Guilt and innocence

In a memorable scene from the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” Red explains to Andy that every inmate at Shawshank is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Such assertions,usually with minor caveats, are more common than one might think: “I did not commit the crime they prosecuted me for. I did break the law at other times, but I did not do what they sent me to prison for.” Or this: “I did not deliberately break any law. I made some wrong choices, took some bad advice. But I did not set out to commit a crime.”

A prison sentence, regardless of the length, brings awful consequences to the life of the convicted and his family. I understand why a man in prison wants to diminish or deny his guilt. It is surely a defensive mechanism that somehow enables one to cling to some hope that a perceived injustice will some day be righted and an especially lengthy prison sentence will be ended on successful appeal.

Still, I am often distressed at the patterns of denial I observe among the men to whom I minister at Canaan. To believe many of them one has to believe that the entire criminal justice system mostly gets it wrong or, worse, is completely corrupt. For me that is a bridge too far. Yes, sometimes the system does get it wrong. Yes, sometimes there is racial bias. Yes, more often than not, the sentences for non-violent offenses are too long. But at the end of the day, most men in prison broke the law. Owning up to that fact without caveats and self-justification, for many, is difficult.

But I am beginning to discover that honesty can emerge when the setting is safe. In one of the recent Forgiveness Project sessions, I turned the class over to the participants, allowing them to interview one of their number about a time when someone did him wrong and how he responded to it. I provided basic questions, but the class participants asked many additional questions. In addition, they offered a number of insightful observations about the interviewee’s decisions and judgments before, during and after the incident. I was struck by the honesty that emerged, as well as the empathy expressed be all the interviewers. No one criticized or judged. The mood was of a group of men who have all made bad decisions and suffered the consequences, including a prison sentence.

What really encouraged me was the way several participants honestly acknowledged some of the mistakes that derailed their lives and listened as others sought to help them redirect their thinking toward a more hopeful future. I am sure that I could never have succeeded in producing such honesty if I had conducted the interview.

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