Awesome things happen when people come together
Feb 14, 2011
Recently, I met with representatives from Prison Fellowship Italy (PF Italy) visiting the Washington, DC area. In early 2010, a colleague and I had visited Italy to train members of the new organisation in the Sycamore Tree Project® so I was really looking forward to hearing about their experiences and the lessons learned. I wasn’t prepared for the awe inspiring stories that they told.
The Sycamore Tree Project® is an in-prison restorative justice programme bringing together unrelated victims and prisoners for a series of six to eight sessions. Through the sessions, participants explore the impact of crime, taking responsibility, confession, repentance, making amends, forgiveness and reconciliation. PF Italy worked quickly to implement this programme in Italian prisons but faced a few obstacles. In the end, the prison administration allowed them to start but with the proviso that the first group consist of prisoners who were mafia members convicted of committing murder and survivors of victims of such mafia activity. I remember receiving that news and thinking, “That’s not where I would want to start.”
Of course, restorative processes and programmes are appropriate in cases of such serious crimes. I just couldn’t imagine being a first time facilitator working in this context. Yet, my friends from PF Italy took the challenge and organised the group of prisoners and victims to participate in the course. Their courage resulted in a very powerful journey.
One signpost along that journey was the prisoners’ growing awareness of the impact of their crimes. As anyone working with restorative processes knows, offenders have many tools for denying the harm that they have caused. In the case of the prisoner participants in PF Italy’s first STP, their role in the mafia provided a perfect escape route from responsibility. As they explained in the course, they saw their victims as simple targets. They were soldiers fighting against other soldiers. The murder was either an act of retaliation or education for someone who had acted against their organizations. In fact, the prisoners – some of whom had committed as many as 35 murders – had even blocked the faces of their victims. They were just targets.
In response, the victim participants challenged the prisoners’ comments and ways of thinking. They did this through their own stories and reminding the prisoners of why the assassinations were committed in the first place. The purpose was to inflict pain. The general practice is to deal with enemies by killing their sons in order to cause the greatest amount of suffering possible. In fact, they often killed a son just after his 18th birthday so that the father would have many years of guilt and pain to live with.
Through listening to the victims and internally processing the information exchanged, the prisoners began destroying the walls of denial they had built. For many, they began to remember the names and see the faces of their victims. This resulted in one prisoner announcing that he needed to confess something at the beginning of a session. He then turned to one of his fellow prisoners and said, “I’m sorry. I’m the one who killed your uncle.”
Amazingly, the response was, “I understand. I forgive you. Six month ago that would not have been possible but now I can.”
The prisoners were not the only ones to benefit from the programme. Carlo, one of the PF Italy facilitators, told me the story of one of the seven participating victims. This man’s son had been murdered by the mafia in retaliation against the son’s future father-in-law. For various reasons the case wasn’t thoroughly investigated so the father began searching for the guilty party. He even hired his own investigators. His search became an obsession to see someone “brought to justice” for his sons murder even with threats against his own life. Eventually the murderer was caught and went to trial. The father attended every court date. In the mean time, other members of his family faced their own difficulties with his wife and one daughter going into therapy. Both of his daughters went through divorces.
Finally the end of his journey arrived; he received notice of the date for the final hearing where the sentence would be handed down. The date was the same as an STP session. Although he could have easily missed the session, the father chose to send another family member to the court so he could go to the prison. He said that he couldn’t leave the prisoners’ alone. His expressions of forgiveness went beyond this to asking one of his daughters to participate in the final celebration event where the participants would share their experiences. He also asked if she could stay with the daughter of one of the prisoners who was estranged from her father. His hope is that the two families can heal together.
These are just two of the stories my friends from Italy shared. Despite the concerns of starting with such serious crimes and the skepticism of prison administration, the first Sycamore Tree Project® in Italy had several powerful outcomes. It just goes to show that awesome things do happen when people come together and share from their hearts.