After 20 years of service with the Department of Corrections, Tauranga man Nick Powell felt an overwhelming need to do more to help the prisoners he worked with. Alarmed by the rates of offenders being released only to reoffend and return to prison time and time again, Nick wanted to be a catalyst for change and break the offending cycle within the prison system and in the community.

Wanting to effect change at a higher level within the justice system, Nick decided to pursue postgraduate study. With no prior educational background, he initially undertook a Postgraduate Diploma in Business Studies and a Diploma of Adult Teaching and Education at the University of Waikato and recently completed a Master of Education (MEd), specialising in Restorative Practice.

While working on his dissertation, Nick discovered that change occurred in around 90 per cent of cases when an offender took ownership of their offending and participated in restorative justice conferencing with the victim.

“Offenders who may never have fully known or considered the long-term financial, emotional and physical effects of their actions were confronted by the real voices and stories of their victims. My years with Corrections helped me to understand the prison culture and my years at university gave me greater insight into how to influence a positive change within it.”

Nick had previously experienced the positive outcomes of restorative justice first-hand while working at Auckland Prison (Paremoremo), where the minimum-security unit provided opportunities for low-risk prisoners to work in industrial and farming jobs. “It was a great initiative, but if a prisoner got into trouble, they lost their job and we lost good workers. Ultimately, I realised the ‘one-strike, you’re out’ policy was counterproductive to the programme, so I devised a system based on restorative justice practices, without even realising what it was at the time,” says Nick.

This ‘system’ involved prisoners and their employers being invited into a ‘restorative circle’, which consisted of an open forum for discussion about what had gone wrong, why, and what could be done to fix it. In most cases, a compromise could be reached where prisoners took ownership for their wrongdoing and kept their jobs. Nick says this collaborative approach served to build rapport and respect amongst prisoners and their employers, where each felt acknowledged and trust could be rebuilt.

“It illustrated the benefits of taking a proactive approach rather than a reactive one. It was a win-win for all parties.”

Nick wants restorative practice used in conjunction with the current internal misconduct system operating within prisons for minor offenders. He believes that restorative justice principles should also be utilised in either post-sentencing or pre-release conditions for eligible offenders.

Originally from Hawke’s Bay, Nick has worked in prisons across New Zealand and has experienced his share of highs and lows. Now armed with his master’s qualification and a renewed vision, he feels better equipped to influence change and reverse the rates of recidivism.

“It was the success stories of prisoners who got out and stayed out of prison that kept me going and gave me the resolve to enrol at university. I’ve seen the positive impacts that restorative justice can have on both offenders and victims and that gave me hope. Hope is what drives me.”

The 57-year-old says that returning to study was something he never thought he’d do, but he’s been bitten by the study bug and is now learning te reo Māori at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. He believes it will help to break down barriers of communication and allow him to connect with more members of the community he serves.

“Age isn’t a barrier,” he says. “I graduated as a mature student so I got my second chance. Now it’s time to take what I’ve learnt to ensure others get their second chances too.”

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