Security was tight in the medium security prison. I had forgotten that I had the New York subway schedule in the winter jacket. No paper allowed.
After going through two secured doors, we went into the courtyard. It was night and so the floodlights were bouncing off the razor wire that wrapped each fence. That wire looked almost festive as it gleamed and sparkled. But, of course, it represented a darker reality than the dance with the floodlights let on.
A little farther on we met Jonah (not his real name), who was coming to attend the talk on forgiveness.
“Hey, do you remember me?” Jonah asked as he extended a big warm hug.
“Yes, of course. How are you?” I said. It had been a while and I was very glad to see him.
Jonah’s is one of the many success stories we hear once those in prison go through forgiveness therapy. He went from maximum security prison to medium because his constant anger diminished. Forgiveness has a way of doing that. As a person, as Jonah puts it, “gives the gift of forgiveness” to those who abused him, his inner world becomes healthier (see, for example, Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004).
“Forgiveness saved my life,” he said with earnest and serious eyes. He knows of what he speaks. Anger landed him in medical facilities and eventually contributed to serious crime and long prison terms. Yet, his anger was cured by understanding, through forgiveness therapy, that the abuse he experienced as a young man turned to a poisonous anger which was destroying him.
“No one cares how angry you are. It’s yours and yours alone when someone gets to you in a big way.” He had to confront that anger, struggle to forgive the one who was so unfair, and now Jonah can meet me with a warm, wonderful smile, a hug, and a vitality for life that is so unexpected in juxtaposition to the floodlights and the officers and the dancing razor wire.
Jonah is set free inside even though his body is imprisoned and for many years to come. The past pain will not destroy him and any insensitivities, frustrations, and challenges that are part of max and medium security prisons will not crush him because he has an antidote to the build-up of toxic anger: forgiveness.
Forgiveness therapy is beginning to gain traction in prisons because counselors are beginning to see that it is one of the few approaches to corrections that actually works (see Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015 for many of the empirically-based clinical trials). To forgive is to take the floodlight of analysis off of the self and place it, paradoxically, on the one who did the harm. It is to tell a wider story of whom that other is. Forgiveness therapy allows the person to see the abusing person’s vulnerability, woundedness, and anger that “put me on the hook” as one of my friends in prison describes it. As the heart softens toward those who are cruel, one’s own inner poisons find an antidote in growing compassion. And it works.
One of the main insights I now see is this: As those in prison realize that they are capable of giving the heroic virtue of forgiveness to others, they understand that they, themselves, are stronger than they had thought. They realize that they are givers, human givers, men. “I am a man” not a number, is a common new and growth-producing insight, one that helps those in prison to stand tall in the face of grave challenges. “I am a woman” will be next as we move soon toward a max facility for females.
Long live forgiveness therapy in prisons. Oh, and by the way, did you notice that throughout this little essay, I never once used the word “prisoner”? You see, the word “prisoner” is a sweeping term, encompassing a person’s entire being by their address, by where they reside. Jonah knows he is more than “a prisoner.” He is a man, one who forgives.
Enright, Rd. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
Lin, W.F., Mack, D., Enright, R.D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1114-1121.