The truth will set you free
Every time I speak with or visit a client at Westgate or one of the other prison facilities, I am reminded of the lack of proper rehabilitation this Island has to offer prisoners and members of our community who have committed serious criminal offences. It is more often than not the prisoner themselves reminding me and expressing deep frustration. This problem may not be owing to lack of desire or even funding by the Government, but rather because of it being time to look at the situation differently.
It is very easy to empathise with victims of crime and to hear their need for their assailants to be punished. But what does this alone really achieve in the long run more than a temporary sense of relief and superficial sense that justice has been restored?
What else can society do to help ensure that criminal behaviour is not repeated and that those among us who have committed serious crimes can engage with services that provide a real chance of making a difference?
How can we assist convicted criminals become accountable for their actions?
A wrongdoer cannot maintain honour and dignity when they are allowed to continue to rely on excuses and justifications; and without these virtues, the unhealthy patterns just repeat themselves in a good, old-fashioned vicious cycle.
For starters, it is essential that we try to understand the convicted person’s experience. In order to understand it, we need to create an environment that facilitates sharing that information. We must understand that the human capacity for self-deception is extraordinary and the more unmanageable the guilt or shame, the more difficult it is for the wrongdoer to admit harmful behaviours, empathise with their victim and feel remorse.
People who commit serious harm cannot be reached or rehabilitated through actions that further shame or blame, or equally by letting them off the hook. Of course, it is helpful to consider how our difficult pasts or painful circumstances at present affect us, but they are not the cause of violent or irresponsible behaviour. People can be as honest with others about what they have done only if they can be honest with themselves first.
This is no easy task at the best of times, but it is impossible without assistance in understanding that, despite being incarcerated, everyone has agency and the free will to decide 1) whether they are going to change, and 2) how they want to change and become truly accountable.
Some may argue that certain behaviour deserves the individual who committed it to be defined as a “criminal” or “violent offender”, and that applying any language to them that softens or obscures this fact leaves them less accountable for their actions. But this is counterproductive, as it is natural for people to put up a resistance to the idea that their crime defines them.
The reality is people are much less likely to accept responsibility for their actions and access feelings of remorse within themselves that allow any chance of proper rehabilitation if they do not view themselves as more than a criminal. This does not mean minimising or denying bad behaviour.
For example, prisoners are extremely unlikely to engage in any meaningful way in a course entitled “Therapy for Violent Offenders”, but may be able to tolerate and successfully engage in the same course simply designed to teach tools to help them become stronger than their anger. The difference may seem subtle but is a very important one for us to consider when framing discourse around this subject.
We need to move away from language that labels prisoners as “bad” or “sick”, but rather adopt language that facilitates and enhances self-respect while holding them accountable for harmful behaviours. If perpetrators of crime can feel or access that part of themselves that is more than the crimes they have committed, they may be able to more readily recall and share incidents in their past where they believed, felt or acted in ways that they identified as good and honourable, and in turn consider honestly whether their criminal actions truly reflect their core values and beliefs about the sort of person they are or want to be. Only then can remorse and changed behaviour be achieved and be truly heartfelt and meaningful.
To complement this compassionate type of rehabilitation of offenders, we must find ways to move away from and replace the paramilitary style of running our prisons, and introduce more opportunities for prisoners to engage collaboratively with each other and with staff in an environment that cultivates trust — and with a much wider range of educational and technical courses on offer, over and above just being able to complete their GED. The Westgate library is the most depressing place on Earth.
No one is more dangerous than someone with nothing to lose. The more opportunities we can provide prisoners to grow, vocationally and internally, the greater chance we have of rehabilitating and effecting long-lasting and meaningful change within the criminal justice system.
Every human, including — perhaps, especially — those among us who have committed serious crimes, must be able to view themselves as multidimensional (good, bad and everything in between) and capable of the free will to integrate and fulfil their potential as productive, healthy members of society.
• Victoria Greening is the legal counsel and head of Resolution Chambers law firm