Lately, I became fascinated with, and watched many documentaries about prisons and interviews with people who did atrocious actions (such as killing). My fascination comes from my deep wish to understand: What is it that leads people to violence and actions that create so much damage- to others and to themselves.
I like to share with you a story of a man who executed a killing. For me this is a story that not only demonstrates the tragedy of the action, but also the power of empathy in how possibly it could have been prevented:
Preventing violence and the prison system:
This story contains images that can be disturbing. Read it only if you are up for it:
As often is the case of people who executed violent actions, this guy had a horrible childhood. When he was 5 years old, he was taken by the Child Protection Service to an orphanage because his father raised him in horrible conditions; neglect and violence.
Also in the orphanage he had some terrible experiences.
From the orphanage he was taken to a foster family he really liked, where for the first time he thought he had a family and he experienced safety and love. After being with this family for over almost a year, this family needed to move to another country; He was left again.
After another period in an orphanage, he then got adopted by a teacher. At first thrilled and happy, he felt he finally had a home with this man. Soon after, this man started to sexually abuse him. This abuse continued for years.
When he was 16, together with his best friend, he went to the police to tell them about this abuse. The police send him away.
When he was 18 he decided to go to the two people he trusted the most, and where he experienced human warmth with; his grandparents (the parents of his adoptive father) who were living just around the corner. He decided to tell them the secret he was holding for all those years about the abuse he experienced.
And guess what, after few sentences, his grandparents responded with: “But…” and said it is not true what he was saying. In that moment, he lost it completely. Something exploded deep within him and he has no memory of what happened next. And yet, it is very clear what happened next: He killed both his grandparents in the most violent way imaginable.
Marshall used to say: ‘never put your Butt to an angry face’ – which is a joke – ‘Butt’ is buttocks. While he refers to: never say a ‘But’ to an angry face.
Especially when people are angry, it means a sensitive spot came to the surface and underneath they carry A LOT of pain. Responding to a person with a ‘But’ means literally: “All what you said so far is bullshit, here I will tell you the truth”. You can well imagine what happened to this person above when he heard his grandparents saying ‘But’… His whole system simply exploded.
I so so so mourn his grandparents didn’t learn the simple skill of empathy. It would have been soooo simple to prevent it all, simply by listening and welcoming his experience. The result of this conversation would have been healing, instead of a murder and a death sentence which he received as a result.
About the prison system:
I am not against prison, and yet, I wish the intention and the practice of it to be radically different. I wish it to be a Protective (and Supportive) use of force instead of Punitive use of force.
I listened to an interview with a serial killer: When he was asked whether he would have continued killing if he was not arrested, he answered: “Yes! I do not see anything that would stop me from doing it, it was an obsession”. I am very happy for the prison system to exist as a protective use of force. I wouldn’t wish him to be my neighbor before this has changed…
I wish prisons to serve as protection and re-education, not as punishment.
If I would have the power to choose the ‘educational program’ in prison, here is what I would set up:
A) I wish people in prison first to be heard in a safe environment- 1 empathy session per day (if they want)- So that they can share and be met empathically with the past and present pains they carry.
B) To listen and support the discovery of the very needs they were trying to meet by their actions, and to then notice that their actions didn’t meet those very needs for the long term. And to mourn it.
C) To slowly develop more and more new sustainable strategies to care for those very precious needs.
D) They will go out of prison based on mutual agreement where all feel safe, including a certain follow up, to see that they and the people around them are safe.
With much hope for empathy and safety for all.