Forgiveness in Prisons
Sometimes It Takes 36 Years to Get Your Point Across: The Case for Forgiveness Therapy in Correctional Institutions
In 1985 I began to explore the social scientific study of forgiveness. At the time there were no published empirical studies on person-to-person forgiveness. For my very first attempt at a grant (36 years ago), I wanted to see if we could help men in a correctional institution to heal from past trauma due to severe injustices against them prior to their crime and imprisonment. The approach was to offer forgiveness therapy for those who experienced severe abuse when they were children, as a way of reducing the resentment that can be displaced, sometimes violently, onto unsuspecting others.
For that first grant attempt over three decades ago, I was interviewed by a world famous experimental psychologist who was part of this granting agency. This world famous person listened to my idea and then proclaimed, “This is an absolutely excellent idea. I am going to rate your protocol as #1 in this competition.” About a month later, much to my surprise, I received a rejection letter from the granting agency. I made a phone call to the world-famous experimental psychologist and asked about the contradiction between his saying how excellent the work is and then I received a rejection notice.
He angrily and intensively said to me, “Dr. Enright, you embarrassed me! I went into the meeting with very high-powered people, praised your work, and the entire committee was outraged. They said to me, ‘Give Enright money to help prisoners forgive?? No. In fact, those prisoners should be seeking forgiveness from all of us for the crimes they committed! Rejected!'”
I then went in different directions (other than corrections) with the randomized clinical trials of Forgiveness Therapy (now considered an acceptable form of psychotherapy by the American Psychological Association) until 5 years ago when professionals in corrections began to contact me saying that our Forgiveness Therapy approach might work well with incarcerated people and they asked me if I thought that was a good idea. Well……yes, I said.
We continued to be rejected as we submitted at least three more grant requests, all of which were rejected. So, we decided to move ahead with no funding.
Our point of Forgiveness Therapy in correctional institutions is this: Forgiveness Therapy first screens those in corrections to see if they have suffered abuse while growing up. Our scientific examination of this, now published in the Tier-1 journal, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, shows that approximately 90% of the men in the maximum security correctional institution have had very serious injustices against them in childhood, such as ongoing sexual abuse and abandonment. In other words, the unjust treatment toward them as children has left them with a deep resentment that can then be displaced onto others in society. If we can find a way of reducing and even eliminating that resentment, then the person may be more amenable to traditional rehabilitation. Forgiving the abusers is the way to do this.
To forgive is to strive to be good to those who are not good to the forgiver. The one who forgives is practicing the moral virtue of forgiveness without excusing the behavior, or forgetting what happened (so it does not happen again), necessarily reconciling with the abuser, or abandoning the quest for justice.
For a year-and-a-half, a corrections psychologist within a maximum-security correctional institution engaged in a randomized experimental and control group clinical trial in which the professional worked with two groups of men, who were screened for abuse against them during childhood and currently have clinical levels of anger, anxiety, and depression and low empathy toward other people in general. The research program took 6 full months for two experimental groups.
The results show strong statistical effects for the Forgiveness Therapy in that those in the experimental group, after they forgave their abusers from childhood, went to normal or near normal levels of anger, anxiety, and depression and their empathy for people in general rose significantly relative to the control group that had traditional rehabilitation strategies. These results were maintained 6 months after the treatment ended for the first experimental group. These results are unprecedented in the published literature within a maximum security correctional institution. It is extremely difficult to improve empathy in this context. We found the strongest psychological effects for any rehabilitation approach ever published. Here is a reference to that Tier-1 publication:
Yu, L., Gambaro, M., Song, J., Teslik, M., Song, M., Komoski, M.C., Wollner, B., & Enright, R.D. (2021). Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.
We now are receiving inquires about this approach from scholars in Brazil, Israel, and Pakistan.
So, I have gone from being a total embarrassment to a granting agency 36 years ago to someone whom correction officials and researchers want to contact because of a vital idea. Viewpoints can change over a 36 year period. Sometimes we just have to be patient with true ideas that are life-giving until some in the world are ready to receive those ideas.
Read more about Dr. Enright’s prison work:
- Forgiveness Therapy in a Maximum-Security Correctional Institution: A Randomized Clinical Trial
- The Visit to a Maximum Security Prison
- Forgiveness Therapy for the Imprisoned in Israel
- Reflections from Prison: “Forgiveness Saved My Life”
As I look out the window of the hotel in downtown London, awaiting a flight soon to the Middle East, I see a bustling populace moving quickly……except for one man who is shuffling along slowly, quite in contrast to the others. As I watch, he stops, faces a passerby, and obviously is asking for funds. He is ignored. He shuffles a few more steps, approaches another, and is met with the same non-response.
His pattern is repeated over and over. I counted at least 15 approaches and 15 rejections. He then disappeared from view. I think he was invisible to many that day, even to those who were within view of him.
How we bristle when rejected by a co-worker who is not showing respect today or by others who do not share our goals. The man, refused by others over and over, probably felt wounded by the rejections.
The dear man in London was continuously rebuffed, and he kept trying……until after awhile he simply stopped asking. This sequence of approach-and-avoidance reminds me of Ralph McTell’s now classic song, Streets of London (originally released in 1969 and re-released in 2017):
Have you seen the old man
In the closed-down market
Kicking up the paper,
With his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride
Hand held loosely at his side
Yesterday’s paper telling
In the all-night cafe
At a quarter past eleven,
Same old man sitting there on his own
Looking at the world
Over the rim of his teacup,
Each tea lasts an hour
Then he wanders home alone……
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care.
The word “forgotten” catches my attention. That was the exact word used by imprisoned people serving life sentences with whom we spoke over a month ago. “Once you are here [in a maximum-security prison],” one gentleman explained to me, “you are forgotten.”
The forgotten people……
Yet, our forgiveness studies have taught me this: All people, regardless of circumstance, have inherent or built-in worth. The man, so continually rejected today on the street in London, has as much worth as the royalty in the palace. The one in maximum security prison for life has as much worth as the warden.
And in all likelihood, many of “the forgotten people” have stories to tell us of how they, themselves, were mistreated prior to their current plight. They have stories that include their own particular kind of pain, heartache, feelings that are part of the human condition. We need to hear those stories, to acknowledge their unique pain, their responses to that pain, and offer those suffering injustices from the past a chance to forgive. The forgiveness, for some, might be life changing as our science over the past three decades has shown for others.
We must not let forgiveness be the forgotten virtue.
We must not let the homeless and the imprisoned be the forgotten people.
We have begun introducing Forgiveness Therapy in prisons because our research shows this: People in prison who fill out our survey tend to show that they have been treated badly by others prior to their arrest and imprisonment. In fact, about 90% of those filling out our surveys report that they have been treated moderately to severely unjustly in childhood or adolescence. We control for what is called social desirability or “faking good.”
Traditional rehabilitation for those in prison does not focus deeply and extensively on the wounds the person suffered early in life. One man was thrown out of his home when he was 8 years old. His dining room table for years was garbage cans. His bed at night was under cars for protection. He grew up angry and took this out on others.
I visited those who had voluntarily gone through Forgiveness Therapy with my book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness. It gave them the chance to confront and overcome their anger, even rage, toward those who abused them as they were growing up.
Here are two testimonies of those who experienced this program of anger reduction through forgiveness:
Person 1: “I have been imprisoned now 6 different times. I am convinced that on my first arrest, had I read your book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness, I never would have experienced the other 5.”
Person 2: “My first imprisonment occurred when I was 12 years old. If you can find a way to give 12-year-olds Forgiveness Therapy, they will not end up as I have in maximum security prison.”
It is time to add Forgiveness Therapy to prison rehabilitation so that the anger, held for many years by some, can diminish. This then should decrease motivation to displace this unhealthy anger onto others.
Plato reminds us in The Republic that justice is giving people what is deserved. This can include both rewards and punishments. If Person A offers $100 to Person B for building a table, the receipt of the $100 by Person B upon the successful completion of the table is fair or just. If Person C is guilty of a traffic violation and the rules of the city require any violator of this kind to be fined $100, then it is fair or just if Person C gives up $100.
Social justice, while not always defined in the same way by all advocates of this approach, basically centers on equality of outcome. For example, suppose a pizza establishment will not deliver in a neighborhood in which there is high crime and two of their delivery people were killed trying to make deliveries there in the past year.
Because innocent people in that neighborhood are not treated the same as people in safer neighborhoods, this may be considered unjust by social justice standards. Why? It is because the innocent need an equal outcome, successful delivery of pizzas, compared to those in safer neighborhoods. That the risk for the deliverers is not deserved is not an issue here. For the classical sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve? They deserve to be safe in terms of laws of probability for being safe. For the new social sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve? Actually, the deliverers are not the focus now. The focus is on those who have no equality of ordering pizzas. There is a decided shift to one particular group and the emphasis on equality of outcome for them.
Now we are ready to show the difference between social justice for the imprisoned and forgiveness interventions for them. In social justice and in forgiveness, we both might focus, for example, on the childhood of Person D, who was abused by his father and now Person D has abused three children, for which he is arrested. Social justice, in focusing on his childhood, might have people see that Person D is not fully to blame for his actions, but instead his unfortunate background must mitigate the length of his sentence so that he is not unequally behind bars compared to others who were not abused and are not behind bars. The quest in this particular case is to alter the sentence and thus the time served.
For our forgiveness program, as we, too, focus on Person D’s horrendously unjust childhood, we try to help Person D, if he chooses, to forgive his father for his deep injustices. This process of forgiveness might reduce Person D’s rage and thus reduce his motivation to hurt others in the future. We do not suggest that justice now be altered. We focus on inner healing and not on altering the time he is to serve in prison. Justice in its classical sense is served in the forgiveness programs, while that classical sense of justice is not served when social justice is considered, at least in the example given here.
There is a substantial difference between forgiveness as a rehabilitation strategy for those in prison and the call to alter the sentence in social justice. If there is a call to reduce sentences without the concomitant attempt to eliminate rage, one has to wonder how just this solution is. Perhaps it is time to fold forgiveness interventions into the quest for social justice so that these work together. When a reduced sentence is going to occur, then it seems wise that the rage within first is reduced.
Security was tight. Oh that….I had forgotten that I had the New York subway schedule in the winter jacket. Sorry about that. No paper allowed.
After going through two secured doors, we went into the courtyard. It was night and so the floodlights were bouncing off the razor wire that wrapped each fence. That wire looked almost festive as it gleamed and sparkled. But, of course, it represented a darker reality than the dance with the floodlights let on.
A little farther on we met Jonah (not his real name), who was coming to attend the talk on forgiveness.
“Hey, do you remember me?” Jonah asked as he extended a big warm hug.
“Yes, of course. How are you?” I said. It had been a while and I was very glad to see him.
Jonah’s is one of the many success stories we hear once those in prison go through forgiveness therapy. He went from max to medium because his constant anger diminished. Forgiveness has a way of doing that. As a person, as Jonah puts it, “gives the gift of forgiveness” to those who abused him, his inner world becomes healthier.
“Forgiveness saved my life,” he said with earnest and serious eyes. He knows of what he speaks. Anger landed him in medical facilities and eventually contributed to serious crime and long prison terms. Yet, his anger was cured by understanding, through forgiveness therapy, that the abuse he experienced as a young man turned to a poisonous anger which was destroying him.
“No one cares how angry you are. It’s yours and yours alone when someone gets to you in a big way.” He had to confront that anger, struggle to forgive the one who was so unfair, and now Jonah can meet me with a warm, wonderful smile, a hug, and a vitality for life that is so unexpected in juxtaposition to the floodlights and the officers and the dancing razor wire.
Jonah is set free inside even though his body is imprisoned and for many years to come. The past pain will not destroy him and any insensitivities, frustrations, and challenges that are part of max and medium security prisons will not crush him because he has an antidote to the build-up of toxic anger: forgiveness.
Forgiveness therapy is beginning to gain traction in prisons because counselors are beginning to see that it is one of the few approaches to corrections that actually works. To forgive is to take the floodlight of analysis off of the self and place it, paradoxically, on the one who did the harm. It is to tell a wider story of whom that other is. Forgiveness therapy allows the person to see the abusing person’s vulnerability, woundedness, and anger that “put me on the hook” as one of my friends in prison describes it. As the heart softens toward those who are cruel, one’s own inner poisons find an antidote in growing compassion. And it works.
One of the main insights I now see is this: As those in prison realize that they are capable of giving the heroic virtue of forgiveness to others, they understand that they, themselves, are stronger than they had thought. They realize that they are givers, human givers, men. “I am a man” not a number, is a common new and growth-producing insight, one that helps those in prison to stand tall in the face of grave challenges. “I am a woman” will be next as we move soon toward a max facility for females.
Long live forgiveness therapy in prisons. Oh, and by the way, did you notice that throughout this little essay, I never once used the word “prisoner”? You see, the word “prisoner” is a sweeping term, encompassing a person’s entire being by their address, by where they reside. Jonah knows he is more than “a prisoner.” He is a man, one who forgives.