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Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) Ireland: Impact report

Introduction by Nonviolent News to the report

AVP has been running workshops in prisons in Ireland since 1994 and it also organises some workshops in the community, including school. It has been clear by hearing from prisoners themselves, e.g. during a session at Wheatfield prison ('Place of Detention') at the AVP international conference in Ireland in 2014, that it has had a positive impact for them in gaining self esteem and overcoming violence. But even where there is this direct testimony it still counts as 'anecdotal' evidence, it is not an overall and analysed picture.

So an impact report on AVP Ireland's work is very welcome both in getting a clearer picture and analysing the available material (questionnaires) and result of interviews. It is clear from this that AVP is important in allowing people to grow and mature, in relating to other people, and offers a chance to get lives on track, an opportunity that may never have existed before. Just as hospitals are nowhere to be if you are sick (in the sense that apart from medical care you will recover better at home), prisons are not the place to be if you are deemed to have so offended against the laws of the land that you should be locked up because it may not help you at all when you come out and back to the same situation outside.

Key points about AVP are its volunteerism and collectivism. While there are facilitators they are sharing and learning, not lecturing. Prisoners can become facilitators just as much as any outsider, and their example and courage may be far more instrumental in helping other prisoners than an outsider. As noted in the report, it is also clear that attending AVP workshops is not enough; people have to want to change, see the point in changing. But that can come about in the workshop as people see possibilities for doing things differently opening up, or even at the extreme, learning at the end of a workshop about the opportunity they missed because they were messing (and engage differently the next time).

As well as its effect on individuals, it is clear that the 'transforming power' of AVP at individual level can also do something at a collective level. As recorded in the report, in response to a worrying level of assaults using weapons, a group of prisoners in Wheatfield (Clondalkin, Dublin) who were AVP facilitators organised a weapons amnesty with anonymous collection points. This was very successful and has been repeated and the number of assaults using weapons dropped significantly. AVP facilitators in Wheatfield were instrumental in bringing in a 'Red Cross' peer-led healthcare project which started in Wheatfield and has since spread to all 14 prisons in the Republic. AVP has also had the effect of building community across different categories and types of prisoners.

There are further questions which remain be answered and cannot be dealt with in a relatively short study and report like this. One which the report mentions is the effect of AVP's work on recidivism (reoffending), and perhaps further study will answer this question. But another would be why AVP is able to work more in some prisons than others, and there are presumably a number of answers including the availability of facilitators, the relative support from the prison authorities and chaplains, and whether there can be the gradual building up of work in some places through a mixture of hard work by AVP and its facilitators (inside and out), and simple 'luck'. In Wheatfield, AVP has actually benefitted from the number of lifers as facilitators, providing stability to the programme. Sometimes the building blocks don't stack up; this has happened in Northern Ireland where there have been several attempts to get AVP going.

AVP is for anyone, not just prisoners, though in the nature of things prisoners may be more likely to have problems with anger management or violence; the report shows the massive difference between the number of assaults in prison and in the general population. As well as the three stage model of workshops (the equivalent of 3 weekends) the existence of a Male Awareness Workshop is important because the link between masculinity and violence is a great big elephant in the room

AVP is about violence at a personal level. It is experiential and relatively non-ideological. It works. AVP always welcomes new involvement. Currently it only exists in the Republic and not Northern Ireland – hopefully that will change sometime – but also in a variety of other countries, see .

- The Irish AVP site is at and the international site is at Other country sites and material are easily available if you do a word search online.

- Photos from the AVP international conference at Maynooth in 2014, and some from AVP work in Bolivia and India, are available at

- What follows is the text of the summary of the Impact Report with, at the end, a few quotes from the main one which is available at

AVP Impact report 2017 Summary

The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) offers unique training, both in the way it is organised and delivered, and by way of programme content. During a workshop up to twenty participants and facilitators sit in a circle conversing, engaging in collaborative activities, participating in role-plays, and trying to find within themselves the skills and power to resolve potentially violent situations non-violently, and to live a more peaceful life.  There is no hierarchy within the AVP organisation, therefore, during workshops there are no teachers present in the room, every voice is considered equal and listened to. All participants and facilitators are volunteers and, for the duration of the workshops, the prison is left on the other side of the door.

AVP started in New York in the mid-1970s and was brought to Ireland in the mid-1990s.  Since then, the programme has been active within the Irish prison system and, up to now, there has been no formal academic evaluation of its impact or outcomes in Ireland. We hope this Report addresses this deficit.

AVP workshop facilitators have a strong conviction that the programme has a positive impact on participants. Facilitators are witnesses to the impact that AVP has on their own lives. The training they receive can lead to changes in their own behaviour and can empower them to lead a more peaceful life. Furthermore, weekend after weekend facilitators witness the differences in participants' attitudes and mindset from the start of workshops on Fridays to the end of workshops on Sunday evenings.

This Impact Report aims to demonstrate how AVP helps participants to find non-violent ways to deal with conflict and empowers them to make constructive, positive and lasting change in their lives.

Our thanks to all the AVP volunteers and participants over the years. A special word of thanks to those who helped compose and fund this report and in particular the St Stephens Green Trust. It is hoped and expected that the Impact Report will empower and enthuse a new generation of volunteers and participants.
- The Working Committee and Board of Directors of AVP

The research
This Report was commissioned by AVP Ireland to research the impact that AVP workshops have had in Irish prisons for the period 2014-2016. It was written by Pyers Walsh with the support of Dorothée Potter-Daniau, Simone Gerlings and Claire De Jong. The research for this Impact Report was collected in three ways.

1. The first, desk-based stage involved sourcing, reading and analysing international studies on AVP.  Research articles from the UK, New Zealand, South Africa and the US were consulted to determine the effectiveness of AVP in the context of conflict resolution.  During this literature review six key themes were identified in relation to AVP and why it is successful at enabling participants to resolve conflict without resorting to violence. These themes are:
- AVP builds self-esteem/worth
- AVP develops real trust within the group
- AVP develops more effective communication and enhances social skills such as listening, assertiveness and empathy
- The central importance of experiential nature of AVP workshops
- AVP improves problem-solving skills
- The importance of 'Transforming Power'. This is the power, available to us all, to transform what might be a violent or destructive situation into a non-violent one.  

2. The second stage of this research project involved collecting primary qualitative data via semi-structured interviews with AVP facilitators in the community and in Wheatfield Place of Detention.  

During the interviews the following major themes emerged and some of them were already identified in the literature review.

AVP is seen as a force for good in prisons. It helps to build commonality, community and trust which can provide an important support structure and can increase safety in prisons. Participants felt their communication and problem-solving skills had improved. The experiential nature of the workshops was seen as positive with the 'peer led' structure of AVP considered as central to this.

Participants reported having used violence in the past due to low levels of self-worth and that AVP has helped them to rebuild their self-esteem.

The core notion of Transforming Power was presented as important to help change the perception of oneself, getting rid of the 'hard man' stigma" (AVP Facilitator, 2016) and improving the dynamic with prison staff.

During the interviews it was apparent that the interviewees felt there should be more AVP workshops in Irish prisons. It was also suggested that IPS [Irish Prison Service] Officers participate in AVP workshops in order to gain a better understanding of violence, its causes, consequences and possible cures.

3. The third stage of data collection for this Report has been gathered by way of evaluation questionnaires distributed at the end of each AVP prison workshop.

The themes which emerged from the questionnaires concurred with those in the international literature and in the interview findings. These individual questionnaires emphasised the notion of personal growth. This contrasted well with the interview questions which were more focused on the wider topic of prison life.  Noteworthy too is how often workshop participants mentioned anger and how many identified and experienced, often for the first time, that they can learn to control it (anger).  The AVP team acknowledges that any process of change is complex and multi-faceted and that, for any change to occur, individuals must first change their mind-set. Awareness is often the first and most important step for participants in changing their mind-set and their ways.

4. Conclusion
The evidence uncovered in this Report demonstrates that when people engage with a programme such as AVP, violence can be better understood and transformed.  The research findings in this Report can be divided into micro and macro levels.  Firstly, AVP cultivates, encourages and supports the participants who attend the workshops on an individual micro level.  This is facilitated by improving communication skills, developing self-esteem and fostering new and create ways of solving problems.  Secondly, AVP attempts to tackle the issue of violence on a wider community-based macro scale.  AVP endeavours to build a sense of community and to increase the notions of safety, trust and empathy within the prison population and the wider prison community, including among prison-based staff who benefit if the prison community is stronger and more cohesive.

A number of areas identified within this Report require further research and analysis.  The relationship between recidivism and attendance at AVP workshops is certainly worthy of more scrutiny and could not be adequately tackled given the nature and scope of this Report. The statistics on the relationship between AVP and violent incidents is an area that also requires more data and further analysis.  It was noted by a prison-based facilitator that levels of indiscipline and violence after participants attend AVP workshops were lower, but the evidence was anecdotal and certainly worthy of further and rigorous investigation.

In 2012 the European Union passed Directive 2012/29/EU which established minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime.  It would, therefore, be beneficial if current offenders were given the opportunity to develop the necessary skills to engage in victim-offender reconciliation and further restorative justice practices. It is hoped that AVP would be placed at the heart of such prison and community-based practices.
Quotes from facilitators interviewed in 2016:
"AVP changed the whole ethos of the jail."
"AVP engenders empowerment – doing something for yourself and the prison community."
"(AVP) taught me about what's available in prison. AVP was the first introduction to community (within prison)."
"AVP brought these three disparate groups together and gave a sense of community and helped to stop discrimination and introduced tolerance."
"I could live a life without using violence and still be a strong person and there were alternatives and ways I would never have thought of and ways I never would have seen."
"(AVP) helped me build confidence in myself. More confidence meant I could turn around and walk away (from violent situations). Before AVP I wouldn't think like that."

- The full report is available at

Copyright INNATE 2016