Six years ago I was privileged to be part of the team that set up Prison Fellowship's Sycamore Tree Programme in a large London prison . Next week we begin the final (for the time being) course as the new NOMS Strategy for London prisons (to be principally for remand and short term prisoners) is brought in resulting in the closure of a number of programmes including Sycamore Tree. Sycamore Tree runs across the world and explains the concepts of Restorative Justice and explores the impact of crime on victims with groups of offenders.
Names have all been changed for obvious reasons and this blog is being posted after the event.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Week 6

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?

Day before the final session

I went in to see Bob – now relieved of the  tooth that caused the ache last week! I was concerned that having missed as session he would find engaging with the final session today difficult.  We had a positive 40 minutes in a room with no chairs and only a low table to perch on.  I wasn’t able to show him the films but we were able to talk things through – to talk about his life and his hopes – what do you aim for if you have spent much of your adult life in prison and have no stable relationship to go back out to, no where to live and have three children who have been adopted because of your life-style.  But the positives are that Bob hopes to get onto the Rapt course soon, his Subutex dose is down to a minimum.  I tell him he is articulate and able (because he is, although I imagine that not many may have said that to him in life) and that he needs to get a handle on want he wants – he needs to think abut his life in terms of the car we talked about restoring – work out what you want and work out what steps you need to take to get there…a tough journey – one that probably seems almost impossible but it can be done…

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Sycamore Tree Week 5

Did I say how last week we all left on a high feeling as though we had the men with us – getting the concepts and more importantly getting it for themselves…well week 5….first we arrived to find one of the men had been transferred elsewhere and another was at a meeting the Governor about a project that could not be missed and Bob has tooth ache and had refused to come out of his cell.
Some afternoons it is as if the air is thick and heavy and today was one of them: two announce that they are not prepared to stand up front to say anything then another joins in and suddenly my first exercise, which acts as a kind of warm up for week 6 and a recap of all the material we have covered so far, is looking like its dead in the water.  The first pair do refuse to stand but I gently coax them into saying much more than they thought they would be prepared to talk about – their subject was Forgiveness and Roger had told me point blank it wasn’t something he needed, would give or was interested in. As he started to talk to the group he mentioned Ray and Vi and their extraordinary forgiveness of the killers of their son Chris.  As he talked around the subject he began to talk about forgiveness in a positive way – how beneficial it had been to Ray and Vi and how it was important to forgive yourself in order to move on……
 The next pair are fine and everyone who has muttered about “not getting up front to speak” joins in one by one  – I decide not to remind them that they had initially refused!  The important thing for these men is to make the theory real: the course explains what Restorative justice is all about but in the end we can’t arrange for their crimes to be dealt with restoratively.  But we can explore and challenge attitudes and, we hope,  behaviour, and in particular encourage them to start that process of change while they are still in prison.  As I talk through how this all hangs together I realise again that it is all so simple in fact: it is all about right relationships and respect for fellow human beings.  And through this process of bringing offender and victim together (even in Sycamore Tree when offenders meet a victim other than their own) there is an extraordinary power that transforms lives – both of the offender but also the victim. Time and again in the stories we have examined we see victims reaching out to offenders, not seeking retribution, not shouting for the prison gates to be locked and the keys thrown away, but for offenders to make amends by stopping committing crime and by sorting out the problems in their lives.

We watch a final film – the moving story of an offender called Ron Flowers and Mrs Washington, the mother of Deirdre, an innocent bystander shot dead in a bungled drug deal.  The story examines the extraordinary changes of heart on both Ron’s and Mrs Washington’s parts – Ron has an opportunity to complete Sycamore Tree in jail in the US and as a result writes to his victim’s mother to explain what happened the night she was killed.  Out of that comes a reconciliation in which Mrs Washington says on hearing of Ron’s deeply troubled past, that if she had known she would even have visited him in prison and that he can consider her as a mother.  Ron finally confesses to those around him what he did and having dealt with his addictions, and having been granted parole with Mrs Washington’s approval, begins a crime free life – as Mrs Washington says “ if he stays out of trouble and raises a family then Deirdre’s death will not be in vain”.

In the final part of the session we talk about week 6: which will offer a chance to make a symbolic act, to do something in response publicly if this course has made them look at themselves, their victims or their offending behaviour differently. But this is not an obligation or requirement to pass the course: the important thing is taking responsibility and that involves truth, honesty and integrity of approach.  If they are not in that place I honour more the honest choice not to do something publicly next week.  The big question, going back to our conversation in week 1 about restoring a the car, is whether they can imagine what their life might look like restored and have decided that they are “worth it” – worth the effort and time that will be required to break through into new ways of living.  We believe that they are worth it.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Sycamore Tree week 4

I am sure the rule for blog writing is to keep it as short as possible ….apologies! You will have to accept this one as a reflective diary.

Since last week’s session I have assessed the first part of the men’s work books: they are mostly fine – a few areas that need a little more effort but lots to be encouraged by and lots to encourage them with.  At the start of the session they spend time in their groups looking through my comments and filling in gaps where necessary and this allows me to catch up with a couple I need to see: Frank who is able to read but with limited ability to write needs some support but is clearly on top of the course material despite his difficulties – I think how much more he would have on offer to him if he could crack the literacy issues….at the end of this afternoon’s session Frank’s small group leader says that Frank has told the group that he was born in prison, that both his parents were criminals in addition to a brother I had met on a previous course: what chance does a child born into such circumstances have? Undoubtedly Frank has made poor choices …..will he be able to make better ones now and create a stable life when he leaves prison?
I also talk to Fred who has chosen to write at some length about a particularly unpleasant case that has been in the press in the last couple of weeks involving the murder by a father of children in an attempt to get revenge on a former wife.  I ask Fred why he chose such an unusual and emotive case….I have encouraged all the men to write about themselves whenever possible and this seems to be a case of Fred wanting to avoid the issue.  We have a chat away from the group: it is clear Fred is embarrassed at his crime, had not been in trouble before, regrets what he has done and the shame he has bought on his hardworking and law abiding family and can’t bear to write about what happened.  I assure him I understand but that it is an important part of his process of moving on also to be able to recognise fully what he has done and also to be able to forgive himself for what he has done: I remind him of Ray’s words in week 3.  He is going to think about how to do more on his own situation and I try to encourage him that, perverse though it may sound, I think it is in fact a good thing he feels the way he does now but that he needs to allow himself to make plans for moving on and making amends: tears well up in Fred’s eyes…..

We talk as a whole group around thoughts arsing from week 3 and what has stayed with the men after hearing from Ann and Ray and Vi: they are all very moved by the experience – comments such as “it has really stayed with me” and “I was blown away by their attitude and how they have forgiven”.  I read them a letter published in a newspaper in November last year by the victim of a car jacking.  The incident had deprived her of her car, bags, Christmas presents but more importantly the opportunity to say goodbye to her father who had died later that day but because she had to spend the day with police sorting out the crime and had lost her mobile the nursing staff looking after her seriously ill father had not been able to call to let her know that he had taken a turn for the worse.   When she called the next morning she learnt he had died that night.  No robber could have foreseen that and of course there are many things that can’t be foreseen…The men go to their group s to reflect on their own victims and the harm they caused to them.  We also ask them to think about what they could do to restore those affected. 
One of the recurrent themes of the stories we have been looking at so far, has been that victims want offenders to make amends by sorting out their lives, dealing with the problems they have battled with.  The same is true in the film about the reconciliation of Steven an armed robber and Billy the police man he shot back in the early 1980s. Steven was convicted of attempted murder and Billy, a Christian sent him a Christmas card as a first step to building bridges with Steven and wanting to forgive him.  The two met, and have over the years become friends.  Now since Steven’s release they work together on crime prevention projects and talking in schools – the remarkable idea of a robber who nearly killed a police man and the police man becoming friends is not lost on the group.  As a model of the impact of forgiveness it is another remarkable story.  

What Billy, and indeed Peter Woolf, have shown in how they responded to the encounters each had with their victim was a decision to live life differently – a repentance for past wrongs based on taking responsibility.  More than a passing regret or remorse which can be a negative emotion, but a positive choice to live life walking in a new direction – turning away from past behaviours? Acting out their “sorry” in how they live their lives.  Demonstrating in how you live that you have had a change of heart….as Zac did in response to his encounter with Jesus.

In the second half of the afternoon prompted by a film clip examining RJ approaches  in the US we have an interesting discussion again about community service. Billy, who is keen to talk about his experiences, says that to make it effective he would need to feel that people affected by his crime might be involved and he would like to earn money so that he could pay back a earn for his family too – all ideas in the Green Paper.   

So how does this become real for the men? We have expounded on a theory but they are in prison and unlikely in practice to be able to meet the victims of their crimes.  Last week we had talked about confession: honesty and taking personal responsibility: it has to be the first step.  From a position of honesty and taking responsibility comes a choice to make changes in life (we talk of that as repentance). In order to demonstrate that repentance the offender try to make amends – taking a practical step to make restitution to those affected by his offending behaviour , and that can lead to reconciliation,  personal and relational healing, allowing  broken and damaged lives to be restored ; healing for victims, community and offenders.  Into that potent and powerful process fits the question of forgiveness: it might be extraordinary forgiveness like that demonstrated by Ray and Vi, or it might be forgiveness granted following an offender’s repentance, and it might of course be an offender learning to forgive himself.

In the final week of the course the men will have the opportunity to take a first step to making amends…….more on that next week.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Week 3

A week with huge expectations: we have three visitors coming with us.  Ann (not her real name) a young lady, victim of a robbery, whose car was violently attacked while she was in it and whose bags were stolen and Ray and Vi, whose son Christopher was murdered by a gang of violent youths high on alcohol and drugs. Ann and Ray and Vi are effectively surrogate victims for the men - a taster, in a group, of the experience of a victim – offender conference or mediation.
We have work to do before I introduce our surrogate volunteer victims.  We start with a brain teaser as usual (with the tag line – the more you look the more you see) and a reminder of the work in the first two weeks and I clarify last week’s issue over Peter Woolf: in the interim I have discovered on the internet that there is another Peter Wolfe (not Woolf) who was indeed charged with possession in a case involving Pete Doherty (as they had told me) but was categorically not our Peter Woolf!
As preparation for hearing from our visitors we watch the second episode in the core course films on Restorative Justice and Victims.  The film explores how crime affects people, what someone who has been made a victim might feel and might need and the benefits of RJ to victims.  After we explore the ideas together and produce a mind map of our thoughts: recognising the pain that victims go through, that they might have questions they want answers to and that they might need someone to really listen to them and for support.  They might also want real  involvement in the criminal process: victims often feel sidelined and exposed – if they are witnesses for the prosecution they can feel victimised all over again.
I pull up two chairs and invite Ann to join me at the front: this is her first time in prison and she and I have had a couple of conversations about what she might say today about an incident three or so years ago.  Ann takes the men through the context for what happened – what was going on in her life at the time and what happened that night as she was attacked in her car.  She described the visceral reaction the attack provoked in her and, to a hushed room, described how she had chased the attacker until the wisdom of doing so dawned on her.  The attack of course caused all sorts of upheaval but the most significant of which was the fear it had left her struggling with: fear to go out at night, fear walking down the streets, fear of men on bikes, fear of men wearing hoodies and very striking too was her desire to have known why she had been picked out: had he thought her vulnerable and weak, had he thought her wealthy and rich-pickings? As she finished Ann kindly said that she would be happy to talk to anyone who wanted to and Phil, a quite shy quiet man approached her and wanted to talk things through with her: something she had said had impacted him and made that personal connection.
After a break for a few minutes Ray and Vi came up front and began to tell what happened the night nearly ten years ago when Chris was murdered.  Ray and Vi have found a real ministry in prisons sharing their story and more importantly sharing their belief in the power of forgiveness.  They talk through the horror of the night Chris died, the impact on their family, how people who lived on the road where the attack took place subsequently moved, how the boys had been unmoved and even laughed during the Old Bailey trial, how they had struggled with the question of forgiveness and how they chose each day to continue to forgive Chris’ killers and, finally, why they come into prison: that even for one man to turn his life around is enough for them.  Vi makes it clear in no uncertain terms that those who import or sell drugs are responsible for incidents like the attack that killed Chris: the youths involved were all high on alcohol and drugs and those that sold drugs to them were as much a part of that chain of responsibility.   That makes uncomfortable listening for some.  As Ray and Vi draw to a close Billy, close to tears says it brings back difficult memories for him – his brother was murdered and he can feel Ray and Vi’s pain. Ray gets up and walks across to hug Billy and the two men hold on to each other as the group looks on holding their breath.
The men go to their small groups to reflect on what they have heard and how they feel about it.  We encourage them too to think about their own victims – what would it be like to sit in front of them and hear their stories?
Ray and Vi have raised the question of responsibility and in the final part of the afternoon we think about what “confession” means, recognising that it has a particular meaning in the context of criminal proceedings, but what does it mean in its broader sense: the answers are good, reflecting the need to acknowledge actions but also to accept and take responsibility for the impact of those actions – both to say sorry and to act sorry – a sorry acted out leads to talk of the idea of repentance – turning to walk in a new direction out of a deep sense of responsibility for what has happened and a desire to do things differently.  Now we can start to take the impact of hearing from Ann and Ray and Vi and to work with it in a positive way. Week three leaves everyone feeling emotionally drained. I have heard Ray and Vi’s story several times and am always moved by it: we an see from the demeanour and conversations that this afternoon has really hit home for some of the men.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Week 2

Week 2
Two new faces joined us today: replacing the prisoner who had been at an immigration hearing and who will be sent home and another who, despite the hold which is meant to keep him with us for the course, has been moved.  Both new men are keen to be with us which is encouraging and should mean they will catch up. 
Lots to get through today: our extended introduction last week means that as well as showing the first episode of the course film I need to allow time for a good discussion of the principles of Restorative Justice (RJ) and some the arguments about criminal justice.
We start with a review of the first week and then watch the first film. The film identifies four ways RJ might be played out: victim-offender mediations or conferences, offenders making amends by putting something back through work programmes or mentoring schemes for example and the question of taking responsibility by writing to a victim to say sorry properly.  
I talk about “taking responsibility” and also the way our justice system focuses on offenders rather than victims or community – victims are often left on the side-lines by the wheels of the criminal justice system leaving them revengeful, unsatisfied, ignored, and still hurting.  A restorative approach focuses on harm done, looks at the needs of those harmed and asks who is responsible for meeting those needs.  A restorative approach allows us to look at the full impact of crime, at victims and communities affected by crime but it also allows us to consider the offender and his family - who are all affected by the crime and by the offender’s criminal behaviour. We talk about any experiences the men have had and some comment on community sentences – they don’t think much of them – they have no effect, don’t connect them with their crimes and give them no sense of achievement or satisfaction.  This course has great timing because we have recently given comments on the Government’s Green Paper – “The Rehabilitation Revolution” – suddenly this RJ thing that in the past no one knew about is being talked about.
We follow that exploration of what RJ is all about with a visit back to Jericho 2000 years ago -  back to Zac and with a bit of role play get ourselves into the mind-set of a victim of  Zac’s .  Tony, one of the volunteers ably plays the part by giving us a dramatic presentation as if he were a resident of Jericho 2000 years ago; it gives a bit of colour to the scenario and gets everyone thinking. 
How did Zac’s behaviour affect his victims? With a victim voice the men respond: “it made me poor, stressed, depressed, we suffered family break down, we became angry, revengeful, and desperate….”  The men are adamant that behaviour like Zac’s would have had a big impact.  And they wanted Zac to understand what they had gone through, to have their money back, for him to be sympathetic and understanding. 
There is a bit of banter between two or three individuals in different groups but it is good natured. 
In the break the two newcomers get the course registration paperwork done so I can register them with Open College Network (OCN) (a bonus of the course is that it is accredited with  OCN allowing the men whose work is up to standard to get ad OCN credit at level 2).  I speak to both newcomers – they will have two week’s work to get done this week and one admits that he can read a little but really needs help with this writing – his literacy level is very poor.  However, he has a brother in prison with him and thinks he may be able to help him.  He is an articulate young man and so I don’t doubt his ability to think the issues through but make it clear he has to ensure it is his work – even if his brother is acting as scribe. 
After the break we consider the concept of “making excuses” and, after imagining what Zac might have said we talk about why offenders make excuses: to justify their actions, because they believe there are the reasons for their behaviour and to avoid responsibility. 
I then introduce them to the Woolf Within – a film interview of an offender and his victim with the scenes of the crime acted out – watch it on You Tube .  The film causes a disruption: someone (let’s call him Bob) claims to know Peter Woolf (quite possible as Peter, by his own admission had spent many years in prison).  Then as the film ends I am challenged – two of them say they know that it is all a lie as Peter has been arrested recently on a handling charge!  I am really concerned by their attitude  – but also know they are wrong.  I have met Peter and know he has truly turned life around.  I assure them of that fact but am met with suspicion – a couple of them refuse to believe me – in a kindly way another man tells me that it doesn’t worry him as he thinks the film makes a very clear point.

I know I am slightly rattled by the reaction to The Woolf Within but have to move on into the most nerve wracking (for me) part of the session – a graphic illustration of the impact of crime.  With all the men gathered around me and with a bowl of water on the floor I talk about how we all like to be in control of our lives, how we like to plan, have aspirations, dreams, goals, but that when crime happens – as I throw an orange into the bowl to make a huge splash – life is disrupted “mess” is created and the ripples go on for a long time.  Next week they will meet someone whose life was turned upside down by the impact of crime…….I don’t say who or what.
We end the session with time in the small groups for each of them to think about their offending and who they affected and how – thinking of the orange in the bowl of water - whose lives did they “mess up”?
Bob, who had forcefully asserted that Peter Woolf was back in prison,  sits to one side looking bolshy.  I go and sit next to him and ask what is up? He tells me he doesn’t want to carry on with the course and that next week he won’t be coming.  I say how sorry I will be about that, but that it is a free choice and I can’t make him come.
He tells me I have humiliated him in front of everyone by disagreeing with him.  I apologise – I did not intend to humiliate. However I disagreed with what he had said.  I ask if he would like to hear it from my perspective?  I explain that, as I had told them, I know Peter and that I know for certain that he hasn’t been on a recent charge. Bob had, in front of the whole group, challenged the integrity of what I was saying and the foundation of the course.  He looked surprised and said “So I undermined you?” “Yes!” !  Bob apologised and said in that case he would return to his small group: ten minutes later, as all have gone back to their cells, his group facilitators tell me he rejoined the group transformed - chatty and positive! Prison has a strange effect on the ego making them incredibly vulnerable to anything they consider a put down but how refreshing to be able to deal with a disagreement and move on – how often we allow things to brew and smoulder. 

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Week 1

The first session is on a cold spring afternoon and having gathered outside the prison gate we file through security checking in our id and then gather in the waiting area – introducing ourselves to the one new team member.  We probably all recall that slight nervousness on the first time we joined the course.  I wonder if G feels it?
As we make our way through the prison all is quiet – a post lunch lock up means that the wings are empty and, today, quiet.  Down D wing to the Faith room at the end which is set up for us. 
As a team we have 45 minutes or so to prepare which involves agreeing team pairings and running through the order for the afternoon so everyone knows what to expect.  It also involves each team member thinking a little about what they will say in their introduction to themselves….quite daunting for the volunteers as much as for the men.
Around 1.50 we are aware of footsteps and voices approaching – echoing down the wing and the clunking of keys in locks.  There are three gates to unlock in the immediate approach to the room we are in so it is impossible to arrive unannounced!  T the Chaplain comes in and checks we are ready – we scramble the last few bits and pieces – a warm up activity needs a page of A4 to be placed under each chair and a welcome booklet and pen on each chair.  And the door opens to an assorted group of 19 (one seems not to be available and it transpires he has an immigration hearing so may, in fact, not be able to do the course) and I feel at a disadvantage this time not having been able to meet so many of the group.
I shake hands with many and write name labels enquiring first names of men who are much more used to giving surnames. 
As they take their chairs quick last minute conversations take place about one or two – there is a late addition to the list, one who has an unavoidable visit in 45 minutes and a query over the immigration issue. 
Time to kick the session off – it’s now down to me to create the right atmosphere – to welcome the men I haven’t met before.  They look uncertain – I feel uncertain!
The warm up goes well and I then spell out a few key issues – confidentiality, respect, how the sessions will work and what we expect.  Then, having played around with words – crime, prison, justice and restorative we think about the practical steps we take if we want to restore an object – someone suggests a car and we imagine a classic Bentley…..great ideas from the group help us to map out a strategy and I suggest that may be sorting out messed up lives might bear some similarities.  When we thought about restoring the car the important thing was that we had motivation – we would  have a picture in our minds of what the car would look like restored: do the men have a picture in their minds of what their life would look like restored?

We then leap into the deep end with a direct and personal introduction – all of us in a circle – saying what brings us there.  In theory the men are not allowed to say it is because the course is on their sentence plan – they have to explain why that might be the case. Some have come voluntarily, some say straight up why they are in prison, some share thoughts about family.  It is very unusual in a prison context to reveal anything personal but this start to the course sets the tone, it underlines how seriously we take the course and that we expect our commitment to them to be matched by their commitment to the course.
I explain why I am still here tutoring this course after six years – because unlike when we started I can now say from personal experience that I know this works: I know Sycamore Tree graduates who are still out of prison: like “Brian” released three years ago and still out of prison.  Brian is reunited with his family, in his own flat, taking an increasingly important role in his daughter’s life, holding down a job , and as he said recently, even paying tax and buying a TV licence – the ultimate sign of a successful restoration of a life from one of addiction and crime for many years. 
The introduction works: we are on common ground and the men know where we are coming from so that, as I send them off into the groups they will be in through the course, the conversations get underway easily and at the end of the afternoon all the groups are positive about “their” men!
In the second half of the afternoon we explore the mind-set of an offender through a familiar passage from Luke’s Gospel – the story of Zacchaeus (we call him Zac) the tax collector – wonderfully remote from the experiences of all of the offenders with us but often quoted and used as a example of a restorative response to crime.   After hearing the story and considering its context the men are asked to put themselves into the mindset of Zac and to think about the people in their community they have been taking money from and about themselves.  The responses always surprise: Zac’s victims are seen merely as cash cows, stupid, pathetic people who get what they deserve.  Zac as the Big Man, the Boss but, then it seems Zac too has some problems: he struggles with loneliness, not having true friends and from the paranoia and isolation that his abuse of power brings. 
We part at 4.30 on a high having run through the work they will need to do before the next session   – some of the guys are meticulous about their thanks, shaking all our hands and chatting animatedly as they leave – and we all feel a real surge of enthusiasm already for a positive afternoon and engaged group.