Reforming Violent Offenders

Edward W. Hoppe, chief psychologist at Deuel Vocational Institute in California, U.S.A., describes the typical violent criminal. He is a victim of child abuse before age 5. He has not learned the social skills most of us take for granted. As a result, he is impulsive, has poor judgment, often abuses drugs and alcohol, has low tolerance for frustration, and lacks honesty and integrity. He seeks to get what makes him feel good without having to buy it or earn it. He aims to solve all his problems with the least possible effort, and with a complete disregard for the consequences of his actions on himself or on others.

Punishment and prison do nothing to reform him. In California, the number of people in prison is around 160,000, of which 75,000 are identified as violent. Equal numbers of such persons are already in the community on parole. That means that roughly one person in every hundred is under the supervision of the justice system there, and half of that number are violent criminals. The social consequences of this problem are immense.

That’s the bad news.

The good news, though, is his study of a program that reduced the violent attitudes of 64 such inmates selected at random, to a level comparable to that of a non-violent control group (made up of 30 recovering alcoholics) within a period of three days. The program was based on the manual of the Quaker-devised Alternatives to Violence Project—the same course that over the past eight years has led me over and over again into half a dozen different prisons in Alberta and British Columbia, out of the sheer joy of seeing the transformation it works in those who take it.

Hoppe pins the secret of this success on something he calls “dissonance”. All of us create a picture within ourselves of what we and the world around us are like, and interpret events as they affect us in the light of the picture we have. Because of his background, the violent offender has within himself a picture of the world that is one of violence, “dog eat dog”, self-defence, and law of the jungle.

If we have experiences happen to us that cannot be reconciled with our interior picture, we have “dissonance”—the picture doesn’t square with our experience. Dissonance forces us to re-draw our internal picture of what we and the world are like. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, or Job in the Old Testament book of that name, we become ‘converted’.

So in the Alternatives to Violence Project, exercises are gone through that create this dissonance. Deliberately, and under very controlled conditions, participants experience frustration, through puzzles, games and exercises that take some effort and some degree of cooperation with others to work out. Participants, however, are also given methods to work through these problems to a successful conclusion, and try these out in ‘role plays’. So they gain the experience that people can be trusted, can work together, can solve problems without violence, and that life is much more fun when they learn how to do it that way. Hence, they are “transformed by the renewing of their minds.” (Romans 12:2).

It’s wonderful to see the Gospel message worked out, not in theory but in real life in this way. Not only in the jails, but in our churches and community, there are many folks who need to be freed from this grip of violence, and from their compulsion to control others rather than work out solutions with them.

– Anglican Messenger, October 2002