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an interview with Robin Casarjian


According to the Huffington Post, the United States incarcerates a higher proportion of its population than any other nation. As President Obama noted in July 2015, "The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners." A 2008 report from the Pew Center for the States first documented that for the first time in U.S. history, more than one of every 100 adults was in jail or prison.

Using state-by-state data, the report stated that 2,319,258 Americans were in jail or prison at the start of 2008 — one out of every 99.1 adults. The report also said the 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison costs was six times greater than for higher education spending.



At a time when most Americans still seem to equate justice with retribution, Robin Casarjian has a different vision. Author of Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart (Bantam), Casarjian is a Boston counselor and educator who began working in prisons in 1988, teaching forgiveness and helping prisoners develop “emotional literacy“ (a term originated by New York Times psychology reporter Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence). In 1995 Casarjian expanded her work by writing a book entitled Houses of Healing: A Prisoner’s Guide to Inner Power and Freedom. Houses is a simply written, pragmatic self-help guide that deals with such subjects as anger and resentment, grief, self-forgiveness, forgiveness of others, and regaining dignity. Replete with simple exercises, meditations, and checklists for self-reflection, Houses provides prisoners with a rare resource for psychological and spiritual self-healing. It is now part of an extended curriculum available from the Lionheart Foundation.

The readers’ responses to Casarjian are often more poignant than typical fan letters to authors. One prisoner wrote that Houses had been “an eye opener to me that I am not a bad person.” Another pleaded for a personal copy because “I need it like I need air to survive, but most of all because I want to better myself for me and my family.“ Merely by bringing up the idea of healing in relationship to the issues of crime and imprisonment, Casarjian has staked out the high ground in a debate where most commentators and politicians battle over who can come up with the most vengeful and punitive measures. At a time when the “corrections industry” is fast becoming one of the largest governmental enterprises, particularly at the state level, the fact that most prisons seem to serve as graduate schools for advanced criminality should cause widespread consternation. In the following conversation, Casarjian outlines her activist philosophy and answers criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.

What is the main thing that the public and media don’t understand about what’s going on in the prisons?
I think there’s a fundamental lack of understanding about the human spirit. At least it seems that way, judging by the people who are making decisions. The most important thing I can say is, “People change.” And people in prison change. They are either going to change for the better, in terms of emotional healing, maturity, and personal responsibility, or they are going to become more wounded, more despairing, more enraged in a way that fuels striking out against others in the future. There are about two million people in prison now, and at least 90% of these people are going to get out. The kind of experience that they have in prison is going to determine their success or failure when they return to society. I feel that real public safety can only be achieved if we’re willing to give prisoners the opportunity to turn their lives around. The way the system is set up right now, we’re not giving them that opportunity. We’re setting it up so that failure is almost an inevitable outcome.

The typical conservative might answer you by saying, “Giving prisoners the opportunity to change is a romantic ideal, but in fact these are bad guys who have hurt people. They deserve to be punished and to have opportunities taken away, not given to them.” What’s your response?
Being incarcerated usually involves having the most basic human liberties curtailed. That is punishment enough. But we severely undermine public safety when we view corrections simply in terms of punishment. We have to look at what approach to prison life is going to be most likely to instill a sense of responsibility in all those people who will be coming out of prison. What we have now is a multi-billion dollar punishment industry that we mistakenly call “corrections.” What I’m suggesting was the Quakers’ intent, by the way, when they started “penitentiaries.” They wanted to create places where prisoners could be penitent, get a grasp of what they had done and how they had affected people, and experience the deep and appropriate remorse that would lead to personal transformation. To do that you must have a system which provides prisoners with some avenues to insight and dignity.

It’s interesting to be reminded of the real meaning of “penitentiary.” I think the public perception of the prisons has more to do with a garbage heap where we dump violent offenders and junkies, and try to forget about them.
We do tend to lump all criminals together regardless of the nature of their crimes. Recently I read in the New York Times that 72% of the women who were admitted to New York state prisons in 1993 were nonviolent drug offenders. And there’s a variety of other reasons that people end up in prison. Once we lock up offenders, we like to pretend that the problem has been solved and we can safely walk away. Columnist Carl Rowan has said that too many Americans believe we can incarcerate and electrocute our way out of our worst social problems.

A liberal criticism of your approach might be that by encouraging prisoners to be self-reflective and penitent, you’re actually ignoring all those social problems, trying to convince the prisoners that they have to change instead of society.
Ultimately, it all has to change. With my book I’m trying to focus on one aspect. Although there’s no doubt that poverty, racism, and violence breed more of the same, nonetheless there have always been many individuals who have risen above their circumstances to become caring and contributing members of society. We cannot let prisoners languish until we “fix” society. There are all these men and women incarcerated with the opportunity to do some emotional healing. Regardless of what’s going on outside, ex-offenders are not likely to succeed when they leave prison unless they’ve done some personal work on healing and forgiveness. Of course emotional healing is not the whole answer. Prisoners need education and meaningful employment training opportunities, and the rest of us need prisoners to have these things too. Why? Because the recidivism rate for prisoners who get a college education is about five percent, compared to 40+ percent for the general population.

I wonder if our culture is so punitively minded not just because we’re afraid of crime, but because we really don’t think people can change. Perhaps we look at ourselves and decide we can’t change little things about ourselves, so how could prisoners possibly change much bigger or truly awful things about themselves?
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes a lot of sense. It may be true that without the necessary tools, support, and inspiration, change is very difficult if not impossible. But that’s what this work is about. Perhaps the issue is not really our capacity to change, but our willingness and intent to commit ourselves to the process. A lot of people might want their problems to change, but either don’t know how or are not willing to do the necessary hard work. They naively think it’s easier to blame others for their problems. Some of the lifers I’ve worked with are the most thoughtful, sensitive, mature, and evolved human beings I’ve ever encountered. But they were crazed, drugged-out teenagers or young adults when they came in. They’ve really used their time to grapple with their lives and their actions, what led them to make the choices that they made. So they aren’t the same human beings they were when they came in. They are people who have really used their time of incarceration to heal. But it’s true that many prisoners haven’t ever seen themselves as people who could change for the good, and no one else sees them that way. Thus life just becomes a negative, self-fulfulling prophecy for them. I’m really hoping that my book will help people see whole new possibilities for themselves.

In the latter part of your book you reveal that you were once raped, and that you forgave the perpetrator because you didn’t want to be his victim forever. Some victims of crime might say, “That’s fine for you, but it wouldn’t be healing for me.” What would you say to victims who say they neither want to forgive nor pay taxes to facilitate the process?
First of all, I would never tell anyone that they should forgive. I would only tell them that I believe forgiveness is a possibility for everyone, and that true happiness, the deepest inner peace, can only come with forgiveness. None of that happens without readiness, and part of the process of getting ready is being angry, for however long it takes. What I would say to any particular victim would depend on what I sense they’re ready to hear. To someone who’s absolutely closed, I may not have much to say. To someone else I might encourage them to honor their anger, give it a voice, or pursue therapy to deal with it. Or to try forgiveness first in “neutral territory,” that is, start forgiving people with whom they don’t have major issues, then later consider forgiveness of bigger things. Our ability to forgive is not dependent upon what’s happened to us. It depends on our understanding of what forgiveness does for us all, and our willingness to pursue it.

If you could influence typical prison policies directly, what recommendations would you make?
The first thing I’d like to see is the separation of violent and nonviolent offenders. There’s a violent subculture in prisons that creates a whole new level of punishment for some inmates, those who are particularly vulnerable and shouldn’t have to be confronted with violence on a daily basis. I also think there should be mandatory education, because there are clear, positive correlations between education level and recidivism rates. I’d also want to see mandatory counseling, including group therapy for specific offenses such as battering or sexual crimes. All offenders in certain categories need this kind of treatment. I believe release should be contingent on participation in counseling groups and treatment. Just “doing your time” should not be adequate justification for release. That’s like showing up for work, doing nothing, and still getting a paycheck. I think it’s outrageous that batterers or rapists can be released in six months or five years without ever having been required to do penance.



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In your book you urge prisoners to resolve difficult issues in their lives through the process of forgiving themselves and others. But there’s a popular view that the families victimized by criminals can only get emotional resolution through punishment, including capital punishment, of criminals. What’s the difference between these two kinds of resolution, in your view?
I know there are many people who belive in “an eye for an eye” or “punishment to fit the crime.” This has been the way of the world for a long, long time. But we can clearly see that rather than limiting or eradicating violence, this attitude has had the terrible effect of increasing violence. I’ve talked to members of murder-victim families who oppose capital punishment, and they don’t want to see the killers of their own family members executed because they perceive that enough violence has already been done, and they don’t want any more violence committed in their name. The sense of resolution derived from forgiveness is more profound than the resolution people temporarily derive through vengeance. Forgiveness doesn’t condone violent behavior, and it doesn’t mean you want murderers quickly released from prison. It does mean seeing everyone as human, seeing the woundedness that propels criminals to their acts, and also seeing their potential for healing. When we can begin to see the potential for healing in all humans and focus our efforts inside prisons on calling forth the best in prisoners, then we’re on the way to a new level of spiritual maturity and a genuine resolution of the repeating cycle of crime in our society.

Copyright 2015 by D. Patrick Miller. All rights reserved.
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