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A Country of Peace and Protection

October 21, 2010 - Eleanor Clitheroe

Our federal government has engaged in a pivotal re-definition of how Canadians interact with issues of justice. Recent press releases underscore that Conservatives are willing to put the money behind their “get tough on crime” agenda by pouring potentially hundreds of millions of dollars into increasing beds in existing penitentiaries and building new super-facilities in the name of justice.

Prison Fellowship Canada is not opposed to massive expenditures in the milieu of justice. However, we believe these tax dollars would be better spent on true justice—a justice that is restoring rather than remonstrating, preventative not punitive, and transformative instead of tedious. The true work of justice is a work that restores inmate and victim, offender to community, and society to its own moral compass.

As a Senior Fellow of Cardus who has written numerous times on the role of restorative justice (RJ), I posit that now, in the midst of this re-definition, is the opportunity for the government to invest in restorative justice units within institutions. These Communities of Restoration are proven throughout the world to reduce recidivism, prevent crime escalation, and even transform individuals from being criminally focused to socially conscious.

In the face of crime and conflict, restorative justice is a philosophy and an approach that views crime and conflict principally as harm done to people and relationships. It strives to provide support and safe opportunities for the voluntary participation and communication between those affected (victims, offenders, and community) in order to encourage accountability, reparation, and a movement towards understanding, feelings of satisfaction, healing, safety, and closure.

Restorative justice approaches help people face the impacts of crime and conflict directly. Approaches such as Victim-Offender Mediation and Community Justice Forums provide support to victims, offenders, and community members. This non-adversarial, non-retributive approach to justice emphasizes healing, accountability, and community involvement to create healthier, safer communities.


As part of examining the role of restorative justice in Canada, the CSC established the Restorative Justice and Dispute Resolution (RJDR) Division in 1996, committed to fostering the development of restorative justice. This Division contributes to strategic developments within the organization, moving restorative justice initiatives in a positive direction.

In 2007, the federal government set Rob Sampson as chair of a panel to review federal penal system. Six months later, the review panel released a 255-page report entitled “A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety.” 

One recommendation of the Roadmap was to “modernize” Corrections’ physical infrastructure by building “regional complexes” (super-prisons) containing up to 2200 cells, combining minimum, medium, and maximum security, as well as a “special handling unit” aimed at long-term incarceration in complete isolation and under heavy surveillance. Minister of Public Safety The Honourable Vic Toews estimated that additional costs to the budget will be approximately $2 billion over five years.  However, other sources estimate the total cost to be up to $10 billion over five years.

Regardless of the financial burden, there is no evidence that super-prisons have a positive effect on community safety, nor do they reduce recidivism rates. To the contrary: many low-risk prisoners become better criminals by being amalgamated with higher-risk offenders.

The current “get tough on crime” language used by the government is understood to be at odds with the CSC’s previous position, which was founded on restorative justice principles.


The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) supports restorative justice within its mandate. The CSC primarily targets education and mediation through; victim-offender mediation services, education presentations and training opportunities and support for advocacy awards and presentations to satisfy RJ initiatives.
However, when principles of restorative justice become the foundation for prison programming and operation, an ethos of support and trust permeates the environment. Over thirty years ago, a small group of volunteers and professionals proved that RJ principles could be fully implemented in a prison setting, called Communities of Restoration (COR).


The history of CORs begins in the city of San Jose dos Campos of Sao Paolo, Brazil, in the early 1970s. There, a small group of professionals, business people, and retirees began visiting prisoners in their local jail on Humaita Street. The leader of the group was Dr. Mario Ottoboni, a powerful Alderman in the city. He was shocked and sickened by the conditions they found in the jail, which was badly overcrowded and unsanitary.

The volunteers did more than address the spiritual needs of those prisoners. They also assisted in providing for their medical care, legal assistance, food, and families. Out of that unpaid service grew the Associacao de Protecao e Assistencia aos Condenados (Portuguese for Association for Protection and Assistance for Convicts), commonly referred to as APAC. This NGO eventually became the Brazilian affiliate (PF Brazil) of Prison Fellowship International.

As word of the program spread throughout Brazil, volunteers elsewhere began to start their own replications. This demonstrated that the transformation of the Humaita Street Jail could be duplicated by other people and in other settings. Soon community members and corrections officials from throughout Latin America came to Brazil to see this prison that boasted a recidivism rate of less than 4%. The first replication outside of Brazil was undertaken by Prison Fellowship Ecuador in a unit of the Garcia Moreno Prison in Quito. Shortly after that, a number of other Latin American countries opened similar programs.


The methodology of Communities of Restoration is holistic in two ways. First, it addresses all aspects of the lives of prisoners. They are understood to be physical, mental, relational, emotional and spiritual beings, and viewed as people who, though they have caused harm to some, have contributed positively to the lives of others. While they have needs, they also have strengths and skills. Above all, they have worth because they were created in love by God. This inherent dignity and worth cannot be eradicated by anything they or others might do. Nevertheless, many prisoners are so damaged they don’t know who they are. The prisoner needs a process of human valorisation (discovering one’s dignity and value) to be able to discover the gifted person he is.

Furthermore, the programs and life within each COR contain certain key features and intentions. These are articulated differently from country to country, but we believe that the principles outlined by the Canadian government are actually a good summary of the methodology of CORs.

1.          Respect and dignity. Most prisoners do not have a positive sense of identity. They have not been respected so they do not respect themselves. The core of the methodology is to help prisoners understand that they have dignity and worth; that they are gifted and valuable; and that they are created and loved by God. Community volunteer visitors are one of the most powerful ways this message is communicated.

2.         Empowerment. Prisoners may also have physical, medical, intellectual, psychiatric, spiritual, and material needs that will hinder their development if they are not addressed. They may have pending legal issues. They may come from dysfunctional or abusive families. The methodology teaches that it is pointless to claim to love someone and not to address those issues. Furthermore, prisoners do not merely represent deficits—they have strengths and gifts that begin to emerge with creative or therapeutic work, educational programs and productive work.

3.          Meaningful and responsible choices. Prisoners learn that their choices are not simply whether to comply with rules or not. In any situation they have many options: they may harm someone, they may do nothing, or they may contribute positively to others. Furthermore, it is understood that not all choices are the right choices. But even an unwise or destructive choice can become an occasion for conversation and learning. Finally, they learn that there are choices related to unresolved issues from the past that they need to make, such as how to repair broken family relationships, develop healthy patterns of relating to others, and restore the harm they have done to their victims.

4.         Shared responsibility. One of the ways prisoners are shown that they have dignity and worth is by being given responsibility in the COR. Prisoners are given the opportunity to serve on councils and advise the volunteers and staff, and are encouraged to use their skills to help one another. The trust that prisoners receive does not come from outsiders alone; they learn to offer that to each other as well.

5.          Supportive Environment. To understand their worth, prisoners must be provided a safe environment and caring community. In a supportive environment, prisoners feel less mistrustful, and are less preoccupied with the need for self-protection. Volunteers are trained and supervised accordingly, and the prisoners themselves learn to support one another. However, the objective is that prisoners become productive, contributing members of their own communities outside the prison. This means that the supportive environment needs to continue after release as well.

The “ideal” in PF Brazil is a COR with no police presence at all. Security and discipline are carried out by the volunteers and prisoners. As difficult as it may be to imagine, there are many such prisons in Brazil.


PF Canada is a thirty-year-old non-profit ministry working in prisons across Canada. It is part of a worldwide association that includes 120 other national Prison Fellowships.

Outside Latin America, CORs generally operate under agreements with national governments that provide shared responsibility for security, discipline, and administrative functions. In developed countries, there is discomfort with the suggestion that the government could legally turn over to anyone its responsibility for security and discipline in facilities, as is reflected in the debates over privatization of prisons.

The experience of Prison Fellowship in other developed countries in starting CORs has been one of cooperation and collaboration between the affiliate and the prison service. A useful example is that of Prison Fellowship New Zealand (PFNZ), which has established a partnership with the New Zealand Department of Corrections to offer prisoners in that country the opportunity to participate in a COR. The New Zealand unit is faith-based, incorporating a holistic approach to education, work skill development, and spiritual growth.

Kim Workman, past Executive Director of Prison Fellowship New Zealand, explains the re-offending rates: “Nationally, 25% of all men leaving prison are back in prison within 12 months. Compare that statistic to those prisoners who have left the Faith Based Unit and taken advantage of our post-release program. Of the twenty-eight men released from the unit in the last year, two have re-offended.”

Workman writes that “even a reduction of 5% in the national re-offending rate would mean 350 fewer inmates in the system—hence avoiding the need to build a costly new prison (approximate saving: $150m). Three hundred and fifty fewer inmates in the system would also represent an annual saving of $21m on annual upkeep.”  A former Director of Corrections in New Zealand, Workman knows the magnitude of the impact firsthand.

He says the faith-based system is clearly effective in reducing crime, and that “the full potential of this response within the criminal justice system has yet to be fully explored.”

A total of 16 countries have endeavoured to establish CORs within their respective prison systems. A sampling includes Belize, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Germany, Hungary and Latvia, New Zealand, and the United States.


Indeed, one of the key success indicators of CORs is the dramatic decrease in recidivism rates. Recidivism relates to the tendency for offenders to repeat criminal and anti-social behaviours. In the context of the penal system, recidivism rates are measured by the percentage of people who are arrested for re-offense and the percentage of those who are subsequently re-incarcerated.

Within Canada, statistics vary on current rates of recidivism, with ranges indicating between 40% and 75%. This represents a staggering number of repeat offenders. Significant reduction in recidivism would benefit offenders and their families and communities. Additionally, a dramatic reduction in recidivism on a national scale would translate into positive budgetary change for both federal and provincial correctional systems.

The Restorative Justice Unit (RJU) was established at Grande Cache Institute, Alberta in 2001. It was designed as a stand-alone unit within the larger institution. Part of its mandate was to have a positive impact on the safe reintegration of offenders into the community upon conditional release. The RJU introduced both staff and offenders to RJ by incorporating RJ principles into the daily life of a correctional environment.

Restorative Justice principles are lived out at Grande Cache through accountable and respectful inmate interactions. There is an offender conflict resolution process, as well as weekly meetings wherein restorative justice principles were taught and discussed using the current and real-life examples of the unit.

The promotion of RJ values and principles, entrenched in the daily functioning of the Unit, were voluntarily embraced by offenders who chose to redirect their lives and to actively address their offences as they served their sentence. To this end, the RJU and its residents facilitated dynamic processes through which offenders could safely address antisocial attitudes, counter stereotypical offender perceptions, and encourage offenders towards an attitudinal shift with respect to their crimes, the residual impacts, and their criminogenic needs.

A number of offenders at Grande Cache RJU have been fully and actively encouraged to become law-abiding citizens. The unit is a safe, reasonable, and humane environment which fosters respect and understanding of those who have offended and those who have been harmed. A greater emphasis is needed to make RJ available as offenders prepare to live as law-abiding citizens upon conditional release and at the end of their sentence.

Criticism of RJ principles and activities within corrections has its foundation in the implementation of the program. Training of volunteers and staff, communication between units, standardized reporting measures, and consistent support through the re-integration process are tactical activities that can be overcome.
Unfortunately, the Grande Cache RJ Unit has been closed, with funding re-directed towards a different RJ tactic: Victim-Offender Mediation. Within the federal context, mediation occurs directly between the offender and the victim, which differentiates it from other programs that use surrogates to stimulate empathy and repentance. Many PF ministries employ variations of Victim-Offender Mediation as part of programming. PF Canada believes that an integrated approach, combining RJ units with Victim-Offender Mediation in programming, would result in the most dynamic change opportunity.


As the Canadian Federal Government grapples with our national correctional system, we choose to embrace the optimism and hope that restorative justice brings. There is a need for increased spending in areas of transformational programming, in the introduction of faith-based units and in Community Chaplaincy and other aftercare providers.

Communities of Restoration are populations that uphold peace without compromising protection. The methodology is highly adaptable and the results are statistically proven. They are productive in providing alternative reparation and creating a constructive milieu in which the community as a whole can advance.
The fundamental belief in the inherent worth of people must extend to victim, offender, and those in the community at large. By its nature, the true work of justice must insist that we all are restored to discover our potential good, thereby transforming ourselves, our communities, and our world.

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This Article Belongs To ...

  1. October 2010: Hill Lecture 2010
    CPIP - Hill Lecture 2010 This issue of CPIP covers the 2010 Hill Lecture. It includes keynote speaker Dr. John von Heyking's address, along with two responses. It also features articles by Senior Fellows Jonathan Wellum and Eleanor Clitheroe-Bell, the latest LexView, a review of God and Global Order and the quarterly CPIP Canadian Think Tank Index.

    Download the PDF.