Prison for punishment, or for "restoration"?
3/29/10

A third category of tasks should also be mentioned: tasks that prison wardens assigned to CJRs, mostly involving coordination of cultural and educational activities, for example activities aimed at drug addicts, etc. Here as well, Dubois observed a significant disparity in tasks assigned. Their common feature was that they helped the CJRs fit into the prison staff in a personal manner. But this did not mean that the function of the CJRs was made to fit into the prison routine any better.

What was the result of all this? While we may admire the effort of the CJRs to translate into practice a project based on a ministerial memorandum as obscure as it was ambitious, it is necessary to relativise the importance of the changes they were able to introduce intelligent prisons. In fact, the activities that they undertook or coordinated along with outside associations generally only met with tepid interest on the part of inmates. These inmates, in the words of a staff member, constituted a public that was "without form, without desire, without motivation, focused only on getting out". The scepticism that some administrators expressed with regard to the CJRs was shared by a number of wardens. Other specialists concerned with the prison system observed that the imprecise manner in which the ministerial memorandum had expressed itself rather led in the direction of a number of practices whose relationship with the notion of reparation was not immediately obvious. This lack of appropriateness was so great that certain CJRs were told that they were taking the risk of "doing everything and doing nothing" in a vain effort to solve the problems with which they were confronted. For these observers, the actual impact of the memorandum on the functioning of Belgian prisons was therefore negligible. This fairly severe criticism from criminologists confirms at any rate that the CJRs were not able to transform the Belgian penal system by themselves.

Mediation as an occupation

The CJRs carried out actions and set up activities which they tried to make relevant to restorative justice, in order to introduce into the prisons certain ideas that up to that time had not garnered any attention at all. Thus they carried out a labour of conception, coordination, information, sensitization, training and supervision through which they attempted to "popularise" the ideas of victim, restoration and mediation among inmates, prison staff, associations, victims, wardens, social workers, etc.

Even if the connection in certain activities appeared tenuous, the concept of restorative justice did allow certain actors (inmates, victims, staff, associations, etc.) to get to know each other. Whether the activities designed to facilitate such mediation were "restorative" or not, in any case they did fulfil a function: they brought actors and ideas into contact that probably would not have made any connection otherwise. One of the results of this process of mediation is that people talk more about victims. That may be a positive result of this experiment, which lasted almost 8 years.

For the rest, an outside observer, whether criminologist or journalist, would no doubt have some difficulty in approving the result of a project that Christophe Dubois has described as "vast, confused, ambitious and utopian". Two of these four adjectives insure a negative evaluation of the experiment as regards the political judgment that may be passed upon it. Less restricted by a normative standpoint, a sociologist with a commitment to scientific observation, description and a rigorous account of the experiment will prudently conclude that "the data collected do not permit us to conclude [that the experiment was a] success" in its attempt to make a culture of incarceration move toward a culture of reparation. Nonetheless some of the "new connections" that the work of the CJRs brought about between the various protagonists of the world of prisons may continue to exist.

(1)   Christophe Dubois, Innover à partir d’une ressource cognitive utopique. Le cas des consultants en justice réparatrice, in Performances publiques, novembre 2009, Larcier, pp. 103 à 117.

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