There is nothing as profoundly powerful as forgiveness. The forgiving of others validates self-worth, builds bridges and positive futures. Forgiveness cultivated and understood keeps families and society solid as opposed to the corrosive anger that diminishes people into the darkest places, into effectively being mentally unwell. Anger is a warning sign to becoming unwell. Love comes more natural to the human heart despite that hate can take one over. In the battle between love and hate, one will choose love more easily when in understanding of the endless dark place that is hate and of its corrosive impacts. Hate can never achieve what love ever so easily can. Hate and anger have filled our prisons with the mentally unwell, with the most vulnerable, with the poor – and not with the criminally minded.
I have worked to turn around the lives of as many people in jail as I possibly could but for every inmate or former inmate that people like me dedicate time to in order to improve their lot – ultimately there is a tsunami of poverty related issues and draconian laws that flood offenders and fill prisons. Jailing the poorest, most vulnerable, the mentally unwell, in my experience, only serves to elevate the risk of reoffending, of normalising disordered and broken lives, of digging deeper divides between people, of marginalising people. It has been my experience that in general people come out of prison worse than they went in.
We push maxims such as violence breeds violence, hate breeds hate but yet we incarcerate and punish like never before. Instead of prison sentences working as some sort of deterrent we have reoffending, arrest and jailing rates increasing year in year out.
One of society’s failures is the punitive criminal justice system and the penal estate. However despite the punitive penal estate having clearly failed society, we continue with it. For some it has become easier to lie and act as if the failure is a success or as if there are no alternatives than to accept the workload in another direction. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in the Brothers Karamazov, wrote, “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
We have lied for so long in this capitalistic meritocratic society that for far too many, especially for those in the consummation of privilege – they have ceased to love and to forgive. The psychological, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of others, of those most vulnerable – lost to them. The mantra these days is the suffocation of ‘self-responsibility’.
Dostoyevsky, who also authored Crime and Punishment and the House of the Dead, wrote, “The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Australia has doubled its prison population in the last 20 years with a disproportionate hit on the marginalised, particularly the descendants of the First Nations peoples of this continent. First Nations people comprise 28 per cent of the total prison population though they are less than 3 per cent of the nation’s total population. I estimate that by 2025 First Nations people will comprise one in every two Australian prisoners. This is an abomination – moral, political and otherwise. From a racialised lens, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia jail First Nations peoples at among the world’s highest rates, with Western Australia competing for the mother of all jailers.
But what are their crimes? They have been born into extreme disadvantage, extreme poverty and into a spectrum with deplorable levels of likelihood of their deterioration from a state of hopelessness to being mentally unwell. Socrates understood that esteem was imperative to the striving for justice and goodness. This is where we fail people, we are not there to build or rebuild their esteem, to strive lovingly. Socrates would have us believe evils are the result of the ignorance of good. I am with Socrates, we have a society that is not bent by reinforcing the innate, of reinforcing ‘good’, but we are a society that demands an impression of what good might be and punish those who transgress. What we are after is unilateral orderliness among all people – and justice argues itself as blind, where everyone is equal but this is a stupendous lie, the law supports privilege and thrashes into the vulnerable, poor, sick – inequality is entrenched by the criminal justice system.
Sjoren Kierkegaard argued that sin meant wilfulness and unlike the Socratic view of ignorance of good, Kierkegaard was bent by the view that some people simply do not want to be good. As naïve as I may appear, the Socratic view aligns with what I have seen in prisons – of people who want to be good, innately are good, but who have accumulated despair, displaced anger, resentment from impoverished or disrupted upbringings.
– An inmate said to me, “It is best I am here, and best I keep on coming back, because it is the only hope my children have.”
– An inmate said, “I have no hope in here but it’s even worse out there.”
The penal estate is not rehabilitative, not restorative. There are limited job skills programs, limited education opportunities. The penal estate should have been an investiture in people rather than a dungeon, an abyss. The opportunity for healing, psychosocial empowerment, for forgiveness, for redemption, for education skills and qualifications are continually bypassed. This madness never ceases to shock me.
Australia’s overall prison rate of 151 prisoners per 100,000 population ranks 98th of the world’s 222 ranked nations. Australia is an affluent nation, the world’s 12th largest economy. However standalone Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders and compare their prison rate against the world’s national prison rates and they would have the world’s highest, just higher than the Seychelles which incarcerates at 799 per 100,000. The United States of America is second ranked at 698 per 100,000. However in Western Australia, First Nations peoples are incarcerated at more than 3,700 per 100,000. In Western Australia, one in 13 of all Aboriginal adult males is in prison.
No less than one in 10 and up to one in 6 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders living has been to jail.
Forgiveness is not an act of mercy but of empathy, compassion, of virtue. According to vast bodies of research forgiveness has many benefits, outstripping negatives and risks. Forgiveness strengthens families, communities, societies. The most significant finding is the obvious, that forgiveness makes us happier. Forgiveness improves the health of people and communities. Forgiveness sustains relationships. Forgiveness builds and rebuilds lives. Forgiveness connects people, and what better medium for this than through kindness. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission who argued forgiveness as the only way forward to “true enduring peace”.
Someone I correspond with regularly emailed me the Chinese proverb, “It is better to light a small candle rather than curse the darkness.”
We have seen where we will be led to when the only response to crime is punishment. The United States jails nearly one per cent of its total population – 2,300,000 people. Are so many really so bad or is the United States extremely harsh on its most vulnerable? One in four of the world’s prisoners are in American jails. This is the future we need to avoid. If Australia would consider an amnesty – an immediate release – of very low level offenders – more than 8,000 of its 35,000 prison population would walk out today. If Australia was prepared to release its mentally unwell either into community care or specialist care, again more than 8,000 would walk out today. But at all times we should be working closely, lovingly, forgivingly with those inside and so bring them out of the prison experience not worse but better.
As it stands now, there is an elevated risk of death by suicide, substance misusing and misadventure in the first year post release – up to ten times according to all the research. We do ever so little for people pre- and post-release.
Society – the criminal justice system, custodial systems and ancillary support systems – will gain more from forgiveness, helping, empowering people than from any other measure. This is not to suggest some crimes should not require imprisonment but that all people are capable of redemption, and that there are far too many who should not be jailed and instead supported, and that at all times we should be doing what we can for our most troubled souls.
People are more likely to be good without having to go to prison but instead who are supported. For those who are sentenced to prison, these must be places where people come first, not last. But there must be forgiveness. They must be assisted in every way to forgive themselves. As a society our focus must be on forgiving and redemption. The most powerful kick-start is a society – the justice systems and our Governments – who are forgiving and hence the message of love will rush to everyone. For far too many people, repentance without forgiveness is torturous. But we must be a forgiving society to make this possible, and for now the odds are against us, as for too many forgiveness is a radical, gratuitous proposition.