Restorative practices in prisons – wheatfield prison

Irish Prison Service

Restorative Practices in Prisons – Wheatfield Prison

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 the Dóchas Centre. This case study focuses on the work that took place in Wheatfield as part of the project.

In Wheatfield Prison, it was decided that there would be a multi-disciplinary focus – in the sense that it would involve prison staff from different grades and representatives of the external agencies that worked in the prison – to both the implementation group and the subsequent training. In 2013/14, a local Implementation Committee met bi-monthly. They decided that restorative justice/practices in Wheatfield should focus on the following areas:

Restorative justice practices deemed to be suitable for Wheatfield:

  1. Conflict Awareness and Resolution (including low level arguments/disagreements between prisoners, between prisoners and staff, or between staff members)
  2. Disciplinary Process (i.e. P19s for prisoners in breach of prison rules)
  3. Community Reparation (including prisoners being able to do projects of reparation focusing on their home areas)
  4. Family Group Conferences (focusing on lifers returning home or parents being put under pressure to bring drugs into the prison)

Models of training were agreed with three providers: International Institute for Restorative Practices; Maynooth University; and Childhood Development Initiative. The training delivery was again multi-disciplinary in nature and aimed at both all grades of prison staff, as well as all the agencies that worked within the prison.


Type of training

Number of staff trained

International Institute for Restorative Practices

One-day training in conflict and RJ awareness

40 (multi-disciplinary groups, Class Officers, Assistant Chief Officers and Chief Officers)

International Institute for Restorative Practices

Three-day conference facilitator training

36 (multi-disciplinary groups, Class Officers, Assistant Chief Officers and Chief Officers)

International Institute for Restorative Practices

One-day awareness training

Governor grades

Maynooth University

One-day RP awareness training

40 (multi-disciplinary groups, Class Officers, Assistant Chief Officers and Chief Officers)

Childhood Development Initiative

Train the trainer in RP

12 persons

Childhood Development Initiative

One-day RP awareness

Multi-disciplinary groups, approximately 60 staff

Activities undertaken:

  1. Prisoner awareness: during International Restorative Justice Week 2013, Wheatfield Prison undertook a poster and leaflet campaign. This was part of an intensive information week, with DVD screenings, guest speakers and Q&A with those attending school or Work and Training.
  2. Disciplinary restorative justice conferences: 42 cases were referred between mid-December 2013 and end of 2014, and all juvenile prisoners (17-18 years old) were automatically referred in disciplinary cases involving fights. The prison’s data found a 68% non-reoffending rate from all restoratively resolved disciplinary cases, rising to 83% when juvenile cases were excluded. Evaluation surveys of those who participated found that 100% were satisfied with the process.
  3. Community reparation projects: prisoners from the area volunteered during their day release with the Dog’s Trust; prisoners from Clondalkin made hanging baskets and other materials, as well as cleaning the front of the prison, to support the local Tidy Towns project; prisoners from Cabra volunteered to do ground work at Phoenix Football Club during day release; prisoners painted TRAIL apartments. 

Case study – Prisoner putting pressure on his mother to bring drugs into him on a visit

A prisoner’s mother was caught at the search area on entering the prison with a quantity of drugs. She was arrested and charged with an offence, which led to a court appearance. She was also prohibited from entering the prison. The mother wrote to the Governor explaining that she was under pressure from her son to bring the drugs into him and that she feared for his safety if she did not do it.

After seeing this letter, a prison manger trained in restorative justice phoned the prisoner’s mother. The manager sensed that the mother was dealing with a lot of shame surrounding her actions, but also that she was trying to protect her son. They explained restorative justice to her and asked if she wanted to participate in a conference with her son. When she agreed, the manager approached the prisoner and explained restorative justice again. He also agreed to a conference. A full preparation meeting was held with the prisoner’s mother and she brought her partner as a support. Likewise, a preparation meeting was held with the prisoner who decided to bring a chaplain as his support.

These support persons all also attended the conference, at which the mother explained very honestly how her son placed her under extreme pressure to bring drugs into the prison. She said that she was terrified he would be “cut up” by other prisoners if she did not bring in the drugs. The prisoner was initially flippant and did not seem to understand what he had put his mother through. She explained her feelings about the incident, including the shame she felt around the subsequent court appearance. She stated that “all the neighbours know and I can’t go outside the door without hanging my head in shame”, before starting to cry. This affected the prisoner, who said he had never seen his mother cry. He then hugged her and started to cry himself. Having realised all that he put his mother through, the prisoner agreed that, in future, if he was under pressure to talk to staff confidentially about the situation and that it could be resolved without having his mother end up before the courts on a drug charge. 

After the conference, the prisoner and the chaplain went to a quiet room and reflected for some time. The prison manager ensured that someone checked in on him for the next few days. The prisoner subsequently changed his routine in the prison, started working and stayed out of trouble. His mother was also given a quiet room with her partner and another chaplain after the meeting, and the manager checked in on her a few times over the following weeks.