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”