I feel quite nervous about today – it seems odd to think we won’t be back in here again soon – although we are sure it will be temporary it is sad. The comments I got yesterday as I walked the wings bear testimony to the high regard for the course from men who have completed it. I bumped into “Pete” who did the course more than a year ago and has made such progress – including in his personal self confidence and belief in what he can achieve – he is still working on the prison radio making programmes – a man who had told me he wasn’t sure he could complete the work book at the start of his course. For him one of the benefits was simply the discipline of writing up his work each week and realising that he had not been so hopeless after all.
The best laid plans are always disrupted: 12.15 and I get a call to say one of the team is stuck at work and won’t be able to make it – he is bitterly disappointed and I am thinking how to manage that group – a shifting around of the team…
Outside the prison we are missing two who seem not to have realised the slightly earlier start for the final week, once inside we find Ray and Vi waiting.
I brief the team a usual and we work out which of the group exercises would best suit which group, bearing in mind the strong characters and those more reticent. Time for a few minutes prayer and then the some of the visitors arrive - two are late. All look slightly like rabbits in headlights wondering what they have joined for the afternoon. There is a vicar, a friend of one of the team who is interested in working with offender’s children and someone from the Howard League. We are also expecting visitors from the Prison Reform Trust.
While I brief the visitors the team get their ideas together and minutes later the men are with us – together with the last guests. There is a real air of expectation in the room and two or three are wanting to tell me something: Joe brings tears to my eyes as he shows me what he has made out of matchsticks for Ray and Vi, I notice Bob is looking rangy and unconnected and I wonder whether any thing we talked about yesterday has sunk in.
After two minutes light hearted fun with a Word Winks puzzle I explain what will happen in the afternoon to the men and they join their groups while I finish briefing the visitors and suggest that they join a small group to listen in.
After 20 minutes all gather around again – the men in front in a semi circle and team and visitors behind. Group 1 are telling the story of Zac and do it creatively with a scenario imagining Zac going for a job interview after he has decided to make amends for his wrongs: he faces a sceptical panel who doubt he can change and ask why they should trust him – the room laughs as they explain that he has applied for a job at a bank! But the points are made and with a reminder of Zac’s attitude before he met Jesus we get a flavour of the change that has gone on in his life.
Group 2 Take the victims’ perspective and again focus on how they feel faced with a Zac who has decided to put things right – but they share the fear they lived with up to that point and the sense of hopelessness as victims of his callous extortion.
Group 3 take a really novel approach and all make their response very personal – explaining the ripple effect of crime and the impact of the retributive and restorative approach to justice from their personal points of view – it is very powerful and wonder who this will impact the second half of the afternoon.
Group 4 enact a court scene followed by a Victim – Offender mediation and explain by asking the victim and offender in each scenario how they feel.
They have all been novel presentations – so interesting after so many courses to see things presented in a fresh way and to see the input of the men so clearly. Everyone participated – albeit some with nonspeaking parts.
I realise time has already ticked on and we move quite late into the second half of the afternoon and the Symbolic Act of Restitution: I try to make this a time to encourage the men to go for it but also to emphasise that honesty and integrity are the most important things – so this is an opportunity for those who know the course has made them look at things in a new way to respond – if they are not in that place we are not interested in response for its own sake – it devalues the genuine responses.
We have the full range: cards and letters particularly to Ray and Vi, ex tempore speeches, moments when it seems that the banter between individual men may disrupt the process but which are saved by the man speaking at the time doggedly pursuing his purpose, heartfelt responses by two who are serving time for drug offences, no surprises in the small number who chose not to respond personally but who I am sure will have taken much on board in our time together.
Each act is followed by warm applause for each man’s individual and often highly charged response to the course and I can feel my eyes welling on more than one occasion. I can also see our visitors sitting with rapt attention.
Ray and Vi sit at the front and give most of the men a huge hug and affirm what they have done.
And we finish with certificate for them all – for participating in the course and completing it – regardless of whether they responded personally at the end. Who are we to know what has gone on inside these hearts and minds? One thing is certain though – there is a palpable sense of achievement in the room: genuine and appropriate pride in having stuck a course that asked difficult questions and challenged attitudes and behaviour. In parting we wish them all the very best for their futures – and we mean it. If even only one of these men takes something from this course which he puts into practice outside and does not re-offend it must surely have been worth it?