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
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Alternatives to Violence Project

One of the most valuable experiences I have gained from my exposure to the Canadian corrections system is to have been put in touch with AVP—the Alternatives to Violence Project.

In 1975, after a riot at Greenhaven Prison in New York, a group of inmates approached Quakers who had been involved with Martin Luther King’s non-violent struggle for civil rights, asking them to teach inmates how to deal with conflict in a non-violent manner. The result is this weekend course, run by volunteers and taught at both a basic and advanced level, now spread to Canada and some forty countries of the world.

AVP is an experiential program, so that long lectures about why we do what we do are likely out of place. Just the same, the following account of the way in which the Basic course is shaped is a convenient way to explain what it’s all about.

(6) There are six basic human reactions to any situation. Three of these are based on fear and consequent violence: Fighting, Fleeing and Submission. Three of them are based on trust and mutual help: Nurturing, Being Nurtured, and Cooperation for the common good.

The aim of AVP is to move from the attitude of fear to one of trust, from the law of the jungle to the law of love and harmony. So people who would otherwise be fighting, running away (often into alcohol or other drugs), or living in forced submission to the violence of another (think of the prison system), learn ways of creating trust around them, and with that trust come non-violent and helpful patterns of behavior.

(5) In order to move from a climate of fear to one of trust, we lay down certain rules. No one, for the duration of the course, may create fear in another. So we set these five ground rules:

Confidentiality is to be respected.
No Put-downs, of self or of others.
Everyone has the right to speak without being interrupted.
People are to volunteer themselves only for any task.
Everyone has the ‘right to pass’ if an exercise disturbs them.

(4) With the ground rules laid, we commence a fourfold process:

Affirmation – asserting the inherent worth of others and self.
Communication – learning both how to speak and how to listen.
Cooperation – learning how to work with others for a common end.
Conflict resolution – learning how to settle differences in peace.

(3) In learning how to resolve conflict, we have three rules:

Think before reacting (Faith). A person’s automatic response in any new situation generally comes from fear. Count to ten, plan what you’re going to do, then do something more constructive.

Expect the Best (Hope). Things don’t usually work out quite as badly as we fear. Don’t behave as if they will.

Work for the Win-Win solution (Charity). Don’t play ‘Win/Lose’. Seek out the solution that both sides can live with.

(2) Dealing with other people, there are two rules to remember:

(1) Respect Yourself – you don’t have to be a doormat!

(2) Care about Others – don’t treat others as doormats!

(1) At the center of yourself, those you deal with, and the Universe itself, is an intelligent and loving energy that works for good—if only we will allow it to operate. AVP calls it “Transforming Power”. Rely on it.

Personally, I find this “6-5-4-3-2-1” approach a rather useful way of dealing with the problems of life. Certainly, it has been known to transform the lives and attitudes of the inmates taking the course, and bring laughter and fellowship to a location where these are generally all too rare.

What is so odd, though, is that folks like you and I on the ‘outside’, who have likely not experienced the trauma of having their violent conduct identified and punished, generally have little or no idea of how much their own lives are filled with violence, and how far this takes them from the kingdom of the “Prince of Peace”.

The dedicated band of volunteers in the Edmonton area who facilitate this course are quite prepared to arrange for you to attend a course in one of our local jails, or to put on Community Workshops outside for groups or individuals who would like to experience the transformation the course can bring about.

– Anglican Messenger, February 2005*