not feel the prisoner was being entirely honest regarding her drug use. Still, the conference assisted in rebuilding a long relationship that was increasingly strained in the months leading up to the conference.

Barriers to the facilitation of restorative conferences

Despite the training, some staff lacked the confidence (the confidence that only comes with practice) to facilitate even low-level conferences and interventions. The preparation leading up to the conferences and the conferences themselves were resource heavy. Indeed, on many occasions when staff were willing to facilitate conferences, they ultimately did not feel that they had time to do so.

When facilitators identified two people that might benefit from a restorative conference but resources did not permit this to happen, they discussed the questions in brief with the parties and/or gave them in writing to those who could read. The purpose of this, in the absence of a conference, was to support a reflective exercise. In some instances, there was evidence that this led to prisoners initiating their own peaceful resolutions. In other instances, staff had to prompt conflicting prisoners to come to an agreement. These interventions were only used safely, based on staff experience and knowledge of the individual prisoners involved.

Community reparation projects

Historically, prisons and prisoners in Ireland have engaged in a wide range of charitable work. During the RP pilot, it was increasingly recognised that, while this charity work is a type of reparation to the community, little or no emphasis was being placed on a restorative aspect that would build a direct connection between staff, prisoners and the wider community, in addition to physically ‘giving something back’. As such, the Dóchas tried to build this into its community reparation projects during the RP pilot. For example:


  • During the pilot and until 2019, a “Dogs for the Disabled” project was implemented. Two prisoners serving long sentences agreed to care for a female dog in the prison. Both dogs would leave the prison with a view to returning pregnant, to be cared for by the two women up to and after the birth of any pups. The pups then remained in the prison for ten weeks, before being returned to the charity to establish if they could be trained to assist individuals in the community. During a seven-year period, the two prisoners cared for several litters that became care assistants or working dogs.
  • An external restorative practitioner delivered a budget cooking class, demonstrating how to cook meals on a budget for families and children. The aim was to help build relationships as a restorative aspect for those harmed by an imprisoned female family member. This was not just about cooking on a budget; it was about the conversations that took place in the kitchen when the women were learning to cook. The delivery of this class was often hindered by a lack of staffing, as the space in which the class was delivered required a staff member to be present for security purposes.
  • DVD and virtual tour project. An RP facilitator, two prisoners and an external student put together a DVD about Dóchas and its services. It was envisaged that this could be used as a positive tool for new committals and for use with schoolchildren in creating awareness about criminality, life in prison and the potential of a restorative approach. A virtual tour was also filmed with a view to displaying this film on visits, giving children and families an insight into where their mother (family member) works, lives and goes to school. Even the process of making of the film and exploring the issues for women had a restorative element for the two prisoners, student and staff member involved.
  • An RP awareness programme, modelled on a programme delivered by Janine Geske in Green Bay Prison (Wisconsin, USA) was facilitated by the Dóchas RP lead, two staff and three civilians. This programme ran for seven, three-hour sessions and finished up with a three-day programme. A group of seventeen female prisoners completed this programme. The focus of the group was conflict, relationships and harm.