When International Forgiveness Institute founder Dr. Robert Enright first proposed Forgiveness Therapy for incarcerated people in a correctional facility, his approach was met with an equal amount of derision and skepticism. After all, it had never been tried with a prison population anywhere else in the world.
That was 35 years ago. Today, Dr. Enright’s methodology is being lauded–and more importantly, implemented–because of its positive, demonstrated results with people in prison.
As just one example of the current popularity and credibility of Forgiveness Therapy for prisoners, a podcast featuring Dr. Enright’s work entitled “Rehabilitating those who are “Forgotten”: People in Prison“ was downloaded by individuals in 225 US cities and 22 foreign countries in just the first three weeks after it was recorded on Aug. 9th.
The podcast was hosted and broadcast by Dr. Alexandra Miller, a popular psychologist, family relations specialist, and author who has also featured Dr. Enright on a previous podcast entitled “How to Forgive.” The most recent 67-minute podcast discusses two rehabilitation research projects recently completed by Dr. Enright and research colleague Dr. Maria Gambaro, Ph.D., with 103 men in a maximum-security prison in the United States. Access the podcast.
Dr. Enright began exploring the possibility of sharing his forgiveness interventions with incarcerated individuals in early 2015 and he initiated his first in-prison research project later that year. Project team members included Dr. Gambaro and associates from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and the University of the Philippines-Diliman, Philippines.
Why Forgiveness Therapy Works for People in Prison. . .
“Unjust treatment from others can lead to inner pain, which can lead to anger. Unresolved anger can deepen and linger, turning to what we call excessive anger, compromising one’s psychological health and behavior. Excessive anger can turn to rage (very intense, potentially violent anger) which can fuel crime, a lack of cooperation within the prison system, and increased recidivism rates. When the excessive anger is caused by unjust behavior from others, prior to a person’s crime, conviction, and imprisonment, then we can reduce and even eliminate the excessive anger through the empirically-verified treatment of Forgiveness Therapy. Forgiveness Therapy may be one of the few existing mental health approaches which offer the opportunity to be free of excessive anger, perhaps for the first time in the person’s life.”
From the Abstract of Dr. Enright’s first research project (2016) in a maximum-security prison – Proposing Forgiveness Therapy for those in Prison: An Intervention Strategy for Reducing Anger and Promoting Psychological Health.
Both the anecdotal and actual results of that initial project were extremely positive. In one group of 12 inmates receiving Forgiveness Therapy, their anger, anxiety, and depression went down significantly. The men themselves credited the forgiveness group experience for those positive outcomes and the facility’s warden asked that the program continue and expand.
In a similar study in South Korea, Forgiveness Therapy was tested against both an alternative skill streaming program and a no-treatment control group. The 48 female participants were adolescent aggressive victims ranging in age from 12 to 21 years old. After 12 weeks, findings showed that the participants receiving Forgiveness Therapy reported statistically significant decreases in anger, hostile attribution, aggression, and delinquency at posttest and follow-up assessments. Additional results included improved grades at the posttest.
“The reality of Forgiveness Therapy is that as those who are imprisoned learn how to give the gift of forgiveness to those who abused them, their inner world becomes healthier,” Dr. Enright says. “Anger has a way of landing some people in medical facilities and eventually contributes to their serious crimes and long prison terms. Forgiveness Therapy can put an end to that poisonous anger.”
One success story Dr. Enright cites is an imprisoned person he calls Jonah (not his real name). Jonah personally told Dr. Enright, during one of his follow-up visits to the facility, that “forgiveness saved my life.” Jonah also wrote an article for the prison newsletter outlining how confronting his anger enabled him to change his life.
“Jonah has been set free inside even though his body is imprisoned and will be for many years to come,” Dr. Enright explained. “The past pain will not continue to crush him because he has an antidote to the build-up of toxic anger–forgiveness.”
Testimonials from other imprisoned Forgiveness Therapy participants include these:
- “I have been imprisoned 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.”
- “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.”
Dr. Gambaro, one of those who helped spearhead the initial Forgiveness Therapy work, has as one of her goals to help imprisoned people prepare for re-entry back into society and reduce the chances that they will return to the facility.
“When you look at a population of imprisoned people, 95 percent of them are released back in the community,” Gambaro adds. “No matter what you think of those who are imprisoned, they could be your neighbor, someone on the road, or someone at the gas station. Our goal is to help them reintegrate into society so they don’t reincarcerate.”
Given the positive results demonstrated by his own prison projects, as well as similar results expected from research starting soon in other areas of the world, Dr. Enright says, “Our aspiration is that Forgiveness Therapy will become a well-accepted protocol for people in prison and eventually become available to all in the prison system who need it.”
Learn more about Dr. Enright’s work with imprisoned people:
- “Forgiveness Saved My Life” – Reflections from Prison
- The Visit to a Maximum Security Prison
- A Reflection on Forgiveness and the Forgotten People
- Is There a Better Response to Injustice? Pioneering UW Professor Teaches Forgiveness
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.