Matthew James (England)

“I’d gone from being a victim of crime to being able to see things more from Billy’s point of view.”

Photography Brian Mooody

Matthew James and his partner, Katy, were burgled twice within a three-month period by the same offender. The couple began to feel ‘under siege’ and unsafe in their own home. When the young man was arrested they were approached to meet him in a restorative justice conference at Pentonville Prison.

In May 2002 my girlfriend and I lived in a ground-floor flat in Walthamstow. We’d been there about a year-and-a-half. It was a cosy flat and everything went well at first. Then I got a call at work one morning from my neighbour; someone had broken into the property and it looked as though things were missing.

They had taken a large TV and a few other bits and pieces, although nothing of sentimental value. The police gave us a crime reference number, and nothing much more happened. The finger prints didn’t match with anyone they knew.

Not long after, our neighbour upstairs heard someone scuffling around in the back garden. She shouted at him and he ran off. But one evening, when we were out, he got back in through the front window. This time he left some cigarette ash in one of our drawers. That wound me up the most.

I was quite depressed about it at that point, because I felt I couldn’t protect my property and didn’t know who this person was. When I came home, I always felt anxious about what I’d come back to.  Several neighbours had also been subject to attempted break-ins.

About a month later, we got a call from the local police station, saying they’d arrested someone. A van had been ditched at the side of the A11 and they’d found fingerprints that matched those in our flat. After that I got a call from Kim Smith, a police officer who worked with the RJ programme. He asked me and Katy if we wanted to take part in a restorative justice conference.

After the burglar was caught, there was a lot of relief. I hadn’t realised how much until that phone call. We had felt very helpless before – after all breaking into someone’s house in broad daylight is hardly a sneaky crime.

The Restorative Justice conference was in Pentonville Prison which is a very foreboding Victorian institution. Going through locked entry-doors, there was a real sense of entering a labyrinth.

We came through a public door and were in an open room, a couple of floors up. Billy, the offender, came in afterwards, looking quite sheepish. I thought I might experience a ‘eureka’ moment when I saw him, but it didn’t happen. It was just, ‘Oh, this is him.’ He was just a person. He was avoiding eye contact. He had a couple of women with him, his sister and his girlfriend, and the prison officers.

We started explaining what had happened and how we’d felt before, during and after the event. There were nods of recollection from Billy. As in, ‘Yeah that happened’. He’d done quite a lot of properties locally and seemed to be working out where our story fitted in.

Billy wasn’t arrogant, but he had a bit of defensive cockiness about him. He was quite matter-of-fact about what he’d done and seemed at home in this environment. He was stealing things to feed a drug habit that he’d picked up during his last prison sentence – a cycle of crime which makes you think about things. He was quite young and I got a sense of his vulnerability.

The people around him were getting quite emotional – particularly his sister as she heard about the impact of Billy’s actions on our lives; the fact that we now wanted to move and felt scared going out. Mid-way through the conference Katy started to describe in greater detail her feelings and emotions. She was sobbing, I was holding her hand, and Kim Smith was wiping away a tear. At that point I think the penny dropped for Billy because it became personalised.

Billy’s demeanour changed. He was no longer in his comfort zone, talking about himself and his problems. When the focus switched to us, I sensed less cockiness; he was shaking his head quite a lot. I think it just flipped things in his mind, that there could be someone else who was affected by what he was doing. I sensed that he felt he was letting everybody down.

Kim asked us what Billy could do to address these wrongs. We suggested actions relating to drug habits and keeping in touch with us about his progress.

On leaving the prison I realised that things had changed for me; I’d gone from being a victim of crime to being able to see things more from Billy’s point of view. Some sense of balance had been restored. As for Billy – he’d had a cup of tea with some ordinary people and was then led off by two prison officers back into his dark cell, while we stepped out into the sunshine and went for a coffee. That gave me a great lift, but I felt for him.

People clamour to lock offenders up and throw away the keys, they demand vengeance and retribution. I can understand that, but I think it can create a vicious circle of crime, and of course you just pick up bad habits and mates in prison. Restorative Justice can help nip that in the bud at a young age.

I haven’t seen Billy since but I would be genuinely interested to know what’s happened to him. He was in his late teens, early twenties – a very young man. I hope things work out for him.