Prisoners are encouraged to acknowledge the impact of their crimes
"The first time someone suggested to me that I needed to forgive the man who raped me, I was furious. I wanted him dead. So how dare this person be telling me I had to forgive?" Rosalyn Boyce pauses, pushes her black hair off her face and meets the gaze of her audience of 20 men gathered round her on a circle of chairs in an anonymous meeting room. She has just been describing the violent sexual attack and the psychological and emotional aftermath she suffered when a stranger broke into her house.
They are stunned by her candour in reliving the memory. Most are hardly able even to move a muscle but now she begins telling them something potentially even harder to hear. "Then I realised I had a choice and if my choice was to survive what had happened to me, then forgiveness was a way of letting it go."
Boyce is at High Down Prison in Surrey as part of a team from the Forgiveness Project. In eight UK jails, this award-winning charity runs three-day workshops which challenge inmates to think — some for the first time — about the real and enduring impact of their crimes on the lives of their victims. What makes it unique is the mention of what the charity refers to as the F-word — forgiveness.
Today's criminal justice system, with ever-longer prison sentences and overcrowded jails, doesn't attach much value to forgiveness of offenders. The emphasis is on punishment. And in society at large the few who publicly forgive those who have wronged them or theirs are often dismissed as weak or too religious. But we are now in a new era with regards to political control of prisons. And it is one of the fault-lines in the coalition government, with the Conservatives still attached to the then Home Secretary Michael Howard's remark in 1993 that "prison works", while the Lib Dems pledged in their manifesto to stop sending people to jail if the sentence was less than six months.
So how will the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke square the circle? He cannot dither. The last time he was in charge of prisons, in 1992, they housed 44,628 inmates. Now it's more than 85,000. While jails are bursting at the seams, there is no money to build more. As it is time for some fresh thinking, one option is the Forgiveness Project, which has been highly rated by those who have spent their lives building a more effective rehabilitation system.
The Forgiveness Project was founded in 2004 by former journalist Marina Cantacuzino. In her opening remarks at High Down, she makes it clear that the project is neither a soft touch nor religious. Its mission statement says it wants "to build a better future by healing the wounds of the past".
Each workshop begins with a crime victim recounting to those prisoners who volunteer to take part not only what they suffered, but how, as a result, they have come to embrace forgiveness. Boyce, a 42-year-old mother of two, prefers, she says, not to see herself as a victim but as a survivor. Her way of talking — with no props or PowerPoint — is so raw that there is almost a breathlessness in the room when, after half an hour, she nears the end of her account.
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