After I was arrested and sectioned, restorative justice offered me a lifeline


Show caption Prisoners at High Down prison in Sutton, Surrey taking part in a restorative justice project, 2015. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer Opinion After I was arrested and sectioned, restorative justice offered me a lifeline Bryony Friars While experiencing psychosis, I tried to hurt people. But the compassion of my victims helped me to move on with my life Wed 1 Sep 2021 10.00 BST Share on Facebook

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It started with the tapeworm. The tapeworm was lodged in my brain, and it was slowly killing me. Not only was there a parasite in my skull, but it had been nefariously placed there to murder me. A man had intercepted my takeaway order and put tapeworm eggs in my food. I knew it was him because he had given me an evil glare when I passed him in the street earlier in the year.

I visited doctor after doctor, but none of them would give me the brain scan that would reveal the worm and allow me to get help. They said I had no neurological symptoms. I confronted the takeaway owner to tell her of this wicked plot that was taking place. I grew more and more desperate. One day, I snapped.

I tried to hurt the takeaway owner. I tried to hurt the police too, to protect myself.

I was arrested. Shortly afterwards, I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and placed in a low-secure hospital unit. Here I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Gradually the previous days, months and years began to make sense.

The tapeworm incident marked the nadir of my descent into a brutal and destructive psychosis, following months of trying and failing to find adequate care. I had sincerely tried to get help – sadly, it took incarceration for my mental health problems to be recognised by the health system.

Psychiatrists call it being “floridly psychotic”; I call it hell. At the unit, I started treatment. My delusions slowly lifted, including that of the tapeworm.

As I recovered, all I could think about were my victims. I imagined how angry, afraid and confused they must have been to be at the receiving end of threats from a total stranger. I was disgusted with myself, full of deep remorse, and thought of them constantly. I knew I had no offending history and was psychotic at the time of my actions – but did they? How did they feel? Did they know the context of my crime? Were they OK?

I was not allowed to contact them directly, so my psychologist recommended a process called restorative justice – which connects those harmed by crime and those responsible, enabling everyone affected by a particular offence to play a role in amending the harm and finding a constructive way forward.

Trained facilitators support and prepare participants, ensuring the process is safe. This can be through meetings between victim and offender, an exchange of letters, verbal messages or phone calls. Victims can ask questions and explain the impact of the offence on their lives, which can help with healing. Offenders can assuage harmful feelings of shame by taking responsibility and making amends.

In my case, restorative justice was provided by the national charity Remedi. Two of its representatives met me in hospital to explain the process. They reassured me that I could withdraw at any point, as could my victims, without consequences. They asked me what I wished to say to my victims, and relayed my apology to them.

I was expecting anger, bitterness and venom. What I received floored me. Jane, the owner of the takeaway, did not feel it was necessary to meet me in person. She accepted my apology and sent a message that she understood I was ill when the incident happened and held no grudge against me. She said she was glad I was receiving treatment and support, and that she wanted me to move on from the offence.

The police did want to meet with me in person. A representative from the local force came to the hospital, allowing me to explain my offences and to apologise to him. The representative told me how my behaviour had impacted the officers I had verbally abused. He urged me to continue to engage with mental health services following my discharge from the hospital, to ensure this situation would not arise again.

I was immensely grateful to have had the chance to apologise to my victims and to explain why these crimes occurred. The interaction with them helped me feel less guilt and shame, and I felt deeply humbled by the compassion they had shown me. Their encouragement to move on with my life made me even more determined to stay well and lead a productive life.

My psychologist says her clinical experience shows that restorative justice is a very supportive way of helping people acknowledge and take responsibility for the harm they have caused: “This allows them to develop compassion for themselves (and ‘permission’ to live a good life) by experiencing the compassion of their victims.”

Restorative justice isn’t a panacea to those in the criminal justice system. It can’t undo what has already been done. However, it can offer a sense of closure to both offender and victim that the courts can’t provide.

Home Office and Ministry of Justice research has already shown that restorative justice leads to a 14% reduction in the rate of reoffending; and the University of Sheffield found that 78% of victims would recommend it to other people in their situation.

This summer a new parliamentary group for restorative justice held an inquiry on how the practice’s quality and availability can be improved. Its chair, Conservative MP Elliot Colburn, said, “I have been struck by how effective restorative justice can be,” and it will reveal its findings this month.

For me, the process has been a lifeline. A chance to redeem myself, if only partially, and forge a future from the ruins of my delusions. Whenever shame and guilt threaten to overwhelm me, I reach for the letter Jane wrote to me.

It started with the tapeworm. Thanks to restorative justice, it ended with the kindness of strangers.

Bryony Friars is a pseudonym. She is a student living in the north of England