European Communities of Restoration – in prisons and as alternatives to detention

There is international policy concern on the long-term implications of a rising prison population, as well as significant questions regarding the issue of whether ‘prison works’. Whilst imprisonment is necessary for dangerous offenders who pose a risk to the public, systematic incarceration and warehousing of all offenders is counter-productive and economically inefficient. The financial cost of imprisonment is significant, but the social cost – the lost labour-market productivity, the loss to families, and the disruption of relationships and breakdown of social cohesion is immeasurable, and serve often only to strengthen criminality, resulting in higher rates of reoffending and recidivism, thus contributing further to the social costs of imprisonment. Evidence clearly illustrates that alternatives to conventional custody are more effective than standard imprisonment in reducing recidivism, and that the continuation of support programmes into the post-release period help to maintain lower recidivism levels. However the availability of such programmes is scarce; decision makers are lacking a body of knowledge on best practice in alternative approaches, and no European standards or benchmarks have been set by which to implement and monitor such programmes. Without such standards, alternative approaches to conventional imprisonment will continue to be side-lined in favour of the ‘tried and tested’, placing an absolutely unnecessary burden on public expenses and social well-being.

The project European Communities of Restoration – in prisons and as alternatives to detention (ECOR) was concerned with the exchange and development of good practice in the improvement of detention conditions in prisons, and the promotion of alternatives to conventional detention and development of post-release integration programmes. It sought to adapt a methodology used successfully in Latin America, in which communities of restoration help participants to learn to take responsibility – for themselves and their community, for their past and their future. The methodology, known as Association for the Protection and the Assistance of the Convicted (APAC), encourages participants to acknowledge victim perspectives, whilst challenging them to achieve educational and vocational qualifications, and promoting sports and athletics as a means of enhancing self-worth, encouraging legitimate affirmation and developing ‘team spirit’. Staff and volunteers of the programme demonstrate positive-group culture, and show by their example what it means to put positive, pro-social and pro-community values into practice, thus mitigating the influence of negative inmate subculture. These norms and values can also be internalised – where possible – through participating in positive community-based activities in cooperation with community groups, youth groups, athletic clubs, NGOs and with the local economy.

The project ECOR did explore the current possibilities for alternatives to conventional detention in Europe, using the results of this research to set up four new APAC sites, both in prison wings and in post-release care centres, each capable of supporting up to 20 participants at a time. Thorough evaluation and documentation of the implementation process did allow for the establishment of best-practice standards. Based on the results, the project published a comprehensive manual and training guide for implementing APAC in a European context, which was presented, along with a video documentary, at a final European conference.
Demonstrating the adaptability and effectiveness of the programme in Europe, the project ECOR seeks, in the long-term, to promote the methodology as a credible and viable solution to the problems of prison overcrowding, isolation and social disengagement, reoffending and recidivism.