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5 amazing things I've heard during the Sycamore Tree Project(R)

Apr 17, 2012

by Martin Howard:

At first, it sounds like a bizarre social experiment - natural enemies placed together inside a prison to see if they can get along. Men convicted of violent crimes alongside victims of violent crime.

Even though the concept has been proven in over 25 countries, people still find it hard to comprehend the Sycamore Tree Project (STP). And it took a long time to convince the prison authorities in Queensland to allow it.

We've run two programs in the last twelve months and the results have been so remarkable, we have now have several prisons competing for our attention. We bring unrelated victims and offenders together for eight weekly sessions to discuss the consequences of crime. Our first set of crime victims enjoyed it so much, they came back a second time. Remarkable, considering the inmates included convicted murderers and armed robbers - and the victims had each suffered from serious violent offences.

An interesting social experiment indeed. But to win the praise of the prison officials AND crime victims organisations, it needs to be more than just interesting. What impressed them was seeing a transformation - hardened inmates undergoing a visible metamorphosis. 

It's difficult to describe the phenomenon that creates this effect during the Sycamore Tree Project, because it is not always visible "above the surface". But is unmistakeable in the smiles, kindnesses and gestures that make up the most powerful, silent side of our communication.

When it does surface, there are some amazing the things that people come out with. These are some I’ve heard more that once.

"I've never seen a program change people like this one." 

I've heard this from a prison psychologist and a prison manager, who are more familiar with the failures of the typical group therapy sessions. What they notice during STP is a change in the empathy level of the inmates. And they are stunned by the positive chemistry that is created within the group.

"I never realised how my crime affected my victim."

Offenders are rarely exposed to the story of their own victim during their court case, so they are unaware of the long term consequences of their crime. It can be quite a shock for them to learn of the crippling emotional and physical effects of their actions. But the dynamic of the program helps them to channel this new awareness into constructive mental patterns. 

"I like going in to meet the prisoners."

After the initial, natural reluctance of entering a jail and meeting real inmates, the crime victim's personal strength shines through and they sense a purpose in their involvement. When they realise the power of their story to impact a hardened criminal, they find it compelling to return each week to see the transformation continue. They actually form significant friendships with the inmates over the eight week journey.   

"I know what it's like to be a prisoner."

This is frequently mentioned by victims in the program, and it resonates deeply with the inmates. The experience of living with the emotional and physical damage of crime usually drives the victim into a hermit-like existence, withdrawn from their friends and social life. They talk of being prisoners in their own homes, or "doing time" as they struggle with anger and pain.

"I know what it's like to be a victim of crime."

As the inmates tell their life stories, it becomes obvious that many of them have been victims of crime, often early in their lives, at the hands of people they trusted. This self-awareness comes as a surprise to the the visiting victims and creates a healing bond.

I am sure that other STP facilitators around the world hear these same words spoken in many different languages. They are just snapshots of the two month journey of the program. The transformation evident by the final graduation session in week eight is so tangible that visiting guests are usually gobsmacked by what they see - natural enemies who have become friends. There are tears and hugs mixed with joy and good wishes. This is why we will continue to see this program winning over the sceptics.

Martin Howard is the facilitator for the Sycamore Tree Project in Brisbane, Australia. You can find out more about this implementation including press articles and audio interviews at

For further information about the Sycamore Tree Project go to:

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lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Apr 18, 2012 01:22 AM

Thank you, Martin. I am always so very encouraged to read articles like this detailing the positive impact that restorative justice in-prison programmes are having on victims and offenders alike. These programmes are the future of correctons because they have positive benefits for the crime victims while impacting the lives of offenders. It is truly a win-win. <br /> <br />The creator of the Sycamore Tree Project, Dan Van Ness, has never really gotten the credit he has deserved since he first conceived of the project in 1998. I was lucky, and blessed, to have directed that project in the state of Texas. Thank you, Dan, for all you have done in this field for so many years. <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />Founder &amp; President <br />Restorative Justice International <br />~a global network since 2009 <br /><a href="" rel="nofollow"></a>

Agnes Furey
Agnes Furey says:
Jan 18, 2013 04:08 PM

I've participated in victim/offender awareness groups. Even in one ninety minute event change can be apparant.

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