Restorative Justice saved my life

Originally published in The Sunday Times

Steal By Day, Get Wasted By Night

That day, I was wandering around a square in north London full of smart houses, says Peter Woolf. After going all the way round, I picked one at random.

Walking casually up to the black door, I pushed the top and bottom to check how many locks it had. It wobbled a bit – just the one lock, then. Leaning against it, I pushed quickly and hard, and I was in.

At the top of the stairs, I found a bedroom full of bits and pieces that I knew I could sell quickly. Normally this kind of job would take five minutes; but this time I was probably in there for over half an hour. For some reason I sat down on the bed and started picking things up, examining them.

All of a sudden I heard a voice. “Who are you? What are you doing in my house?” It was a big guy, athletic-looking. I made up a lie, something absurd about being a neighbour.

“Get out of my way,” I said. “I’m going.” As I moved past, he grabbed me and there was some pushing and shoving. He was shouting, I was shouting. We forced each other out into the hall and were swinging away at each other – like a proper John Wayne fight. Then I raced downstairs into the kitchen and pretended to grab something from the counter. “Keep away, I’ve got a knife!”

He still came at me, so I picked up a big metal griddle and hit him over the head with it. There was a horrible crack. Then I picked up a big flowerpot and cracked that over his head as well.

I nearly made it out the door, but he grabbed me. Outside, we were still punching and hitting, and he was shouting for help. I managed to pull away but then two fellas walking past got hold of me and pulled me down, kicking and roughing me up till the police arrived.

I could have escaped, but that would have meant doing something drastic like grabbing a knife in the kitchen. When I was younger, I would have. I’ve hit people with iron bars before, shot people with crossbows, done all sorts.

But I wasn’t prepared to do that any more. I was 45, I felt old. Already, I’d been in hospital a couple of times that year – once with suspected TB, once with pneumonia – and I’d contracted hepatitis C from a dirty needle. I’d woken up too many times in dustbin shelters, covered in frozen urine. I had nothing in my life but an empty space that I was filling with drugs and drink. So I’d steal by day, get wasted by night.

After the burglary, I was sent to Pentonville, where I decided – not for the first time – to stop being an alcoholic and drug addict. Beyond that, I had no ambition, no ideas. Until, one day, I had a visit from a policeman called Kim Smith.

He told me he worked on a programme for victims of crime, giving them the chance to meet the person who’d committed the offence against them and explain what effect the crime had had on their lives. And he wanted me to take part.

I thought: “Yeah, maybe it would be nice to say sorry.” For years I hadn’t cared at all about the people I’d wronged, but I’d recently started to feel remorse after withdrawing cash with some woman’s bank card. I don’t know why. Something inside me was changing. But I didn’t act on it.

There was another reason I agreed to go along with Kim’s idea: to break the monotonous routine. I’ve been in prison for 18 years, off and on, and it’s incredibly boring.

My life of crime, drinking and violence started early. When I was four, I thought I was going to be beaten to death after calling my mum a slag. She picked up a poker and began hitting me – luckily, my sisters Alice and Carol pulled her off me. Years later, while sitting in the back of a police car, I was told that the woman who’d hit me wasn’t actually my mother at all. She was my grandmother. Alice was my mother and Carol was my aunt.

When I was seven, I nicked some money off the mantelpiece. My grandad punched me in the mouth. “When I was your age,” he said, “if I wanted something, I’d go and kick in the shop window and take it.” So, from then on, that’s what I did.

I was happy being a thief. Prison was just a place you had to go to sometimes: I’d go in, do my time, then pick up where I’d left off. I’ve been to every prison in London except Belmarsh, and as far afield as Norwich, the Isle of Wight and Cardiff. After a while I had fewer and fewer mates inside. I just wanted to sit in my cell and smoke drugs, which started to isolate me.

In Pentonville, in 2002, I was ready for change. And that’s when I got the visit from Kim Smith. I couldn’t see any reason not to meet the people I’d stolen from and attacked. Maybe I’d learn something. Then, as the weeks went by, I began to worry. Kim said I should try to get my family’s support because the others would be bringing their families. But my family laughed at me when I phoned them to ask.

It was a Tuesday, about two o’clock, when the screw came to collect me. As we walked down a long corridor, I felt sick and suddenly knew I didn’t want to go through with it.

The screw pointed to the door of the prison library. There were a lot of people in there – all laughing and talking. When Kim led me in, the room fell silent. I remember he pressed his hand down on my shoulder, which relaxed me, encouraged me to lift my head. Sitting opposite was Will, the man I’d fought, and a woman I guessed must be his wife. And beside them was a doctor I’d nicked a laptop from on the same day I’d broken into Will’s home.

Kim introduced everyone and laid out how the session would proceed. I felt lulled into a sense of security. I could do this. It was my turn to speak first. I explained what had driven me to break into their homes. At one point, I started to address Will. I gestured at him and said something like, “When we met . . .”

“Met? Met?” Will exploded and nearly stood up in his chair. He was red with fury, and let me know what he’d felt – not just the physical pain but also the anguish and anger he’d experienced afterwards. He felt he’d failed to protect his wife and their home, and that was why he’d wanted to see who’d done this to him.

Then the doctor spoke. He could barely lift his head. He said that at the time I’d stolen his laptop he’d just broken up with someone and was trying to prove to himself that he could cope on his own. Now he dreaded going home because it felt unsafe. The laptop I’d stolen, which I sold for no more than £20, represented his life’s work because it contained all his research and his notes on patients. I’d taken something that meant a lot to him and treated it as worthless.

He’d found it very hard to come in and confront me, he said – and then he leant forward in his chair and cried.

What had I done? I’d lived my whole life adrift from people, in my own little bubble, and suddenly the anger and pain of these two men forced its way into me. I’d done this to them – me. It hurt.

Kim turned to me and asked me to respond. Everyone stared. My throat closed. I couldn’t speak. I felt very hot, then very cold. Tears rushed into my eyes. Somehow, I managed to say I was sorry, that I wasn’t going to do it again, that I was no longer taking drugs or drinking. Then I stopped. I sat there and – me, the tough guy – I shook.

At the end of the session, both Will and the doctor asked me to write to them every six months. They wanted me to tell them how I was putting my life in order. I felt humiliated, humbled. These men I’d harmed were reaching out to me. They seemed to care about me, and they had no reason to do so. And because of that, it counted. I badly wanted Will and the doctor to be proud of me.

Afterwards, I tried telling everyone in prison about my experience. Nobody cared. Being a good guy really doesn’t sit too well with other prisoners. The screws thought I was up to something, or had finally gone crazy. My entire social network was against me.

But I was determined. So I kept in touch with Will and the doctor. Will wrote back; he wanted to know how I felt now that I’d made these momentous changes in my life – conquering my addictions and making plans for my future for the first time. I could have cried when I read his letter. Nobody had ever asked me how I felt, or wanted to hear a truthful answer.

Once the officials realised I was no longer a threat, I was transferred to an open prison. I applied to do a course in counselling, outside the prison, and met a woman on the course called Louise. She told me later that she thought it was brave to introduce myself straight off as a serving prisoner. We got married two years after I came out of prison. All that time, I’d kept in touch with Kim Smith – we talked on the phone and he even started asking me for advice. At the wedding, he was my best man.

When he retired a couple of years ago, I took Louise to his retirement dinner in the Tower of London. We sat at a table with Will and his wife, eating and talking normally. I still find that amazing: from burgling someone’s house and hitting him on the head to sitting at a lovely dinner in the Tower of London with him and his wife – and my own wife, too.

I’m now starting work with the Metropolitan police. I do a lot of work with restorative justice programmes, helping to turn prolific and priority offenders away from crime. Amazingly, Will often does the work with me.

We both firmly believe that it should be a regular tool of the justice system and we’re happy to give up our time. We’re in touch a lot and we meet quite often for a bit of lunch.

I chose the right guy’s house that day.

He Turned My Home Into A Scary Place

I do a lot of my work as a venture capitalist from my house in Islington, says William Riley, north London, where I live with my wife and my daughter. I was there at about 5.15 in the afternoon when Peter Woolf broke in. In fact I was just getting my gym stuff together when I saw a guy standing in the corridor on the top floor and thought: “Oh, Christ.”

When I challenged him, he told me he’d heard a noise and come to investigate. He said he was a neighbour. I asked where he lived, and he said: “Number 2.” So I asked where that was – and he pointed the wrong way.

I threw him onto the floor. But I’d only intervened in the first place because I wanted to prevent the house from being messed up, and now I was messing it up myself, sending things flying – so I pulled back.

He ran into the kitchenette and said he had a knife. I pulled down his jacket to immobilise his arms – I’d seen somebody do that on Starsky and Hutch. He grabbed a griddle and hit me on the head with it. I was so pumped up, I hardly noticed. I could see from his eyes that he was heavily drugged. He wasn’t fighting, not really.

I bundled him down a flight of stairs, but then I realised he might fall out of one of the windows, so I released him. He ran down the rest of the stairs and I followed him. On one landing he hit me on the head with a pot, but again I hardly felt it.

As we got outside, I called for help, and two guys passing by laid into him. It was only when the police arrived and said they were calling an ambulance that I realised I had blood running down my head.

Afterwards, every time I got home I felt there was going to be somebody behind the front door. It was upsetting. I didn’t realise it but this was classic depression. Your home is the one place where you should really feel safe.

But I was also curious to find out what had happened to the burglar. When I was called by Kim Smith, a facilitator with the Metropolitan police who was bringing victims to meet offenders, I agreed to come along – as long as it wouldn’t affect the man’s prison sentence.

Pentonville was awful – endless doors and gates and keys. In the prison library we sat round a table and had a laugh because Kim had put out a box of hankies as well as a packet of biscuits. It turned out he knew what he was doing.

The criminal walked in, looking sheepish. However, he soon started talking social-work bollocks, parrot fashion. I was thinking: “This is getting nowhere.” Then he looked at me and said: “When we met . . .” And I lost it.

I said: “We didn’t meet at some cocktail party. You broke into my house and hit me on the head.” And it all came out, everything I was feeling – about how terrible it was not to be able to protect my family. Stuff I hadn’t even told my wife. I hadn’t really known how I felt until it just came out, like water from a fire hydrant.

Afterwards, I was exhausted – but when I got home I knew there wouldn’t be anyone behind my front door.

Then it was the turn of another victim. He was a doctor, and after Peter stole his laptop his world had crumbled. This is what crime can do to you. That’s why people who’ve experienced it talk about BC and AC – before crime and after crime.

Hearing this hit Peter like a bombshell. We could see that. He was gutted. You don’t leave somebody who’s in that kind of state, not unless you’re a shit, so we spent about 10 minutes talking about how to help him. We said we wanted him to write to us every six months and tell us what he was doing. And I told him that if he went back to his old life, he’d be shitting on our goodwill.

People think restorative justice sounds easy, but it’s not. It’s very hard to confront somebody. But I believe you should meet and talk to criminals because that reempowers you. And you realise that the crime wasn’t personal.

On top of everything else, it’s good value. The cost of our meeting with Peter was about £800 – in admin and the wages of the people who put it together. Whereas if he’d carried on his life of crime, Home Office figures suggest it could have cost the taxpayer more than £1.5m over the following five years.

I was so impressed that I got involved in a number of events, talking at seminars and conferences and think tanks. I often do them with Peter – he’s a great guy.

People tell us we’re being soft on crime. So we’ve turned our approach on its head: we’re saying that this isn’t a soft option for criminals – it’s good for victims.

In court, you have a judge at the centre, and the clerks and barristers and solicitors, and the offender. And right up in the gallery is the victim – the person most affected by the crime. In restorative justice, you have the victims in the centre of the room, with their loved ones, talking to the offender and his loved ones. And the victims are saying: “Why did you do it?”

This month I’m helping to launch a charity called Why Me? to represent victims and help them to meet offenders through restorative justice. The charity was my idea and I’m the chairman. Two-thirds of our members are victims; the others are experts.

I believe everybody’s born good and everybody can change. I don’t want to sound like a bleeding-heart liberal, but what are we here for, if not for one another?