The Healing Power of Forgiveness

A new project allows crime victims to move on — by pardoning those who attacked them

“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. 

Other restorative justice programmes available in British jails involve face-to-face meetings between perpetrator and victim. But through the project, Boyce has not met her attacker. He is serving three life sentences and has refused all her requests to meet him and has never expressed any remorse.

For a few minutes after she finishes, no one speaks. Most are having trouble even looking at her. There is, at its simplest level, a collective shame in being male. Finally David, a crop-haired 20-year-old in for drug crimes, finds his voice. “To sit and talk like that,” he tells Boyce, “to go so deeply, so intimately, you are one brave, brave lady.” The others break into spontaneous applause. 

It takes time, and patience, but slowly a discussion starts. Most of the participants preface their questions with a disclaimer. Yes, they’ve committed crimes, but nothing like what Boyce has suffered. They are anxious to separate themselves from her assailant — though this is a Category-B prison with lifers and sex offenders. 

Tony, young, black and slumped in his chair in a blue and white tracksuit, is the first to admit he is struggling with what he has just heard. “I’m finding it hard to believe 100 per cent that you can forgive. How do you do that? Did you just wake up one morning and think, ‘I forgive him’?” Geoff, in his thirties and from Liverpool, picks up on this. He recounts how he has tried writing to the parents of the man he murdered, but they want nothing to do with him. 

Boyce leans forward and explains that for her, there was no one particular moment in the decade since she was attacked when she embraced forgiveness. “Everyone is different and everyone’s understanding of forgiveness is different,” she stresses, “but for me, forgiveness is a journey, not a destination.” 

The purpose of these three days is to encourage greater victim-awareness in those attending. Yet from starting out with a victim’s story, the workshop naturally evolves to encourage participants to consider their own motivations, and their need to forgive and to be forgiven. 

This progression is not without obstacles. Grant, a slight, balding former drug dealer in his early forties, can’t see any connection between himself and what he has just heard. “On a personal level,” he tells Boyce directly but politely, “I couldn’t forgive the man who raped you until he was dead.” She nods. “But if I didn’t forgive,” she replies, “who am I affecting? Him or me? I would be the one suffering.”

Grant cannot understand how she can let go of her “right” to revenge. “By not meeting you, the man who raped you still has the power over you. He’s winning,” he warns her, almost paternally. “If he were dead, you’d feel differently, trust me.”

Boyce, now a counsellor and life-coach, lets it pass. This isn’t about preaching or winning the point. It is about making people think. “All I can tell you,” she says, “is that I don’t wake up now thinking about him. I have no emotion about him. I’m getting on with my life, enjoying. I even like men.” 

There is a nervous ripple of laughter as the group try to digest this, but Grant wants the last word. “Then he’s escaping too easily,” he insists. Boyce may not have won them all round, but most have made a start.

Before Boyce starts her talk, the project’s facilitator, ex-convict Peter Woolf, goes round the circle to ask what everyone is expecting of the three days. Quite a few reply that they have come as part of their “sentence plan”. They are ticking boxes in the hope that it will increase their chance of parole. Some just want something to do. “I’ve come because it’s better being in here than being stuck in my cell with all my pent-up anger,” announces Nigel, one of two inmates in the group who have been recalled to prison after breaking the terms of their early release. “I hope,” he adds, playing to the gallery, “that I can find it in me to forgive the police who sent me back here.” Most, though, are more serious and admit that they are not sure what forgiveness is, but have been intrigued by a preparatory talk given at High Down on behalf of the charity back in November by the parents of the murdered London teenager  Jimmy Mizen.

Participants are split into small groups. “Let’s be honest,” says Tommy (halfway through a long stretch for gun crime), “most of us try not to think about our victims. The way I get round it is to tell myself they all had guns as well, so they knew what could happen.” Geoff from Liverpool, the most articulate of the group, immediately challenges this. “That’s like blaming them, saying it’s their fault you shot them. I’ve been inside for 13 years and in that time I’ve blamed everyone from my mum, my dad, my drug dealer, my girlfriend, the drugs, but in the end I’ve ended up with me as the one to blame.” The switch in focus from Boyce’s story to their own is under way. 

Day two of the workshop involves participants working with the facilitators to map out on large sheets of paper their own “lifelines”. This account of their childhood, family and crimes they then share with the others. It touches some dark places, and demands the sort of openness and trust that my presence as an observer might inhibit. “In prison,” explains Cantacuzino, “daily life is all about avoiding appearing vulnerable. Here in the workshop, some people talk about themselves in a way they haven’t been able to before in prison.”

When I return for the third and final day at High Down, the atmosphere is noticeably different when we start off by going round the circle for reflections on how it has been so far. Even the sceptics are shifting their position. “I came here to get out of my cell,” acknowledges Nigel, “but what I have heard has really touched me. If forgiveness can help Rosalyn so much, perhaps it can help me too.”

Maria Killigrew is one of the prison officers assigned to the workshop. She has been here for previous project visits. “Last time, I went home raving about it,” she says. “I’ve worked here for nine years and have grown used to prisoners not opening up. You do the day-to-day with them. You know if they have children or a partner outside, but you never get the underneath stuff. With this workshop, it was like a light-bulb effect. I watched the light being switched on as they began to think, to share, to interact with each other.”

Her enthusiasm is echoed by Jane Corrin, the prison’s community integration manager. “I never have to push people to come on this course,” she reports. “It runs on recommendations and everybody seems to get something out of it. If only one seed is planted here today, then there will be one less victim in the future.”

Funding, however, is a problem. Some prisons can make a small contribution to costs, but mostly the charity pays out of its own resources. And encouraging individuals to open up has the potential to leave them with nowhere to turn to once the workshop is over. Cantacuzino ends each day by identifying the “listeners” in the group. These are prisoners trained by the Samaritans to help others having a bad time. There is also a follow-up visit a few weeks after the workshop and participants can keep in touch with the project by letter. Many do.

There are still a couple of lifelines to share, held over from yesterday. When Geoff stands up to speak, I recognise the impact the course is having. With occasionally tearful eyes focused on the middle distance, he sits ramrod straight as he talks us through being handed over by his drug-abusing mother at the age of two to the care of grandparents and then an aunt, of domestic violence, of underachievement and trouble at school, of being given drugs at 14 and of such a chaotic life as an addict that by the time he gets to this point, there is a kind of inevitability of him murdering a dealer. 

The effect of his account on the circle is markedly different from the impact of Boyce’s speech. Her talk of forgiveness was new and shocking to them, but the details of Geoff’s life are all too familiar. 

Tommy uses the phrase the “old social shtick” to refer to any attempt to plead mitigating social, family and educational circumstances for his choice of a life of crime. “It is what the parole people want to hear, isn’t it?” he explains. Which is certainly true. The liberal cliché is that everyone who ends up in prison does so because their mother didn’t love them, or their school excluded them and so on. “What it is really about is my choice,” insists Tommy almost angrily. “I’m not a victim.”

The thing with clichés, though, is that there is a vein of truth in them. Without wanting in any way to excuse what Geoff did, it would be hard to have a childhood like his without it making some impact on his adult life. He is in my small group and the point is put to him. “But I’ve never thought my childhood was that bad,” he replies.

The workshop ends with a final round of reflections. Almost all are positive. There is no longer any mention of sentence plans. Even Grant admits it has been “interesting”. He says: “When I was doing my ‘homework’ in my cell last night, I got to the bit that asks if there is someone I ought to forgive. I put no one. I may have left a trail of devastation but it is behind me and I’m selfish. I was about to write no one again in the section that said: ‘Is there someone you’ve hurt’, but then I looked up at the picture of my five-year-old son and I thought, ‘I probably owe him an apology’. He doesn’t understand why I’m in here and not with him, and why his mother’s house was raided by police.” 

Perhaps, I venture, that apology might stretch to his son’s mother? “No,” he snaps. “She knew what I was doing all along.”

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