Crime & Punishment or Justice and Restoration?

“I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25:36

At any one time there are around 4,000 people in prison in Ireland.  The average cost of imprisonment per prisoner is estimated at €65,404 per year. Around 90% of prison sentences are for non-violent offences including non-payment of fines, immigration issues and public order offences.  Women make up around 3.5% of the prison population.

In Northern Ireland, the prison population stands at around 1,800.  In both ROI and NI, 10% of prisoners are foreign nationals.  Perhaps the most notable difference between the two systems is in the percentage of prisoners serving life sentences (13 - 15% in NI but only 8% in ROI).

According to a report by the Irish Prison Service and the Central Statistics Office published in 2013, 62% of those released from prison In Ireland re-offended within three years.  Burglary offenders had the highest rate of re-conviction (up to 79%). According to the most up-to-date data on re-conviction rates in Northern Ireland  (published in 2005!), 47% of adults discharged from prison were re-convicted within two years.  This rose to 70% of 18-20 years olds. A new report is due in Spring 2014.

In this VOX special feature, we explore how Christians in Ireland and Northern Ireland are responding to those who commit crime in our communities and consider the potential for restorative justice to offer long-term solutions.

Caring for prisoners and ex offenders

“If you really want to demonstrate your love for Jesus, you have to love the unloved, the marginalised, those who are left out, who are in trouble and can’t see a way out of their current predicament.”

Five years ago, somebody asked Philip Larragy to take over the work of the Church of Ireland chaplaincy in Arbour Hill prison in Dublin.  What began as a small Bible study run by one church has developed into a range of services helping prisoners, ex-offenders and people with multiple addictions.

“We run with the tagline ‘I was in prison and you visited me’ from Matthew 25,” Philip explained.  “As our Bible study grew we decided to run an Alpha Course and through that 12 prisoners came to faith in Jesus.  We now have regular attendance of up to 20 people.”

Caring for the spiritual needs of prisoners developed into a ministry called Thuas (meaning “above” to symbolise the work of the Holy Spirit). Volunteers from all Christian traditions visit and befriend prisoners and care for practical, social and spiritual needs.  Thuas has now become the prison wing of Alpha Ireland.

An inevitable next step became work with ex-offenders with help and training from the UK-based William Wilberforce Trust.  “We help them from the prison gate to re-enter society in a safer way than they might otherwise do.”
For some ex-offenders, this has also meant the opportunity to find a church where they can be supported and loved.

“Since we started that we have supported nine people following their release from prison.  Five of those have settled into churches.  The good news is that none of those people have re-offended.  That is a significant statistic!”

Finding churches for ex-offenders can be a challenge.  “Churches have a responsibility to protect people within the church, especially children.  If an ex-  offender poses a risk, there needs to be an appropriate amount of risk management.  We use a contract and arrange for the person to have a mentor within the church.”

But this does not mean that the ex-offender is “named and shamed”.  “All of us come to church with our sin, none of us are made to stand up and publically confess what we have done,” Philip emphasised.

A more recent development is “The Recovery Course”, which is aimed at helping people with multiple addictions through Christian-based training.  “Our plan is to introduce this into prisons following the trial stage in south Dublin city,” Philip said.

With the development of the work, Philip is making plans to give up his “day job” and go full time in 2015.  “We have created a not-for-profit limited company called Release and we want to develop it as a professional organisation working in partnership with the prison service and the probation service.”

Desperate for more volunteers, Philip admits this work is not for the faint hearted and there are a number of protocols involved.  “It is all very easy to say, ‘I love Jesus’ but not so easy to demonstrate that.  Yet, there is amazing energy from loving people who are marginalised by society.”

With prisoners often incarcerated miles from home, it can be difficult for family members to see them and this can cause great heartache.

“We find prisoners who do not have any visitors at all.  I’m allowed to go into Arbour Hill prison as a chaplain.  I usually sit in the chaplaincy room and the next thing there is a queue outside - up to 10 people in a day!”

As the work of Release develops, Philip’s vision would be to see services developed to support families as well as restorative justice programmes, which help prisoners to understand the impact of their crime on their victim and on the community.

“Many prisoners are desperately seeking forgiveness but the most difficult thing of all is being able to forgive themselves,” Philip explained.  “You must absolutely hammer home how awful and unjustified their offense is, no matter how drunk they were [or whatever the excuse] but as a person, they can be forgiven.”

If you would like to get involved in visiting prisoners or supporting the work in any way or if you know of a prisoner who would benefit from a visit please email

Offering hope and a new beginning

For over 30 years, Prison Fellowship Northern Ireland has responded to the spiritual, emotional, social and physical needs of prisoners, released prisoners and their families. It is affiliated to Prison Fellowship International, which operates in over 129 countries around the world.  Prison Fellowship NI has nine members of staff including three prison workers and three family workers.  VOX spoke with CEO Robin Scott to find out more:

“We are in a privileged position to have tremendous freedom within the prisons.  We can walk up and down the landings and talk to the guys, as well as running courses and meetings,” Robin explained.  “Over time, we have gained credibility and the confidence of the prison service.  We work alongside prison chaplains and the prison management.”

At the heart of the work is a commitment to build relationships, gaining trust and respect through consistent visits and authentic friendships.

“For us, it is about integrity.  I cannot say I am only interested in someone’s spiritual wellbeing if I am ignoring his physical, emotional and social needs.  One of the biggest gifts we can give anyone is time; oodles of time.”
“People have been let down and disappointed so many times.  If you say, ‘I will come and see you’ and then if you don’t visit, you reinforce what they already think - that nobody cares.”

Putting faith into action is hard work, Robin admits, especially when an ex-offender  “crashes”.  “We are to be there as much with the guy falls to pieces as we are with the guy who does well. We don’t condone their behaviour.  But it is the greatest privilege to work with people who don’t need to be told they have done wrong.  People in the church are so good at wearing veneers. These guys are brutally honest.”

It is that honesty which enables Prison Fellowship to help people face up to what they have done through a Restorative Justice project called “The Sycamore Tree”.

This six-week accredited course in victim awareness has shown proven results in changing attitudes towards crime. The group looks at the impact of crime and comes face to face with someone who has been the victim of crime.
 “The punch line comes, when we ask them, ‘Who is your victim?’” Robin explained.  “It is not just the individual that they have attacked. There are far, far bigger issues to consider with the consequences of crime within a community.

“Some of the offenders have told us,  ‘The prison bars keep us safe… they keep us from facing up to the real pain of what we have done…’”

The system appears stacked against the victim of crime.  “So often the victim does not have a voice.  Justice is done ‘for’ them yet the offender [while bearing the consequence of imprisonment] never fully faces up to what they have done,” Robin said.

The “easy one”

Robin joyfully recounts one story of a young man who came to the Prison Fellowship office just over a year ago. “He knocked on our door and asked to speak to me by name.  He joined us for lunch and we arranged a bed for the night.  We provided support right up until Christmas but then throughout January there was no communication.  

“In February 2013, he turned up at the front door and said, ‘How can I become a Christian? ‘ He had been watching us closely [the way we behaved] and had spent January reading the Bible.  Now, he is preparing to get baptised... But there are countless others that are not like that!”

Supporting families

One of Prison Fellowship’s major priorities is supporting the families of prisoners.  “Their only crime is relationship and yet they often serve the same sentence on the outside,” Robin said.  Prison Fellowship family support workers provide practical, emotional and spiritual help.  This may mean offering transport to and from the prison or delivering a box of groceries, arranging support for children going through trauma or simply befriending a wife or mother who feels isolated through shame or stigma.  They also run a support group for the families of prisoners.  Describing the harsh reality for family members, Robin shared, “We knew one woman who used to leave at 7am to get to Belfast in order to catch a bus to visit a relative in Magilligan prison.  After a 45-minute visit, she had to wait for a bus back to Belfast and was getting home after 8pm.”

After 28 years with the charity, Robin is more convinced than ever of the importance of the work he is doing.  “Jesus went looking for the one that was lost. We can’t fix people but we can be there for them!”

 For information about how you can pray, support or volunteer with Prison Fellowship NI visit

What is Restorative Justice and does it work?

Restorative Justice emphasises repairing the harm caused by crime or conflict.  It works on three principles:

  • Giving victims a voice:  This means allowing victims to express the impact of the offence on them and their families and to ask questions.  In some cases, there is also the opportunity to express their views on what they would like to be done to address the offence.
  • Encouraging offenders to accept responsibility for what they have done.
  • Encouraging offenders to repair the harm they have done in appropriate ways (and where possible).

This type of process is far more time consuming than traditional methods.  It does not always replace a punitive justice model but can be used as a step towards rehabilitation.

A number of studies have been published in the last 10 years evaluating restorative justice schemes - while reserving overall judgement on the effectiveness, there has been a cautious welcome.

The research showed some evidence of changing attitudes among offenders and a higher level of appreciation by victims over the way they are treated by the system.  A seven-year study in the UK showed significantly fewer offences (measured by re-conviction rates) by those who had taken part in Restorative Justice programmes.

Criticisms of the model include the greater burden on victims to be involved in the justice process, which can in fact re-traumatise them, and the possibility that it is open to abuse by offenders, who might manipulate the process to obtain lighter sentences.

From a Christian perspective, the principles of restorative justice seem more in line with biblical teaching than more punitive approaches.  Organisations such as the Prison Fellowship are among those taking the lead in implementing restorative justice in prisons.

The principles can also be applied in conflict situations in which both parties may consider themselves to have been injured in some way.  The process provides a framework allowing both sides to express the pain they have experienced and to work towards a mutually agreed solution.

Restorative Justice in Irish Prisons

In 2012, the Irish Prison Service (IPS) committed to introducing pilot restorative justice projects in prisons.  These projects give prisoners the opportunity to:

  • Address and take responsibility for their offending behaviour
  • Make reparations to the community
  • Increase awareness of the impact of their crime on victims and their families

Two pilot projects ran in Wheatfield Prison and the Dóchas Centre. Work is currently focused on training facilitators for Restorative Justice courses and on finding effective ways that prisoners can make “reparation to the community”.  In the past, community service has tended to be more “symbolic reparation” rather than making a valuable contribution to repairing harm. Richard Roche, the Assistant Governor of the Irish Prison Service College and chair of a multi-disciplinary steering group for Restorative Justice told VOX, “A very encouraging aspect of the project has been the wholehearted support for the philosophy of restorative practices by prisoners, staff and management of Wheatfield and the Dóchas Centre.”   

Work continues to enhance links between various statutory and voluntary groups interested in developing and promoting the use of restorative practices to deal with conflict in Irish society in general.

Caring For Ex-Offenders Training Seminar, Dublin – Saturday 21 June

Venue: St Catherine’s Church, Thomas St. Dublin

How can we reduce reoffending by reintegrating ex-offenders into society through the local church?  This one-day seminar seeks to equip those who work or would like to work with ex-offenders (or those at risk of offending) in your church and includes practical steps for your church. Guest speakers include Paul Cowley, Executive Director of the William Wilberforce Trust. Cost:  €25 (£20) per person (to cover lunch and materials).  Special Group Rate for 4+ people: €20 (£15) per person.

To book your place, call +353 (0)1 473 5100 or email  For further information visit