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Monthly Musing: What I learned from Students Behind Bars

Recently, I presented two restorative workshops to the inmates at the Federal Prison for Men in Terre Haute, Indiana. I opened with the impact of crime on victims, the domino effect of crime, and how the pain never dissipates. These workshops addressed pain, healthy grieving, accountability, changing behavior, redemption, the forgiveness of others–and more importantly–the forgiveness of self. We discussed the individual gut-wrenching questions on the very palpable pain many are suffering behind bars. My students became my teachers, as often happens in this Soulular work we do together.
I have been reflecting on my visit, and am in gratitude and awe of the Universe for the healing that the workshops inspired in most of the 150 men in attendance. I have learned from these students that they are not only able and willing to change their criminal behavior but also grateful for the opportunity to grow and transcend their mistakes.
When implementing forgiveness of self, a significant opportunity lies in addressing one’s mistakes; inside of the error, we find the inspiration to change offending behaviors. We all have a shadow side, can fall prey to anger, and say things we later regret. This propensity to judge in anger creates tension, separation, and mistrust in our meaningful relationships with family, friends, and work colleagues. We have all suffered from these experiences.
Here is an opportunity to deal with it in a positive and sustainable way. The ability to look at our faults and forgive ourselves is a strong motivator to not fall back into this damaging behavior. This behavior can be effectively changed and sustained through forgiveness work to positively impact those around you.
At the end of my recent prison presentation, I received warm handshakes and hugs from many of the participants. I previously presented this restorative curriculum in Leavenworth, Milan, and Petersburg with similar success. It is emotional (as you would expect) but also cathartic and incredibly healing! As I left the prison, I also shed tears, grateful tears for the opportunity to offer healing to a community in need, and tears of hope, wishing I could do more. The good news is most of the participants in the audience have a parole date in the next few months with the longest ones about 3 years away. Many have served over 20 years behind bars!
My workshops are typically offered to students that are in varying timelines of an 18-month voluntary program and to those who have a parole date in the ensuing 3 to 5 years or sooner. The Life Connection Program (LCP) is run by the Chaplain, and unfortunately, it is only offered in a handful of federal prisons at the moment. Each inmate is supported by a spiritual mentor. So, if you are Christian, you are supported by a Minister, a Rabbi if you are Jewish, an Imam, if you are a Muslim, a Monk if you are Buddhist, and if you are none of the above, by a spiritual teacher. The Chaplain (whom I had met before at another federal prison), and the handful of spiritual advisors also attended my recent presentations.
I was deeply touched by their loving energy and care for the students and their future on the outside. This deeply moving humanization is evident in how they treat and interact with the community, they do not refer to them as “inmates” but as “students.”
In my workshops, I teach my proven 3-step process of forgiveness. I address the importance of taking responsibility and being fully accountable for their crime (irrespective of the circumstances) and teach them to ask for forgiveness of those they have harmed. After that process is complete, we graduate to self-forgiveness which is more difficult. Through restorative practices, we aim to forever change their offending behavior and explore social redemption by helping at-risk kids in their communities from not following in their former criminal footsteps. In other words, the power of redemption and service helps their healing process.
I share Tony’s story, to inspire them to restore themselves and their community once paroled. Tony, who took the life of my only son, is now volunteering for the Tariq Khamisa Foundation to do exactly that – his presence is stopping other kids from repeating his regrettable action 27 years ago. He truly wishes he could turn the clock back and make different choices. My forgiveness of him totally shifted his future trajectory and it has the same potential for these prospective parolees.
As a part of the healing process, I create a compassionate space for their victimizations and teach them the steps to forgive their abusers. Having done this work for several years, I have yet to meet an offender who was not themselves a victim first. Some of the stories they share are very hard to digest and it is unfathomable that humans treat other humans in these torturous ways. Heartbreaking!!
Here is some good news and hope. The recidivism rate in the federal adult prison is 66.66% but if you graduate from LCP the recidivism rate falls under 17%. Pretty amazing to see the data! What this means is that 83% of the inmates do NOT return back to prison, have changed their offending behavior, and are helping others not fall into the same trap of crime they formerly did.
We can all agree that one of the hardest things to do is to change behavior. That is true for me as well – I drink too much caffeine! In the words of Henna Inam, “To change any behavior we have to slow down and act intentionally rather than from habit or impulse.” I believe one of the strongest motivators to change behaviors is the process of self-forgiveness.
As part of the self-forgiveness process, seize the opportunity to change your behavior and help others not fall prey to the same predicament. Many of the paroled inmates and the gentleman in Eugene (read about him below in the QOM), have found a purpose in changing their behavior by helping others in their communities learn from their negative experiences. Giving back to society, your workplace, or your family in a helpful way also helps to forever transform you and your life.
Restoration is yours; innocence is yours. From your negative experiences, you have an opportunity to gain much wisdom like these incarcerated men. Take a bold stretch in your journey to rise above your past mistakes and learn from them, ultimately leading you to apply and then teach the lessons you have learned.
The lesson learned and reflected back to me from my students behind bars: learn from your offending mistake and change your offending behavior. Inspire yourself by living a life of accountability, empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and love. It will transform you, your friends and family, your co-workers, and those you interact with.
Silently bless and pray for the people who offend you before they apologize, before they make amends, and before you even feel like doing it. After you do this for a while, you will never want to go back to holding on to your pain and punishing yourself. A new you awaits.
Peace and many blessings!
Azim Khamisa
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