Photography by Katalin Karolyi
John Carter got involved in crime at the age of 12. After eight years in prison he finally got to meet one of his victims at a restorative justice conference. He is currently working as a gardener and lives in Shropshire with his partner.
My life of crime started at an early age. By the time I was 14 I had various juvenile convictions which carried on throughout my teenage years and even when I left school and took up an apprenticeship in engineering. But it was joining a Hell’s Angel motorcycle gang that led me into more serious crime. For once I felt an overwhelming sense of belonging. It seemed to me that this way – the violence, theft and robbery – was the path to follow.
By the age of 22 I had received an 8 year prison sentence for armed robbery with a date for release in five years’ time. I was adamant I wasn’t going to stay in prison that long so I escaped twice during that time which added several years to my sentence and meant that I ended up in solitary confinement at Dartmoor prison. It was here that I became even more violent. I disrespected everyone around me, especially the prison authorities, and reached the lowest point in my life. It was during this period that I was assessed for psychiatric evaluation and eventually found myself at the therapeutic prison, Grendon Underwood. On arrival the reception officer informed me his name was Derek and he would be my personal officer. I almost collapsed because no prison officer had ever spoken to me like that before. It showed me I could perhaps trust someone in authority.
At Grendon the whole unit was run on the guidelines of group therapy. Meetings were held to debate and understand criminal behaviour and a lot of soul searching went on. I did exceedingly well in therapy working on myself and ultimately helping others until eventually I was given the opportunity to have part of my sentence reduced. Instead of being happy about this, I suddenly found myself feeling anxious and realised I feared being released. I questioned whether the work I’d done on myself would be enough to encourage me not to reoffend? Then a probation officer told me about restorative justice – a process that could help me understand empathy and compassion. Restorative justice was almost completely unheard of back in 1988 and had certainly never been undertaken in any British prison but I felt the only course of action would be to go through this process.
My probation officer then asked me: ‘Which one of your victims do you believe will have suffered the most from your actions?’ I had to think hard as there were so many victims. I then remembered a pub brawl incident which I’d started and where I’d injured various people including a girl of 18. My actions on that evening resulted in her being scarred for life. My victim was tracked down and six years after the event, she agreed to meet me, along with her parents.
When I walked into the visiting room I noticed the young woman had a prominent six inch scar on the side of her face. I had no idea who she was but I felt this deep bond between us because we’d shared something; something which for her was of course entirely negative. We both sat there and looked at each other across the table. I could see she was full of rage. It was highly traumatic. Her father was clenching his fists, her mother looked distraught. I was the first to speak, and for the first time I found I was able express exactly how I’d felt at the moment of the offence. It was the first time I felt in person the reality of the hurt that I’d caused, not only to her but to her family too.
She then took me through what had happened to her that night, about how she’d gone out with friends from college, how she’d had a couple of drinks and then she noticed me and just knew something terrible was going to happen. She also spoke about how that event had affected her ever since. Towards the end of the meeting we all broke down and cried. Finally I told her how remorseful I felt and then, after a brief pause, she said ‘I forgive you’. I hadn’t asked for this and certainly didn’t expect it but those words had a profound effect on me.
As for my victim the meeting with me allowed her to put a face to her fear and hopefully reassured her that it would never happen again.
This meeting completely restructured my whole life. I was released from prison in 1990 and set about building a life, a family and a future. And yes, there have been difficult times but despite these I have never returned to a life of crime. The adrenaline rush and excitement I craved as a young man is now satisfied by mountain biking and kayaking, and I can now forge meaningful and positive relationships with people who know nothing about my past. I feel the whole restorative justice process and meeting my victim changed me forever. I now feel eternally grateful to my victim and hope that she has found the happiness in her life that I eventually found in mine.