Elizabeth Kwan, South Australia and Northern Territory Regional Meeting

The high mesh walls, and inside, the confusing security system scrutinising our irises, were intimidating. As were the red-buttoned duress alarms we had to wear, and the long walk, punctuated by further checkpoints until we reached the maximum security Sector 5 for men. To Sally Herzfeld, a West Australian Friend who had joined a prison workshop to train in the Alternatives to Violence Project and had facilitated workshops in many prisons since then, the experience was not unusual. For me it was, though I welcomed it, having heard Sally speak of her prison experiences when she had come to Darwin to help our small AVP group facilitate workshops in the refugee centre and the general community. Another Friend, Sabine Erika in the Blue Mountains, who had begun the first AVP workshops in Darwin in 2007 and many since then, had also spoken of her experiences in New South Wales women’s prisons. But my family were uneasy about me being involved, especially when they learned that AVP workshops did not have a prison security officer present as an observer.

Several months before the new prison was to open in 2014 at Holtze, 30 minutes outside Darwin, the Northern Territory’s Department of Correctional Services (DCS) had invited a variety of community organisations and industries to a forum to provide information about the new prison. The DCS aim was to build safer communities through reducing recidivism. To that end it sought “a successful community partnership”, connecting inmates with the wider community, as well as providing them with training and work opportunities. AVP Darwin’s work had at first been workshops for the general community, and later for Melaleuca Refugee Centre, rather than for Darwin’s old prison at Berrimah. But when cutbacks in government funding ended the refugee workshops, AVP Darwin began to consider workshops in the prison.

The Director of Offender Services, Programs and Indigenous Affairs in the DCS, who had been an AVP facilitator interstate, had suggested AVP Darwin be invited to the forum. Subsequently she referred me to the prison’s Manager of Offender Development. Before the interview I had sent her a short paper with a covering letter to explain the Alternatives to Violence Project and its workshops, and the research evidence for the effectiveness of these workshops in prisons. Kathryn Tomlinson’s research was especially useful and is available on line.[1]

The high mesh walls . . . Photo: Anna Kwan

At the interview was also the security officer in charge of Sector 5, who had recently come to the prison from corrective services in New South Wales. Several questions were discussed: about me, AVP and Quakers, the workshops, the high percentage of prisoners of Indigenous background (some 85 per cent). But it seemed that their main interest was because of AVP workshops’ small size, groups of up to 15, made them suitable for inmates in Sector 5. If held there, workshops would allow some dangerous prisoners to mix with inmates from other less secure sectors. However, workshops for Protected prisoners in Sector 5, convicted paedophiles, could not be mixed – they had to be protected from mainstream prisoners. These restrictions had meant that high security inmates were considered last rather than first in being offered programs. Both staff members were keen supporters of reform.

It seemed from the discussion, that an officer would be present in the workshop for security purposes, with a quiet joke about whether it should be one who opposed such workshops or not – the first hint of the dismissive attitude to AVP workshops held by some prison staff.  (Later, after I checked AVP practice, I pointed out that AVP workshops can include administrative but not security staff in prison workshops, and they should be participants, not observers.) In our first workshop we were to find that the two officers who had helped set it up were to join it as participants. They were Prisoner Support Officers in Sector 5, who had good relationships with the prisoners. Sally and I had hoped to involve a male AVP facilitator to provide some gender balance in our team, but none was available. At the time the prison was about to employ an Indigenous Cultural Officer. We thought perhaps he could join the workshop in that capacity, since most prisoners had an Indigenous background, but that didn’t happen.

Would we be perceived by workshop participants as two older ladies who knew nothing about violence? We remembered the words of Robert Martin, the tall Afro-American man with a rough past, who tried a workshop while in prison a second time. He had doubts anything would work for him, and seeing “a group of Quakers, men with their baggy shorts and pink knees” walk in, wondered why he had come. He was disruptive during the workshop and left determined not to return. But one of the Quakers, a short man, spoke to him, acknowledging the hard life Robert’s comments in the workshop had revealed. He returned to his cell with a handout about conflict resolution, decided to complete the workshop, and did two more levels. Once released from prison, Robert as a facilitator joined Steve Angell, US Quaker, an early founder of AVP and “one of the most dedicated carriers of the AVP message” around the world. [2]

But first Sally and I had to apply for access to Darwin prison, have police checks, and eyes and fingers measured. An induction explained what clothes and footwear were appropriate. Videos showed how easily prisoners could manipulate staff and visitors. Then we learned to negotiate the automated security system, an ongoing dance with staff as the system continually refused to ignore our hip replacements. Finally we were asked to document them, so whichever staff members were on duty could make alternative arrangements with the machines. One of the more thorough security officers also found that we had not been asked to lodge at the security desk a list of all items we brought into the prison for the workshops. A packet of jelly beans, used by participants as individuals and groups to estimate numbers in a level two exercise for making decisions by consensus, caused a particular problem for a senior security staff member, who eventually passed the packet.

Things you can’t do – like taking photos (and possibly jelly beans) inside the prison. Photo: Anna Kwan

The first AVP workshop in the prison at the end of June 2016 “was an historical occasion and enjoyable”, our report noted, “as the men were very appreciative and respectful and participated very well”. We also commented that “The role plays on facing temptations from family after release brought out valuable discussion. As did…conflicts that were solved peacefully, and other exercises which gave the opportunity of talking about how violence is normal but doesn’t need to be.” All the men wanted to continue with the Advanced Workshop. They gave feedback on the range of exercises, discussions and games during the 2½ days, and at the end, with both kinds of comments becoming part of the report, which then informed our planning of future workshops.

The evaluation sheets at the end of the workshop invited participants to comment on what they liked about the workshop. Prisoners enjoyed seeing everyone participate, getting to know and getting along with each other, learning new skills, being part of a team and seeing things from a different perspective. They found the workshop helpful in understanding where violence comes from, and how it offered a chance to find peaceful, rather than violent, ways of solving their problems. They had fun.

In terms of what they learned from the workshop, participants wrote of the importance of respecting others, thinking before acting, of “putting myself in another person’s shoes”, of being aware of the consequences which may follow actions. Some found they learned most from the deep sharing of stories by others in the workshop.

Participants found the facilitation team polite, kind, patient, easy to understand, caring and willing to share as members of the workshop, and to make it a joyful experience for all. Other comments were that the two facilitators were “very informative, experienced, [i]deal for delivering this program in this environment”.

Answers to the questions “Is there anything you would like to see changed” and “Are there any other comments you would like to make?” revealed a tension which had marked the sessions, between those who “had a lot of fun!!!” and others who wanted more quiet time with more serious activities. There were calls for more workshops at the prison and more days in each workshop to avoid rushing them (the result of always having to catch up after men were late in being released from their units in the morning and the afternoon). Almost all were willing to recommend an AVP workshop to a friend, one writing that he would “recommend it to everyone”. They gave permission for their comments to be used anonymously for publicity purposes.

The experience confirmed for me why and how these workshops can play such an important role in prisons, and why the impact for prisoners is so much greater if they complete all three levels, not just the introductory Basic. (See, for example, “Nick’s Story” in This we can do, or on AVPWA’s website home page.)[3] Maybe there are some advantages in older women facilitating these workshops in prison! “They reminded me of my grandma”, more than one wrote or said. Staff members no longer find it necessary to be in our workshops. The experience educated not only me, but also my family. I realised more fully, too, why these workshops have become such an important part of Sally Herzfeld’s life.

In August that year, 9 of the 11 Basic participants did the Advanced, and seven then continued with the Training for Facilitator. After an interview, five became apprentice facilitators and one an assistant, hopefully to begin work as part of our team in future workshops in the prison, or, on their release, in the community. By the end of June this year we will have given 12 or 13 workshops at Darwin prison and hope we can continue into next financial year.

There is a great hunger in the prison for these workshops. Fifteen men, for example, have registered for a Basic course being given in May this year, too many with the additional five (apprentices and facilitators) to fit into the Sector 5 room. After checking the participants for any contra-associations with others who may be using the Education Centre in Sector 2, prison staff approved our use of a larger room there for this workshop. We need more people in our community who are willing to do the three levels of workshops and become part of a team in gaining experience in facilitating workshops, whether in the prison, the community, youth groups, or schools.

You can find out more about these workshops by joining the one in July 2017 towards the end of Yearly Meeting in Adelaide. Continue training in a series of workshops in your state or territory, and become part of a facilitator team offering workshops to others in Australia and around the world. In the Asia-West Pacific region, AVP facilitators are currently working in Nepal, Indonesia and the Philippines, in communities, pre-schools, universities, refugee camps and settlements.

Registration forms for the July workshop, with details of where, when and how much, are available when you scroll down at http://avpq.org.au/get-involved/. Please complete the form and return with payment as soon as possible to the address given.


[1] A review of the literature concerning the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), July 2007, avpbritain alternatives to violence project,


[2] Sally Herzfeld and Alternatives to Violence Project members, This we can do: Quaker faith in action through the Alternatives to Violence Project, The James Backhouse Lecture 2015, The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia, 2015, pp. 6-7, 4, 9.

[3] Herzfeld S. et al., pp 47-49; http://avpwa.org/


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