In late August, my colleague, Gayle Reed, and I visited a maximun security prison to discuss forgiveness. The point was not to focus on those in prison seeking forgiveness for their crimes, but instead to help each of them to begin forgiving those who have abused them prior to their serious crimes. Many of these men have been deeply abused by others, but this becomes invisible as the focus is on their crimes and rehabilitating them for those actions.
Yet, this next point seems so little understood: Those who perpetrate crime so often have an anger, a hatred, a fury within because of the injustices they have suffered, often long before they lash out at others. If it will diminish, this kind of fury within needs major surgery of the heart. All the rehabilitation in the world, if it only focuses on their bad behavior, will do nothing to cleanse the heart of fury. Only forgiveness therapy will do that—and this idea of “only forgiveness therapy” came from one of the counselors at the prison, who supervised a forgiveness group for 6 months.
The day at the institution was special for us as we saw the men’s hearts melt at the realization (over 6 months of forgiveness therapy) that they have been deeply hurt by others, not only perpetrators of hurt onto others. They gained the insight that their own anger, rage, and fury built up to such an extent that it came roaring out onto others. As one man said, “Forgiveness is the enemy of hatred.”
Another man had this remarkable insight that anger, which is displaced onto unsuspecting other people, leads to the victim possibly passing that anger to another person, who may pass it on yet again. At some point, he reasoned, someone has to stop the passing on of anger and forgiving can do that job. He said this: “When another is in pain, they are on the hook. Then they put you on the hook. hen you put others on the hook.” He was clearly seeing that his anger was passed to his victim(s).
After our meeting with the men who took part in the 6-month forgiveness group, several of the men came up privately to me. Each one had tears in his eyes and whispered that he needs to forgive himself now. They are having a hard time living with themselves. The remorse was genuine and the pain real.
After 30 years of studying forgiveness and seeing the scientific results of a significant reduction in anger by those who forgive, I am confident that as the people in prison (both men and women) learn to forgive, their anger within the institution may diminish, making their prison home safer for everyone, including the officers and all who attend to them.
This is a new idea for corrections. May it be a standard idea within a decade.