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.