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Seeing the Other Side

Jul 18, 2013

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Once so full of fear that she could not sleep or speak, Melissa now stood before a group of prisoners to read aloud a letter she wrote to the man whose crime tormented her for years. "What you did to me 14 years ago changed my life forever,” she read from her letter. She was recalling the day when a man held a gun to her head during a robbery at the bank where she worked in Queensland, Australia. While the robbery lasted only a short time, the ramifications from it continue to affect Melissa today. “I lost years of my life and years from my children’s life,” she lamented. “I prayed the world would stop. The world kept spinning, and while other lives thrived, mine stood still.”

Melissa is one of several crime victims who participated in PF Australia’s recent Sycamore Tree Project® (STP), which was held at the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre. Her story and those of the other victims provide a unique and important perspective to the participating offenders, many of whom have never seen the impact of crime from a victim's perspective.

"It's the first time I've ever done anything behind bars that has made me think about what I've actually done,” said one of the prisoner participants, who is serving a lengthy sentence for a repeat offense. “It’s made me stop and think...what I’ve actually done and how it has affected people.”

Everything in the eight-week course led up to this final session when victims and offenders shared with each other and guests from the community what they learned in the course. The STP course is typically held inside the prison. Victim participants join the prisoners each week for a two-hour class that examines crime, responsibility, forgiveness, restitution, and reconciliation. During the sessions, the victims tell their stories and explain how crime has affected their lives.

Through the experience, the prisoners learn that their criminal behaviour can alter the lives of many people for many years—their crimes are not simply isolated incidents that led only to their incarceration. “What we've found is that often prisoners don't know what the effects of crime really are to a person,” explains David Way, Executive Director of Prison Fellowship Australia in Queensland. The Sycamore Tree Project® changes that.

It’s a restorative process that doesn’t tend to happen in the traditional justice system. “They go through a whole court case, but they don’t really register that crime victims have been damaged by their acts in a long-term way,” explains Martin Howard, the STP facilitator. “The key thing we’re looking for is for inmates to grow in their ability to empathise,” he says, ”and the same thing for crime victims as well, to develop their level of empathy.”

The STP sessions are also a learning process for the victims. Although they choose to participate in the programme for a variety of reasons, they are often surprised at how their opinions of offenders change after taking course. They discover that prisoners are people too, with stories and backgrounds that ultimately brought them to prison. However, it is often in the telling of their own stories that the victims begin to feel heard, which helps them to heal. “Crime victims need a voice. They don’t have a voice in our court system,” says Martin. 

Ross also served as a victim participant, and like Melissa, he spoke at the final ceremony. It was the third STP in which he had participated. He initially became involved because he wanted his son’s brutal murder not to have been in vain.  “If [the prisoners] go out into society again and do not reoffend, how many lives does that save down the road?” he said to Steve Austin on the ABC morning radio show. He has discovered, however, that his participation in STP has not only changed the prisoners, it is also transforming him. “It’s a way of self-healing,” he says. “The more you tell your story, the more healing it brings within. Especially to talk to these guys, the perpetrators of are getting your message through to the people [to whom] it really counts.”

Members of Parliament and judges were among the public visitors who attended the final STP ceremony held in late April, and all left with positive reactions to the programme. "It's for society that we need this type of programme, and I'm 100 percent behind it," Michael Crandon, Member of Parliament for Coomera, remarked after the ceremony.

PF Australia only recently launched the STP in Queensland’s prisons, and this was the third course to date. Despite its short tenure, it has already dramatically impacted the prisoners, the victims, and the community.

See the original article.

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