South East Technological University and Irish Prison Service College

South East Technological University and the Irish Prison Service College

Restorative Practices Training and Pedagogical Use with Recruit Prison Officers (Higher Certificate in Custodial Care, Semester 2-4)

Dr. Fionnuala Brennan (SETU), Clare Hogan (SETU) and Paraic Rooney (IPSC)


The Higher Certificate in Custodial Care (HCCC) is a two-year, entry-level qualification for Recruit Prison Officers (RPOs) in the Irish Prison Service. Its current iteration is co-developed and co-delivered by the Irish Prison Service College (IPSC) and South East Technological University (SETU).    The programme is underpinned by two philosophies which go hand in hand: reflective practice and restorative practice. The first twelve-week semester of the programme is facilitated fully in-person in the classroom, with the majority of input delivered by the IPSC (you can read more about the training and use of restorative practices during this input here) and one module, Learning to Learn, delivered by SETU. Following the twelve weeks of Semester 1, students begin working full-time as prison officers in addition to completing the HCCC. Semesters 2-4 are delivered in a blended mode by SETU, 80% online and 20% in the classroom. 

IPSC colleagues deliver restorative practice input in Semester 1, outlining the potential benefits of using restorative approaches within the prison community. One key objective is to engender an ability to reach out for support and to admit making mistakes. It is hoped that valuing an openness to learning and a vulnerability in the classroom will contribute to the development of a culture that recruits can bring into the prison environment. By modelling restorative behaviours on the job, officers can demonstrate alternative ways of communicating for those in custody. 

The SETU team align with IPSC colleagues in the integration of restorative approaches in module and assessment design and delivery. In Semester 1 for example, the module delivered by SETU, Learning to Learn, supports students in their learning in subsequent semesters by outlining the expectations for successful learning at Level 6 on the framework of qualifications. Students have a varied profile in terms of prior learning. The majority (up to 70%) have not been in a classroom for ten or fifteen years, and that classroom may have been secondary school. A key aim of Learning to Learn is to promote a sense of belonging in higher education and instil the belief that the HCCC qualification is achievable and worthwhile. 

Opening circles are used at the beginning of every Learning to Learn class to build a positive learning community. Each student shares their mood and energy levels on a scale of one to ten, and students come up with a prompt question to ask the circle. Questions such as ‘what is your favourite colour and why’ and ‘tell us a holiday memory’ result in the meaningful sharing of personal stories and motivations among the group. Closing circles are used at the end of each class to share thoughts on the day’s activities and reflect on learning. Students often express that they feel reassured by knowing that they are not the only ones feeling daunted by studying and assignments. This sharing of concerns and finding of solutions promotes peer support and an active learning community. The practice of opening and closing circles continues in Semesters 2-4, both online and in-person.

In addition to opening and closing circles, in the first weeks on the programme a three-phase circle is used as a reflective learning process after students spend their first two evenings shadowing colleagues in Midlands Prison. A prop is used as a talking piece and when the person with the talking piece is speaking, the rest of the group is listening. Each person shares a response to three prompts: ‘Tell us about a positive interaction you experienced? Tell us about a less positive interaction you experienced? What would have helped in that interaction?’ Students share their stories and respond with varied and often opposing reactions to those stories, in a safe and respectful circle. The process of active listening and mindful contributions helps promote the normalisation of independent voice, which is important given that group identities and cultures in uniformed professions are strong. Part of the objective of the three-phase circle is to normalise disagreement and autonomy within the group while maintaining a sense of togetherness. In feedback from Semester 1, a student said:

‘You’re getting to see what everyone else is, what their insides and outsides are like in the prison as well as your own. It didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. It actually felt good to be able to say it out cause you wouldn’t go up to someone, but when you’re in the circle everyone’s doing it.’

In Semester 2, as part of the assessment in a module entitled Reflective Practice Project, students engage with one from a choice of resources outlining restorative practices in custodial settings, and contribute responses in small online group chats. Next, students participate in restorative role-plays. Scenarios are co-created with students using examples of challenging situations they regularly encounter, and role-play narratives are created for officers and people in custody. Using recorded Zoom breakout rooms, students role-play restorative conversations in pairs, taking turns in each role and using different scenarios. They submit a video of the interaction, together with a reflection for assessment. These reflections demonstrate the learning gained through the exercise, including increased self-awareness and empathy. In feedback from Semester 2, students said:

‘It was interesting to see the same topic but from two different points of view. As an Officer I tend to forget that a prisoner has other things affecting them from outside these walls.’

‘This was a very enjoyable experience and I found it not only a great way to stop and think, but also reflect on your job and the relationships you have formed with prisoners. It gave me a good understanding of the skills I have developed and strategies that I may have to polish for future reference.’

In Semester 4, the module Workplace Reflective Practice Project II allows students to consider their professional development alongside current concepts, policies and good practices in relation to how restorative practices apply across a diverse range of situations. Until this point in their careers and training, most of their experiences of restorative interventions have been on a one-to-one basis with colleagues or people in custody.

As part of this semester, students complete a team project to demonstrate RP’s effectiveness as a group intervention. In teams, they are asked to summarise, evaluate and write a review of a published article, and to present their findings to their class in any format. Each team member also writes an individual reflective piece about their experiences working together as a group using RP. The project encourages them to use a restorative mindset in their planning, preparation, and engagement with each other in the team. Feedback from Semester 4 has included:

‘While initially daunting for all of us working and living in different parts of the country, the experience was positive. The group functioned well to support each other and work to each person’s strengths.’ 

‘Working in a group made me more aware of how people work differently, and that communication is vital when working as a team.’ 

‘It was interesting to see and hear everyone else’s views on the job and how it affects us all in different ways with family life. It was a good way to gain different perspectives. It is also a more enjoyable assignment and something different.’

From this exercise, we have seen how RPOs apply RP by working together through different issues, listening and understanding different perspectives, making decisions and developing agreements to achieve their goal of completing the assignment. 

The rationale for adopting RP as a teaching and learning framework on the HCCC is underpinned by the belief that if we want others to use RP, we need to model it ourselves. While this appears self-evident, organisations often adopt RP as a methodology for dealing with the citizens who use their services, without adopting it among themselves within the organisation. We have to look at how to integrate restorative philosophies and values in the places where we live and work. In education, we cannot meaningfully teach RP in a classroom without adopting RP in that classroom and among ourselves as learners and teachers. For effective teaching and learning, the HCCC incorporates evidence-based practices such as universal design for learning and curriculum design. In accordance with the ‘relationship window’, RP is not something we do ‘to’ students – it is something we do ‘with’ them.