Melissa is one of several crime victims who participated in PF Australiaâ€™s recent Sycamore Tree ProjectÂ® (STP), which was held at the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre. Her story and those of the other victims provide a unique and important perspective to the participating offenders, many of whom have never seen the impact of crime from a victim’s perspective.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything behind bars that has made me think about what I’ve actually done,â€ said one of the prisoner participants, who is serving a lengthy sentence for a repeat offense. â€œItâ€™s made me stop and think…what Iâ€™ve actually done and how it has affected people.â€
Everything in the eight-week course led up to this final session when victims and offenders shared with each other and guests from the community what they learned in the course. The STP course is typically held inside the prison. Victim participants join the prisoners each week for a two-hour class that examines crime, responsibility, forgiveness, restitution, and reconciliation. During the sessions, the victims tell their stories and explain how crime has affected their lives.
Through the experience, the prisoners learn that their criminal behaviour can alter the lives of many people for many yearsâ€”their crimes are not simply isolated incidents that led only to their incarceration. â€œWhat we’ve found is that often prisoners don’t know what the effects of crime really are to a person,â€ explains David Way, Executive Director of Prison Fellowship Australia in Queensland. The Sycamore Tree ProjectÂ® changes that.
Itâ€™s a restorative process that doesnâ€™t tend to happen in the traditional justice system. â€œThey go through a whole court case, but they donâ€™t really register that crime victims have been damaged by their acts in a long-term way,â€ explains Martin Howard, the STP facilitator. â€œThe key thing weâ€™re looking for is for inmates to grow in their ability to empathise,â€ he says, â€and the same thing for crime victims as well, to develop their level of empathy.â€
The STP sessions are also a learning process for the victims. Although they choose to participate in the programme for a variety of reasons, they are often surprised at how their opinions of offenders change after taking course. They discover that prisoners are people too, with stories and backgrounds that ultimately brought them to prison. However, it is often in the telling of their own stories that the victims begin to feel heard, which helps them to heal. â€œCrime victims need a voice. They donâ€™t have a voice in our court system,â€ says Martin.
Ross also served as a victim participant, and like Melissa, he spoke at the final ceremony. It was the third STP in which he had participated. He initially became involved because he wanted his sonâ€™s brutal murder not to have been in vain. â€œIf [the prisoners] go out into society again and do not reoffend, how many lives does that save down the road?â€ he said to Steve Austin on the ABC morning radio show. He has discovered, however, that his participation in STP has not only changed the prisoners, it is also transforming him. â€œItâ€™s a way of self-healing,â€ he says. â€œThe more you tell your story, the more healing it brings within. Especially to talk to these guys, the perpetrators of crime…you are getting your message through to the people [to whom] it really counts.â€
Members of Parliament and judges were among the public visitors who attended the final STP ceremony held in late April, and all left with positive reactions to the programme. “It’s for society that we need this type of programme, and I’m 100 percent behind it,” Michael Crandon, Member of Parliament for Coomera, remarked after the ceremony.
PF Australia only recently launched the STP in Queenslandâ€™s prisons, and this was the third course to date. Despite its short tenure, it has already dramatically impacted the prisoners, the victims, and the community.
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