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”
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
Two of my books have been used successfully in prisons: Forgiveness Is a Choice (2001) and 8 Keys to Forgiveness (2015). The latter book has a chapter on self-forgiveness which prison counselors tell me is important in this context.
Learn more at Shop: Books.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, sent this communiqué today while overseeing forgiveness education projects in western Europe.
It was time to go from Edinburgh, Scotland to Rome, Italy to continue the forgiveness work. While going to the Edinburgh airport, Kenny, the driver, engaged me in conversation.
“Were you here to see the sights of this beautiful city?” he asked me.
“I do admire the beauty of the city, but I was not here for sightseeing,” I replied.
As he inquired further, I explained that I had been doing research with people who are homeless. It is our hope to be able to research whether forgiveness interventions can help with this population. I explained that we have found that about two-thirds of people without homes, who take our surveys, show the following pattern:
a) They have been deeply hurt by others’ injustices against them prior to their becoming homeless;
b) they have not yet forgiven, but have significant resentment toward those who treated them unfairly; and
c) they have psychological compromise in the form of anger, anxiety, and depression.
If we can help the people to forgive, perhaps they will have sufficient energy and psychological health to change their life circumstance.
Kenny had wise insights for me regarding the situation of homelessness in Edinburgh.
As we continued the conversation, I told him how, while in Edinburgh, I had visited men in what is called, in the United States, a maximum security prison because one of the professionals in the prison invited me to discuss Forgiveness Therapy. The talk was well-received and so he now is planning to implement a forgiveness intervention soon in that facility.
Again, Kenny seemed to have uncommon insights for me about how to proceed with forgiveness interventions in the prison of Edinburgh.
By then, we were at the airport. After Kenny lifted my suitcase from the boot (trunk in USA talk), I handed him the 55 Great Britain Pounds Sterling as payment. He refused to take it. As I did not want him to work for me for nothing, I again handed the money to him and he said, “You have come a long way to enter my city to help the homeless and the imprisoned. I cannot take money from you. I want you to give that money to the poor when you are in Rome this coming week.” I was almost speechless, but I did manage a heart-felt thank you.
In Rome, there are many people who hold out paper or plastic cups in the hope of help. I met Andrea, a woman with a kind smile. She walks daily through the streets of Rome. She uses crutches because she has one leg. She manages, as she walks on crutches, to hold a white plastic cup in her right hand as she maneuvers the crutches. Much of the funds, meant for Kenny, went to Andrea over the coming days. We got to know one another, as I spoke a little Italian and she spoke a little English. Her eyes brighten each time we come toward one another and she expresses a genuine gratitude, meant, of course, for Kenny, whom she likely will never meet. She, though, has met Kenny’s kindness through me.
Kindness went from Edinburgh to Rome, 1549.7 miles away from each other. Forgiveness work followed the same route. Kindness and forgiveness can spread across hearts and across countries. Long live kindness and forgiveness.
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.