Prison as a Place of Restoration
PF New Zealand has developed a programme bringing victims face-to-face with their offenders. Generally taking place in the prison setting, these safely-structured and facilitated meetings provide victims with the opportunity to tell their story and ask questions of their offenders. Offenders chance to learn how their crime truly impacted the victim and to express remorse for their behaviour. The following story illustrates the potential of victim-offender encounters to create a space for healing.
In 1997 Peter Smith received a life sentence for the murder of Jeremy Kern, a bank teller, during an armed robbery. In 2003 Mr Kern’s sister Miriam, who lives in Sydney, asked if she could meet Peter face-to-face. Jackie Katounas, of PF New Zealand, facilitated the meeting between Peter, Miriam and a supportive friend, which occurred last March.
Jackie interviewed Peter at some length before the meeting, and felt that he was genuinely remorseful. “He’d been in prison some five years, and had had plenty of time to think about the impact of his action on the family. He was very grateful for the opportunity to meet the sister, but very apprehensive.”
The victim-offender conference began with Jackie asking Peter to describe what was happening in his life at the time of the tragic event. Peter said he had been a gang member at the time, though he knew that he needed to take full responsibility himself for what had happened. He said he hadn’t intended that anyone should die except himself.
“I didn’t have the courage to take my own life, and I thought by going into the bank with a gun that the police would take me out and do the job for me.”
Miriam responded that while she could understand that, she and her family had been devastated by Jeremy’s death. Her brother’s wife and two children had also suffered serious on-going trauma as a result of losing their husband and father. However, she had undergone a healing journey, was willing to forgive Peter, and help him move on.
The meeting moved on to discussing how Peter was spending his time while in prison. Peter spoke of the technology studies he was doing and his goals for the future. He said he knew that saying “sorry” was not enough and he wanted to prove his remorse by actions rather than words.Both Miriam and her friend felt he was genuine and wished him well. Then the possibility of expressing Peter’s commitment through some kind of formal agreement was discussed. It was agreed that Peter would continue his studies and write occasionally to Miriam to update her on his progress. This would be done via the meeting facilitator. The prison chaplain (also attending) stated his commitment to mentoring Peter through the remainder of his sentence.
As the meeting concluded, Miriam and her friend gave Peter a hug and wished him well. Following the meeting, Peter burst into tears, and cried for most of the day. Within days, prison staff noticed a remarkable change in Peter’s behaviour. He was positive, relaxed, and purposeful – planning for the future with confidence.
Other stories of reconciliation from New Zealand involve:
A man convicted of the attempted murder of an elderly woman. He provided some background to his actions, and heard that she remained anxious that he could be a threat once more. He promised that his behaviour had changed and that he would not return to the locality of the crime, if that was her wish. She accepted his reassurances and they hugged on parting.
A man convicted of causing grievous bodily harm to his ex-wife and her new partner. Both the offender and one of the victims accepted responsibility for what had happened. A child of the offender and his ex-wife also attended the meeting and spoke of his support for his parents and pride in his father’s achievements in prison i.e learning to read and write. The couple supported the offender’s release into the community, as well as reconciliation with his children and wider whanau.
A man convicted of aggravated robbery at a family restaurant. He met with the restaurant owner, took responsibility for the crime and explained that he had been using illegal means to try to pay a huge unpaid fine, so he could buy a house for his partner and child. He had not meant to harm anyone. The trauma experienced by an employee and the owner was explained to him. The offender apologized, the apology was accepted and the two men shook hands.