Those two simple words had most of us reaching for the tissues. We were in the chapel at HMP Holloway, for the final session of their latest Sycamore Tree course, run by Clinks member Prison Fellowship. Sycamore Tree is a six-week victim awareness programme based on the principles of restorative justice, where participants explore the effects of crime on victims, offenders and the wider community, and are encouraged to take responsibility for their personal actions. Earlier in the course, a volunteer who has been a victim of serious crime came in to talk about how that impacted their lives. In this final session, the volunteer returns, and the participants were invited to offer them some kind of response, as a symbolic ‘act of restitution’ towards the victims of their own crime. Some read out letters or poems, others had drawn pictures or made cards to give them, and lit candles to remember their victims. Restorative justice usually takes the form of a conference between a victim and the person who committed the crime against them; but that relies on the victim wishing to meet, and as became clear, for many of these women their victims would have no way of knowing who they were, or vice versa. Sycamore Tree offers a way to open the principles, and benefits, of restorative justice to those for whom a direct conference is not possible. Emotions were high; even as an observer, I came away feeling emotionally drained – I can only imagine the effect on those taking part. As one woman came to the front and began reading her pre-prepared letter, ‘Dear Mum, You are my greatest victim…’, the already tense atmosphere seemed to contract. Another shared her remorse at being here, and so missing the birth of her second grandchild. Clearly considering the effect their actions – and their imprisonment – had had on their families, was a difficult thing to come to terms with. Standing in front of the group to express their thoughts so openly must have taken no small amount of courage. This might be the last time they would meet the volunteers, but they would no doubt see one another on the wings in the days and weeks to come. Many expressed a strident determination to do things differently from now on – that saying sorry could never undo what they’ve done, but they could promise to change in future. Would they achieve that aim? Even with a firm intention, staying clean once released is an immense challenge for many people leaving prison, and needs strong support from many sides. But desistance from crime – like any lifestyle change – is a process, not a one-off event. It was clear that this course had been a significant time for many of these women, and while they were all at different stages on the journey towards desistance, it was certainly a meaningful step along the way. Visiting the course also underlined for me again the importance of the fantastic work volunteers do in working with offenders. Prison Fellowship alone has over 1,900 volunteer members across England and Wales. A Sycamore Tree course such as this involves a tutor, eight group facilitators, and two victim representatives - all volunteers - to allow 20 women to take part; and the list for the next course due to run in the Spring is already over-subscribed. The demand is clearly high, and without these dedicated volunteers it could not happen at all!
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