Image: John Fielding (Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Image: John Fielding (Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Justice capital: From the darkness into the light

18th February 2020

By David Best and Sharynne Hamilton

Prisons are generally characterised as violent, feral, frightening and soul-destroying, a characterisation that would appear to be borne out by global statistics on self-harm and suicides, assaults (both on staff and fellow prisoners), depression, anxiety and loss of meaning and purpose.

Rightly, criminologists and other academics have played a role in this characterisation, highlighting human rights issues, the paucity of resources, and the need to do more than ‘warehouse’ large numbers of excluded and marginalised individuals.

But this is not the whole story. There are prisoners who achieve incredible things and prisons that create the conditions and the connections to support those achievements.

Many types of capital

Our latest publication outlines our work exploring recovery capital in the context of the Australian youth justice system. We have previously discussed our work developing the concept of justice capital as a measure of the neurodevelopmental resources that allow individuals to communicate and understand and to be engaged with fairly and equitably.

This is one side of the coin of justice capital – the other is those aspects of the environment or institution that create the conditions for those fair and equitable exchanges to happen. In closed institutions like prisons or detention centres, it is their capacity to prevent abuse, discrimination and isolation and their ability to nurture human flourishing that is the institutional marker of justice capital.

As in the concept of recovery capital, this is influenced by Robert Putnam’s (2000) work on social capital, and in particular three concepts:

  • Bonding capital – how does the institution promote positive and constructive relationships between peers?

  • Bridging capital – how does the institution nurture positive and trusting relationships across prisoners, their families, prison officers, others employees and stakeholders and prison managers?

  • Linking capital – how are prisoners enabled and supported to develop external relationships that will support their journeys to reintegration and rehabilitation including relationships with potential funders, housing providers, colleges and universities, mutual aid groups and community groups and activities?

At an institutional level, justice capital is the extent of belief in reintegration and rehabilitation for all and the embodiment of that belief in activities and relationships that actively promote positive change.


In our work on recovery capital, there are two underlying principles, that can be summarised in acronyms. From the mental health recovery field comes the term CHIME which stands for:

  • Connectedness

  • Hope

  • Identity

  • Meaning

  • Empowerment

Evidence is accumulating that for people to begin a recovery journey the process starts with positive connections that generate a sense of hope. And it is hope that inspires a virtuous circle of meaningful activities that create a sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy (empowerment) and a positive self-identity to replace the stigmatising exclusion of prison.

However, for CHIME to work, we also need GOYA. GOYA is a somewhat less sophisticated summary that stands for “Get Off Your Arse” – and in the prison context this means it is the prison officers and managers who must lead a process of assertively linking as many prisoners into meaningful activities and effectively support those pathways to reintegration and recovery.

This side of the coin of justice capital is unashamedly social and in this respect fits into a tradition of strengths-based models in crime studies that include restorative justice, therapeutic jurisprudence and positive criminology (not to mention the recovery capital approach this concept has developed out of).

Justice capital as a dynamic model of growth

Where the personal component of justice capital and the institutional component come together is in a fundamental belief in the possibility of sustainable positive change and the belief that the institution (prison or whatever other kind of closed setting) can act as a turning point in addiction, mental health and crime careers by providing the opportunities, relationships and pathways to inspire hope and positive engagement from a diverse and heterogenous group of people.

In all of the countries we work in, there are numerous examples of innovative and creative groups and activities in prison – they tend not to be well evaluated, frequently they don’t readily translate to other institutions and they often struggle to be sustainable over time – but they are there in the form of education and employment activities, peer support and training, sports and recreation events (often completed to raise money for charities) and contributions to the wellbeing of the prison community.

Each of these is a glimmer of light in the darkness – what the concept of justice capital demands is an increase in the voltage and a commitment by those involved in prison policy and practice to sustaining the process. Why? Because light creates waves and justice capital does not merely reside inside of individual prisoners but between people creating a radius of trust and a ripple effect that benefits not only the prisoners, but also their families, the officers and the communities in which they are located. That is the goal of a justice capital model.

Why is this new and where to now?

Justice capital is a unifying concept that lays the foundations for measurement and mapping of strengths whether in closed institutions or in a community setting. This is critical in changing our approach from a deficits model based on failure and risk to a re-balancing towards innovation, strengths and hope.

Secondly, the idea of justice capital is based on growth and strength and its application challenges the stain of irreversibility that conviction and institutionalisation inflict. Building justice capital in prisons (and other closed institutions) inherently builds bridges into the community based on strengths and relationships that challenge stigmatisation and exclusion.

Justice capital is the metric of its capacity to catalyse positive changes for all.

This blog was originally published on Power to Persuade.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet