How will these resources help you?

Most RE students will study the aims of punishment at some point, and most will have some ideas about how our prisons should be run and what the ultimate aim should be. However, it is important that we give them a clear and fact-led account of what the different aims of punishment look like in practice – whether it’s to reform the prisoners themselves, to restore justice in each situation or to protect society from a perceived or real danger. These resources offer a wealth of statistics, first-hand accounts and suggestions to help students construct well-informed opinions on a topic that is frequently affected by emotional responses. The concept of restorative justice is not necessarily straightforward. Programmes could not be run in prisons as they stand – the concept needs to be embedded in all levels of a society, with prison no exception. Norway's approach is a particularly useful example to use as a comparison to British or American systems.

Restorative justice in action

The Norwegian Prison System: Halden Prison and Beyond

by Are Høidal and Nina Hanssen, published by Routledge, (2022), 9781032050775

Norway’s recidivism rate is 20 per cent after five years, compared to 60–70 per cent in the USA. The entire philosophy behind the concept of ‘punishment’ is different, and this book fully illustrates the reasoning and the practicalities behind constructing a penal system based on the principles of restorative justice. Hanssen – a proponent of positive psychology – co-writes the book with a governor of Halden prison (Høidal) and there are excellent links to be made with the dignity (or sanctity) of human life, as the whole prison system revolves around this concept. There is also plenty of information that could be used as evaluative points around the pros and cons of such a system.

A first-hand account of life in a British prison

A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner

by Chris Atkins, published by ‎Atlantic Books, (2020), 9781838950170

Chris Atkins is a documentary filmmaker who received a five-year sentence for tax fraud, nine months of which he spent in Wandsworth prison. He keeps a diary throughout his time and casts a light on a system which most people will never experience, and yet have strong opinions on how they should be run. His diary reveals the damaging effect budget cuts have had – Britain not only has one of the highest prison populations in Europe, but also has one of the highest reoffending rates. Many of the programmes for ‘reform’ are unsustainable and seen as patronising by the prisoners and ultimately the social/racial background of prisoners has an unwarranted impact on the overall experience of those behind bars. Snippets from this book could be used in classes to give an insight into the British prison system and used as part of a debate: to what extent should criminals ‘suffer’ for committing a crime, and what needs to change to reduce our reoffending rate?

Systemic racism in America’s failing prisons

Are Prisons Obsolete?

by Angela Davis, published by Seven Stories Press, (2003), 9781583225813

Social activist Angela Davis gives an informative and thought-provoking view of prisons in this short book. She gives a concise history of prisons in the USA and clearly shows how the corporate takeover of many institutions has led to a massive increase in incarceration (20 per cent of the world’s prisoners are currently imprisoned in the USA). Davis isn’t simply looking to reform prisons but urges the reader to consider the benefits of abolishing them altogether – much in the same way that many people have come to view the death penalty. She urges that there are better, restorative practices that break the cycle of harm in which many Americans are currently trapped. 

Inside the minds of criminals

The Devil You Know: Encounters in Forensic Psychiatry

by Gwen Adshead and Eileen Horne, published by Faber and Faber, (2022), 9780571357628

Dr Adshead introduces a variety of troubled offenders who have committed some of the most heinous crimes imaginable. The cases are frequently similar, in that those she meets with are overwhelmingly sad, rather than the ‘evil monsters' they may be seen as by the outside world. Only 10–20 per cent of those who are mentally ill in prison receive therapy and it is vital that this percentage increases if restorative justice is to be a viable option. Through her case studies, Dr Adshead shows that many people are able to successfully reform and come to understand how their actions have caused harm to their victims and those who are closest to them. However, other cases she outlines clearly demonstrate that without the appropriate treatment, some offenders become increasingly disconnected from society and the effect their actions have on others and thus restorative justice becomes almost impossible to achieve.

Audiovisual clip

Restorative justice process - Can criminals say sorry?

published by BBC Three, (2014)

A look at a restorative justice conference designed to facilitate a conversation between victim and offender, offering a community-based solution to dealing with the aftermath of crime.

Further materials

13th by Ava DuVernay, (2016) Watch this film
After I was arrested and sectioned, restorative justice offered me a lifeline by Bryony Friars, published by The Guardian, (2021) Read this article
Restorative justice: Victims who meet offenders say it helps recovery, published by BBC News, (2022) Read this article
Lucy Kentish is Head of Religious Studies and a South Coast Adviser for a MAT. She is part of a national leadership scheme for RE, has developed curriculums and resources for various schools and also works as an examiner for Eduqas.

Text © Lucy Kentish, 2023.