We’re talking about forgiveness in the Dallas County jail this week. Everyone in jail has been charged with some offense, obviously, and many long for forgiveness from victims or family members who suffer consequences from their actions. Many also struggle to forgive themselves for the direction their lives have taken. Many are mothers who grieve not being there for their kids, and they can’t forgive themselves for falling down on that job.
A startling number of incarcerated women became victims of sexual abuse and violence long before committing any crime. In some cases, the signs of abuse are physical, permanent, and quite visible. Other signs are hidden. Child abuse has its most insidious and lasting effects when children are made to feel culpable in some way for the abuse against them. Sometimes they blame themselves for not preventing abuse against others, too. While some trauma survivors want to forgive their abusers in order to heal painful pasts and to find personal transformation, others need self-forgiveness for being crime victims. In short, the undercurrents nudging us to forgive and to seek forgiveness rampage like tidal waves through this group. Self-forgiveness proves the toughest nut of all.
Many of the inmates with trauma histories are incarcerated for criminal behavior consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder behavior patterns. When we talk about forgiveness, anger management, or any psychological issue in the jail, we use particular care not to trigger trauma memories. Jail for most is not a safe place for processing the wounds of trauma. Trauma memories can trigger PTSD behaviors that endanger other inmates, and that has severe consequences in jail. Jail is not a treatment facility, after all.
Hence, the forgiveness discussion requires a “trauma informed” approach. One way we prevent exposing inmates to triggers is not giving anyone a chance to share trauma stories. I make it clear that the introspection exercises they do in class are for their eyes only. Another way we steer clear of trauma triggers is to focus exercises on current resentments the participants are experiencing in jail. Those might result from tensions with other inmates or tensions with friends or family on the outside. It’s rare that an inmate does not have one or the other.
To be candid, I have an “elephant in the room” feeling about focusing introspection on current irritations. On the one hand it is easier to learn the steps to forgiveness with resentments that are not deeply held or woven into the fabric of one’s life. On the other hand, it’s also something of a missed opportunity that makes my heart ache. When I do forgiveness workshops with church groups, the hunger participants have to be healed once and for all from old wounds is utterly compelling. Of course, one who hungers, in all likelihood, is in a physically and psychologically safe place for confronting past hurts. As much as I want to expose inmates’ deepest wounds to the healing power of forgiveness, our first obligation is to keep everyone safe.
An exquisitely talented therapist leading the class with me is more than capable of managing any difficult psychological situations that arise. I’ll probably throw in a closing comment about applying the steps to process deeper wounds when one is in a safe place to do so. Tune in next week for some observations about what we all learned.
Join the conversation. What conditions make it safe to start the forgiveness and healing process?
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