For many people, perhaps the hardest people to extend grace to are those who commit sex offenses. However, sex offenders may have the greatest need to share about their past. Often, they have experienced deep wounds that contributed to their crimes that need to heal.
They typically deeply resist sharing openly about their struggles and taking responsibility for their crimes. Shame and stigma isolate and keep them quiet. A lack of empathy keeps them from taking responsibility.
When incorporating sex offenders in prison programs, it’s important to create a safe environment for people who commit sex offenses to share about their past and take responsibility for their crimes. This can be done by thinking through the structure of discussions (including group size and other participating prisoners), the preparation that facilitators leading the discussions receive and the inclusion of unrelated victims in group discussions.
Group size matters if people are expected to share about sensitive issues like past hurt or stigmatizing crimes, especially for people who commit sex crimes. The group needs to be small and more intimate, where people trust one another. With the large group dynamics, there is little room for honesty to share what they have done. In fact, Prison Fellowship Switzerland has cut down their group sizes to no more than four participants.
In some contexts, four sex offenders in group discussions may still be too many. In the Netherlands, our affiliate found that group interactions with sex offenders did not work very well. Instead, they followed the same restorative methodology but conducted individual courses with either a coordinator or volunteer. They found that this was the most powerful way of delivering the program as it allowed for more depth in issues of guilt and responsibility.
If group discussions are held, they should only include other prisoners who have committed sex offenses. Usually, prisoners don’t know what other prisoners have done and in the prison hierarchy, prisoners with sex offenses are the lowest and are in danger of being hurt and harassed by others.
Volunteers and staff who join discussions extend grace that builds trust within relationships. However, they also need extensive training before leading discussions so that they understand the common needs and traits of people who commit sex offenses.
Sex crimes are different than other crimes in terms of how offenders work and how they might manipulate people. It is important to carefully choose facilitators with experience that understand the subtleties of what’s going on. If not, offenders can manipulate the situation.
Due to the nature of the crimes committed, discussions can border between facilitating the course and giving therapy, especially in one-on-one discussions. When prisoners open up, it can become a burden on volunteers. They may think that they need to intervene more and say the right things. Even so, programs like the Sycamore Tree Project: Justice and Peace provide structure for even the most difficult one-on-one conversations.
Volunteers can say to the prisoners, “We are following the material. You are open to share so that we can have conversations about it, but let’s stay focused on the material and follow the course design.” This approach works because not only are volunteers carefully selected and closely coached by the staff coordinators, but they also have protocol that they are able to follow.
Facilitators may have triggers from their own traumatic experiences that arise during group discussions. They need to understand and have tools to cope with their emotions when they are triggered. In addition to coaching, coordinators should have open conversations with facilitators after every session about what the discussions are doing to them, how they may be triggering them, how they are dealing with the topics and what can be done to best support them. Whenever possible, a co-facilitator should support them during even small group discussions.
In addition to conducting self-checks from time to time and practicing self-care, teams should be trained on things like trauma informed practice, secondary victimization and vicarious trauma.
When unrelated victims participate and share about their experiences in discussions, it often helps prisoners empathize with victims from their own cases. This is critical because many times, sex offenders downplay the harm they cause and fail to take responsibility for their crimes.
Often, people who commit sexual crimes think, “At least I’m not a criminal. Others steal and murder, but I did nothing wrong.” When a person says, “Crimes like these do hurt and the damage is alive,” it can be the first step for a person to realize the harm they have caused.
Hugh Greathead, Prison Fellowship International Europe & Central Asia senior regional director and global field director, shares about the impact on prisoners when they hear stories from unrelated victims.
“Many prisoners minimize the harm their crime caused to such a degree that they feel like victims themselves. Many come from abused backgrounds and feel very disempowered. When they realize they have caused psychological and physical harm to victims, victims’ families and the wider community, that moment is strangely empowering. Transformation comes when they realize that they can either use the power for good or for bad.”
Before offenders participate in group discussions or engage one-on-one with unrelated victims, they need to work through their own trauma. To some extent, they also need to take responsibility for the harm they caused. This pre-work is extremely important to understand who is ready to have conversations with victims and helps prisoners grasp things they haven’t understood before.
In Germany, Seehaus has adapted the Sycamore Tree Project: Justice and Peace methodology for a victim empathy program that prepares offenders for deeper conversations with unrelated victims. If a victim participates and even one offender does not accept responsibility, it can cause more harm. Therefore, offenders need to be well prepared, sensitive and understand the victims’ needs. Without this preparation, offenders, especially sexual offenders, and unrelated victims should not be brought together.
Yes, but proceed with caution. If you bring in a victim who experienced a different sort of crime, like burglary or murder, it will not resonate with sex offenders. The experience and the crimes are totally different.
Intimate crimes, like sexual violence, are complex and inflict deep wounds. A high risk exists that meeting other sex offenders, even from unrelated cases, could retraumatize victims. Rather than avoiding these important encounters, take precautions to make them safe instead.
Many prison officials see restorative justice as dangerous, especially in areas of sexual violence and domestic violence, but when victim voices are considered, it is the area where there is most need for restorative conversations. Not only do these conversations help prisoners understand the harm they cause and take responsibility, but they also help victims heal and make sense of the harm.
If conversations directly with victims are deemed unsafe, bring in victims’ personal experiences through video messages, for example.
It is important to both extend grace to people who commit sex crimes and also to hold them accountable to take responsibility for the harm they caused. This is a journey, one that’s possible, but requires safe environments where sex offenders can share and empathize with those they have harmed.
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