An inmate is released after serving 5 years in a maximum-security prison. He has had little contact, other than by phone, with his family. Asked what questions he has he responds:
- What happens if I am stopped by the police and how should I respond?
- How do I get my driver’s license reinstated?
- How do you use the bus/subway?
- Does my cell phone really track where I am and what I say?
- What services am I entitled to in terms of temporary help for myself and my family?
- What jobs am I not allowed to hold due to my conviction?
- What should I tell others about my being in prison?
- If my family receives a call at home from an inmate or if an inmate’s family or friend want to talk, are they allowed to take the call and am I allowed to return the call?
These and similar questions were the result of a survey of inmates, from a variety of institutions, when asked what they wanted to know prior to release.
DIACEN is a project, funded by the European Union and the participating organization, to help prepare inmates for release using dialogue between inmates, staff and the general community.
Though not an official definition used in DIACEN, the following from Clark University may help explain what dialogue is:
For some, dialogue is a focused and intentional conversation, a space of civility and equality in which those who differ may listen and speak together. For others it is a way of being—mindful and creative relating. In dialogue, we seek to set aside fears, preconceptions, the need to win; we take time to hear other voices and possibilities. Dialogue can encompass tensions and paradoxes, and in so doing, new ideas—collective wisdom—may arise.
Five organizations, including ICPA, from five different EU Countries banded together to explore with inmates, staff and NGOs the use of dialogue, both structured and informal, to help inmates articulate their concerns and develop a level of comfort in expressing them. The project is also based on the philosophy that dialogue is a powerful method of delivering adult education. The program is essentially part of an overall pre-release effort that is designed to begin when the individual enters the institution – regardless of how long they will be incarcerated.
DIACEN realizes that even well-trained correctional staff may not know how or feel comfortable having “personal” conversations with inmates. Not all staff or community volunteers or social workers understand the complexity of open, constructive dialogue and how to participate or lead it. This is not casual conversations, but rather a process to help security and other staff serve as mentors. Staff has their own questions in terms of using dialogue to help inmates prepare for release:
- How to dialogue with the inmate?
- What methods to use to have meaningful dialogue instead of just communication?
- What if I just don’t like the inmate?
- How do you know when you are no longer in dialogue?
- What is there to talk about?
- How can we share different understandings and develop a common ground and tools for dialogue?
- Can the inmate dialogue his/her way back in to their family?
Through DIACEN, the prison staff develops a structure that helps define who is involved in helping the inmate prepare for release, what the staff’s role is in the process, and what the balance is between the responsibility of the staff and the role/responsibility of the inmate is in the process. On this last point, the overall philosophy is that nothing happens without the active involvement and direction of the inmate in the pre-release planning and implementation.
The project is in its infancy, though it is based on a program started and tested by the Convict Liberty Aid Project, at a prison in Romania. As the DIACEN work is finalized and the process, tool kits and procedures are developed, it will be shared with prison systems around the world via the ICPA website, a DIACEN website and through presentations and training at conferences and seminars.
Author: Gary Hill, Chairman, ICPA Staff Training and Development Network