Brought to restorative justice

Posted on March 4, 2008 in Journalism

An imam and prison chaplain who draws on the story of Joseph is helping inmates comprehend how their crimes affect victims

Robert Bullard The Guardian, Wednesday March 5 2008

Soon after Mohamed el Sharkawy, an imam, was appointed chaplain of the Mount prison in Hertfordshire, inmates from several different religions started to approach him. “They felt the prison’s justice awareness course imposed Christianity upon them,” he says. “I told them it wasn’t true. But I believe we need to work together if we are to strengthen our society. So I started to develop a course to help them, using the story of Joseph, because it was mentioned in the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an.”

The Mount is a category D establishment for low-risk prisoners. Of the 750 or so inmates, 60% are from ethnic minorities, and 51% are non-Christians. The story of Joseph – his imprisonment, release, forgiveness and reconciliation with his family – was one the inmates knew and could relate to, explains Egyptian-born El Sharkawy. “Joseph uses his time in prison, and when he leaves he applies for the highest position. He did not bow his head because he was a prisoner.”

There is nothing new about restorative justice, through which offenders are encouraged to face up to their actions and apologise to their victims, but El Sharkawy’s approach at the Mount is attracting accolades and he is now spreading the concept to several other prisons. The former college lecturer developed the course and materials himself, secured level 2 accreditation from the Open College Network, and has guided more than 400 inmates through it. It secured him last year’s Justice Shield award from the Home Office for his “outstanding contribution to working with offenders “.

Andrew Langley, deputy governor of the Mount, says: “It is an important and very popular course, and now features in many prisoners’ sentence plans. There is nothing else like what we offer here, where the victim is very much the focus of things.”

“I am full of emotion and regret for what I have done,” says a soft-spoken prisoner during one of El Sharkawy’s sessions on understanding the effects of crime. “I am in agony with myself, and I am lonely being here without my kids.” Another prisoner, Pervez, says: “We are devastated and depressed. [Being in prison] has affected us a lot mentally. In a positive way, I have realised my mistake.” Both prisoners have completed the course and help facilitate it.

It is not El Sharkawy’s religion that attracts inmates – many of who are Muslim – but his approach and style. “What is most important is how the course is delivered,” says Pervez. “The sincerity of Mohamed, the way he helps conciliate with victims, has been brilliant for me.”

Although Joseph is the core of the course, El Sharkawy also draws on people in the news and on ideas from elsewhere. “I studied the three major faiths,” he says. “I have a dream to set up an institute that teaches them together. We are stupid to fight one another.”

And the prison course is about more than restorative justice. Being in prison can have devastating effects on families, and the prisoners who attend El Sharkawy’s sessions seem to find them a help with the adjustment. A young Asian man explains why he needs help. He talks about his daughter’s frustration at him being away from home and how this leads her to argue with her mother, who then takes it out on him. The girl’s schoolwork is suffering. “There is no doubt that it ruins family life,” he concludes.

“You slowly lose touch,” says another. “You only get one visit a week. Me and my wife have the same conversation on the phone every day: ‘What are you doing today? What did you have for lunch?’ You get a distance between you.”

Many inmates become estranged from their families, but for those who want reconciliation, El Sharkawy will try to arrange it, “so the prisoner can make a fresh start when he leaves and not reoffend”.

Pervez had had no contact with most of his family during his 10 years inside. But El Sharkawy recently brought them together. “It was a very emotional situation,” El Sharkawy says. “They never expected this would happen, and I had a lot of cards and messages afterwards, saying thank you.”

But while important, the consequences of incarceration on prisoners and their families is in many ways a byproduct, as the sessions strive to help prisoners understand the effect of their actions on victims. “There are direct victims, and indirect victims,” explains El Sharkawy, reminding them of how, after a terrorist attack, increased security controls are introduced, affecting everyone’s life.

When the session ends, there is a ripple of applause and inmates drift back to their cells. “The course is really good towards all prisoners, it’s very beneficial,” says Ali, another course graduate. “It opens people’s minds and makes them think. And it means when you come out there is no anger in you – nobody to even out.”

Pervez, too, is pleased. “Throughout my life I have never met a person who will listen to me properly, understand my issues, and who I can trust,” he says. “But with Mohamed I felt I can open up, explore my issues, and get the right guidance. My life has changed over. It’s much better.

“This is the type of course that should be taught in schools – about the effects of crime – so that kids know the consequences before they do something wrong.” Ali agrees: “Most children think, ‘I want to be like him.’ They do not realise the consequences. If we had a course in schools, a lot of the crimes might not happen.”

Ali hopes to set up something after his release. “If I could do something like that, it would be a big goal for me,” he says. “We are here; there’s nothing we can do to change it. But to try to get a better future for our children and other community members, that’s what we should focus on.”

Inmates’ names have been changed.

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