To break the cycle of crime in incarcerated men and women, there must be suitable conditions where prisoners can reconcile with their past, including the harm and wounds they’ve experienced, as well as hurt they’ve caused others.
Self-forgiveness plays an important role in breaking the cycle of crime in prisoners’ lives. While each prisoner’s circumstances are unique, support can be offered to them on their journey toward self-forgiveness in a few ways:
Prisoners must take responsibility for harm they’ve caused and their communities must be supportive in believing and accepting them in their healing journeys.
Genuine self-forgiveness requires that prisoners take responsibility for harm they caused others. They need to have some sense of guilt for what they’ve done and believe they need forgiveness.
People cannot forgive themselves if they are unable to recognize their faults and mistakes. Prisoners need to understand the damage they have caused. If they refuse and look the other way, they’ll neither take responsibility nor repair the harm. There will be no true self-forgiveness.
While programs like Prison Fellowship International’s (PFI) Sycamore Tree Project: Justice and Peace (STP) help prisoners understand the harm they’ve caused, sometimes they need more time to fully empathize with people they’ve harmed. Some programs require prisoners to participate in a victim empathy program before they join their restorative program.
PFI’s affiliate, Prison Fellowship Nigeria (PFN), takes it a step further by identifying growth opportunities for graduates based on whether they take responsibility for harm they caused.
“Not everyone who goes through STP gets to the point where they take responsibility. Some don’t and we don’t force them because it’s a gradual process,” explains Michael Adeh, PFN’s Special Assistant to the Executive Director on Training and Research.
For those who do take responsibility, PFN helps them continue in a growth program or individual counseling through the support of a local church. People who refuse to accept responsibility are still provided opportunities to interact and engage with volunteers in some way. These continued interactions are important because they continue providing spaces for prisoners to give voice to their experiences and harm they’ve caused.
Guilt and shame build up when people cannot share it. Restorative programs are the first step of breaking the silence by putting things into the open so that they lose their weight.
In group settings during restorative programs, staff, volunteers and other participants need to deeply listen to prisoners when they take responsibility for harm they’ve caused. In these vulnerable moments, this support conveys that prisoners are loved and cared for, despite their conduct. Prisoners perceive how staff and volunteers denounce their behavior yet remain committed to helping and integrating them, appealing to their need to be loved and accepted. It distinguishes their behavior from their identity, as their actions were unacceptable but their dignity as a person is still recognized.
Shame is a heavy burden and erodes how prisoners view themselves. Self-worth relates to their place in the community and the impression prisoners think people have of them.
It can often be difficult for prisoners to bear their shame, making it hard for them to forgive themselves. Through their words or actions, communities can weigh prisoners down with thoughts like,
“This is what you have done. You are not worthy of our love. You’re not worthy of our care. You are not worthy of attention.”
When prisoners beat themselves up, they become paralyzed and can’t begin the healing process. They must open up about their shame instead of protecting themselves and failing to look towards others.
Staff and volunteer support and respect help rid a prisoner of their shame. Light breaks into dark, hidden spaces, and prisoners begin to believe that they can forgive themselves. By relating to prisoners like they are people, they can begin to discover their sense of self-worth. They can more easily forgive themselves for what they have done.
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