The sixth in the series of The Forgiveness Project’s ‘Conversations on Forgiveness’ took place on 18 August at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. The speakers were exploring the difficult question, ‘What’s the point of punishment if society won’t forgive?’. We heard from Shad Ali, whose family struggled to understand how he could forgive the man who violently attacked him in a Nottingham street; Jacob Dunne, who received a two and a half year prison sentence for manslaughter in 2011; and Liz Dixon, Senior Probation Officer and Restorative Justice Coordinator for London. The conversation was facilitated by Roger Graef, a criminologist and film-maker who has made a significant contribution to work on restorative justice.
Marina introduced the conversation with a quote from Kay Pranis, a leader in the field of restorative justice – “it is the community’s responsibility to reconcile with the one who has harmed because if they do not they set up the next victimisation”. This idea was the motivation for the discussion and provided an interesting jumping off point for all the speakers.
In his opening address, Roger explored ideas of power and control that lie at the heart of punishment. He described punishment as “an attempt to control the uncontrollable”, namely unsettling social change. People have a desire to control this because it makes them feel weak and so we punish the ‘easy targets’ to regain a sense of control. In this way, punishment actually feeds people’s sense of weakness. People who are generous about forgiving have “a kind of resilience” that is hard to develop but incredibly valuable.
Shad spoke about how from the first sleepless night in hospital, he knew he had no other desire than to forgive his assailant– he was adamant that he didn’t want to become disconnected and saw this as crucial to his healing. This decision was not popular and Shad talked about the resistance he encountered from his family, friends and indeed the police. Picking up on Roger’s earlier ideas, Shad described how for him, forgiving Glenn was a way of regaining control. He emphasised how for ex-offenders, their punishment continues even after they leave prison because of the way that society is set up – he finished on an emotive note, stating: “I’ll be waiting at the gate when Glenn is released.”
Listening to Jacob’s story of his arrest and imprisonment for manslaughter was an incredibly powerful experience, described later by an audience member as “humbling”. He spoke of his childhood, making it very clear that he was not trying to make excuses for his behaviour, rather he was exploring the path he had taken and how he had been shaped by his experiences – “I didn’t choose a criminal life, I just fell into it”. This echoed a later comment by Shad – when asked how he could so easily see humanity in his attacker, he stressed he was “very, very aware that I could have been Glenn and Glenn could have been me”.
Jacob’s spoke of how initially he felt he was the victim. He felt betrayed by his friends, who had written statements attesting to his guilt: it was his life that had come crashing down and he spoke about how this feeling was very much validated and encouraged in prison by other offenders. It was not until he started the restorative justice process that he began to realise that there were people who were “more of a victim” than him. This point was echoed by audience member Martin Wright, a leading RJ practitioner, who suggested that the most effective punishment of all is remorse. Jacob ended by stressing that as well as support, “offenders need a reason to change”. If they are simply leaving prison to be condemned by society and prevented from starting afresh, what motivation is there?
Liz picked up on this, stating that the repeated experience some offenders have of not being forgiven can extinguish any motivation for change. Although she recognised that it was not always the place of people in society to forgive offenders, something that should perhaps be reserved for the victims and their families, as a collective group society needed to make a commitment to rehabilitation if any real and lasting changes are to happen.
The comments from the audience drew out interesting points. One person asked Jacob what his feelings were now towards his friends, whether they had moved away from anger at being ‘betrayed’. He took time to think about this, before concluding that although they are no longer close and there was still tension, “if someone could accept me for what I did” then how could he not forgive them.
Another person spoke of how he was struck by Shad’s inability to see Glenn as anything other than a human being, highlighting the powerful effect that maintaining humanity can have. Shad spoke of his background in social work and the awareness he had that their roles could so easily have been reversed. He spoke passionately the systematic abuse of certain communities, his fear of young people being criminalised and the far-reaching effects of this.
It was clear that all the speakers made a significant impact on the audience and the questions reflected this, stimulating discussions on the responsibility of society and the criminal justice system towards creating a culture of rehabilitation; the personal stories shared by Shad and Jacob emphasised how this was not only incredibly necessary – it was also achievable.
For those interested in further reading, Liz Dixon mentioned several books on restorative justice that provide an in-depth exploration of the topic:
Roger Graef – Why Restorative Justice? : Repairing the Harm caused by Crime
Lesley Moreland – An Ordinary Murder
The next conversation will take place on 15 September, asking ‘Can you move on without forgiveness?’ To find out more about the series and to join in the debate visit www.theforgivenessproject.com/events.