Forgiveness in Prisons
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.