News from LifeLines

Amicus and LifeLines event!

Amicus and LifeLines have joined up to bring you this special screening - details below (please note that clicking on the poster will take you to the external site - this will open in a new window).

The 2019 Spring Conference

LifeLines conferences are always special and very memorable occasions: an opportunity to share experiences with friends both old and new, to catch up on news from the row, and of course to hear from some outstanding speakers. This year was no exception, and it was a privilege to meet Julie Hilt and Sephton Henry, who both spoke very powerfully and personally, and in doing so provided a fresh perspective on what we do here at LifeLines.


Julie is originally from Britain but now lives and works in the USA, where she uses restorative justice work in a wide range of settings. Her experience ranges from death row in one of America’s oldest prisons to an eight-year-old boy on diversion in the community - her youngest youth offender to date. She began her talk by suggesting that over the last 30 years, what we’ve created at LifeLines is “a community of kinship and tenderness”, because we write in awe of the burden others are carrying rather than in judgment of how they carry it. Each time we send a letter to our friends we’re sending them the best gift you can give another human being: hope. Julie believes that kindness is the delivery system of hope, and that inclusion is always the answer.


This is also the reason Julie’s so passionate about her work in restorative justice, which requires a paradigm shift in the way that we think about wrongdoing. The current justice system works on the principle of retributive justice, which asks what law has been broken, who broke it and how it should be punished. In this case, those who have suffered as a result of the crime have no input, and there’s no requirement to actually address the nature of the harm that’s been caused.


In contrast, restorative justice gives everyone a voice. There are three stakeholders - the person who was harmed, the person who caused the harm, and the community around them. This approach asks different questions: what harm was caused and to whom, what needs have arisen based on that harm, and whose obligation is it to meet those needs or to put right the harm that’s been done. In particular, Julie explained that a truly effective restorative justice program always looks at the root causes of the offending behaviour.


Although the basic principles of restorative justice are found throughout human history, most recently it can be traced back to New Zealand in the 1980s. Faced with a high rate of incarceration among their youth, the Maori people persuaded the government to allow them to try a restorative method. Maori culture believes that a healthy shame and the need to make amends should be the resolution wherever harm is caused; instead of focusing on blame, they wanted to know why the offence had happened in the first place. The program was a success, and as a result around 75% of all youth harm in New Zealand is now handled restoratively. This means many youth detention facilities are closing down, and because the young people involved don’t go on to re-offend, the country needs fewer adult detention facilities as well.


Restorative justice is not a way of avoiding accountability - in fact, it’s quite the opposite. What it does mean is that everyone has a voice, the person who’s been harmed is able to express the full impact of what happened. For example, having your house broken into and possessions stolen often goes beyond the financial or material impact; it may also cause the victim to feel unsafe in their own home or to change their habits. At the same time, the person who caused the harm also gets to share their experience, why they did it - perhaps they needed the money, or they were pressured by friends. Finally people close to both parties, who may also have been affected by the offending behaviour, have an opportunity to join the conversation. The aim is for everyone involved to hear each other’s perspective, to see each other as human beings, and to realise that while what happened wasn’t right, it also wasn’t personal.


The next step is to decide how amends can be made. In some cases, depending on the law of the land, this may still involve spending time in detention, but in others it could mean replacing what was lost or doing community service of some kind. The key is to craft a solution that’s doable and which is satisfying for everybody. Julie believes there’s something very ennobling about taking responsibility for what you’ve done and being able to put it right.


This method is one that’s used in the community, but within prison Julie takes a different approach, called a Victim Offender Education Group. The curriculum is designed for weekly group meetings over a year, but often takes longer because participation tends to unlock so much. The goal is to help the individual explore the root causes of harm and what caused them to do what they did, from all kinds of perspectives: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, financial… The program explores childhood trauma and family history, and enables participants to understand all the things that contributed to them being where they are today; this is called looking at the “self as victim”, and includes looking at gender beliefs and expectations, child abuse, punishment versus discipline, grief, guilt and shame, and the causes of anger.


Group members also share stories of harm they’ve caused and the things that have happened to them to bring them to this point. The idea is to build a really deep understanding of the consequences of their actions, and break the cycles of misbehaviour and disruption. Often those involved may have been in prison for many years and this could be their first opportunity to openly discuss these things. Through this process, participants are restored and made whole. Many may have very little hope of ever leaving prison, but a healed individual can have a positive influence those around them, including influencing young people entering the system.


All this work culminates in a crime impact statement. The program spends a lot of time on understanding victims of crime and the trauma that lingers after harm has been inflicted. This includes an understanding that “the victim” isn’t just the person directly affected, but also their loved ones as well as the friends and family of the offender. Julie finds this is often an eye opener to the young people she works with, so her focus is on educating them and expanding their consciousness. Wherever possible she’ll also organise a dialogue with a victim of harm who can explain the full impact the harm they experienced, had on all aspects of their life.


The men and boys that Julie works with have all experienced horrendous violence in the form of discipline as a child. Julie shared an example of a boy she once worked with; she took some cookies to their meeting, and when she gave them to him, he said, “Just for a minute I feel like a human being again” - a shocking sentiment from a fifteen-year-old boy. Some time later, after he’d been released and was about to graduate from high school, he opened up to Julie about horrific abuse he’d suffered at the hands of his father. Another boy once asked her how she managed to get her children to do what she wanted without beating them - the question took her by surprise, but she realised that for these young people violence is all they know, and the unprocessed trauma they’ve experienced leads them directly into the “school to prison pipeline”. Similarly, children whose parents have suffered deep trauma, are often set on the same course, because although their parents may be physically present, they have their own unresolved issues to deal with and they’re not emotionally capable of being there for their children.


Restorative justice aims to dismantle stories of shame and disgrace. A man Julie worked with once recalled the moment he realised his family were poor: he was at a friend’s house and discovered that what he’d been told was steak at home was actually spam. He vowed never to let that happen again, and began stealing. Another recalled an occasion when he and a friend were arrested, and called their parents; while his friend’s concerned mum came straight to collect him, his own refused to come and slammed the phone down. He decided at that moment that if nobody cared about him, he wouldn’t care about anyone else.


Julie concluded her talk by describing her experience working with an individual on death row. The person involved agreed to meet a relative of his victim, and Julie spent a lot of time building trust with him and helping him get comfortable with the idea. He had written letters previously, but the District Attorney had redacted any reference to remorse, and he was concerned that his victims’ families would never know he was sorry, so he agreed to the meeting because he felt he owed it to them. At the restorative conference, he gave the lady an honest and unvarnished account of what had happened, and just as it was important to him for her to know he was sorry, she really wanted him to know she had forgiven him and that she cared for his welfare. It was a very healing experience for them both, and for Julie it was a huge privilege to see their interaction.


In the afternoon, we heard from Sephton Henry, who gave an incredibly powerful insight into his life as a former gang member - though he explained that in reality, the experiences he went through were impossible to put into words.


Sephton grew up in Woolwich, London, and spent fifteen years of his life in gangs. His mum neglected him and his dad abused him; he used to go to his friend’s house hoping she would give him something to eat. From the age of eight he was groomed to sell drugs by older boys, who gave him the approval and acceptance he never received at home, and made him feel wanted and needed for the first time. He witnessed horrific violence to the point where he became desensitised to it, and has himself been stabbed, shot at, bricked and bottled. To him these attacks didn’t really matter because he wanted to die anyway, and felt totally empty inside.


From the beginning, all Sephton knew was how to fight: to survive, to eat, to find a place to sleep, even to be loved and accepted. His was a life of self-medication - drugs and alcohol - and self-harm. He once took seventeen ecstasy tablets in one go, and recalled an incident where another man attacked him and he lay on the floor taking the punches and saying, “Hit me, hit me, hit me…” Sephton went to prison seven times; he was known as a PPO, a persistent and prolific offender, and because he’d been labelled a criminal and a thug by the justice system, he decided that was what he would be.


Sephton explained that most gangs arise out of rebellion against some form of injustice or oppression. Gangs are not a new thing; nor is the concept of knife violence. Young people today carry knives for protection, just as countless others have done for centuries before them. The youth of this generation want to move forward, but they have to fight - to resist the normalisation of injustice within society - to get there. Most young black men feel like second rate citizens, constantly held down by economic suppression and the prejudice of the media. When a black man hurts another black man, it’s called black on black crime, but the same never applies when those involved are white. The only way to move forward is to empower the right people, so that those who are crying out for change can make it happen for themselves instead of relying on help from others.


The turnaround began for Sephton when he became a Christian. He also got involved with XLP, a mentoring programme for young people based in London. Sephton’s mentor showed him a new life and a new way of thinking, which bridged the gap between gang culture and the rest of society, and allowed him to find a way back. Now, he trains government staff across London: police officers, social workers, staff at the Department for Welfare and Pensions - anyone who comes into contact with young people. He’s also a gangs consultant with Gangsline, speaks at schools across the UK, and has launched his own company, Unity: Together we are stronger, which organises community projects and reaches out to areas where most other people don’t want to go.


Sephton believes the key to communicating with young people is to bring in somebody they can relate to on a generational level, who speaks their language and can connect with their experience. Any hint of judgment will immediately place them at arm’s length, but if they feel they’re talking to someone who understands and cares about them, it’s much easier to build trust. He believes that the solution is not to punish and judge people, but to discipline and guide them - and it’s therefore no surprise that he’s a great advocate for the empowering and inspirational work that Julie (who he calls “an angel”) is doing within restorative justice in the USA.

Report by Liz Dyer; Photographs by Caz Dyer