Friday 9 November 2012

"Encouraging stories? Do you have all day?"

Full transcript of interview with Timothy Khoo and Dominique Alexandre, of Prison Fellowship International. Unless otherwise specified, answers are by Timothy Khoo. See news report here.

Transcrição complete da entrevista a Timothy Khoo e Dominique Alexandre, da Prison Fellowship International. Salvo indicação em contrário, respostas são de Timothy Khoo.

What exactly is the work that you do?
Prison Fellowship is an association, we were 124 countries two days ago but have added Guatemala, Dominica and Guiné-Bissau, so we are now 127 countries around the world. The work of PFI is the provision of services and coordination of these affiliates. We don’t do the work directly, we rely on them to do the work.

What work are we talking about?
Work with prisoners, former prisoners who have been released, and whilst the prisoner is in prison, the families of prisoners. Some countries do preventative work with youth at risk, others work with victims. Some, additional to that, work within the system, in an area we call restorative justice.

Anything to do with the criminal justice system, from the time of being caught, to sentencing, incarceration and release and following through after that.

In general do you manage to work well with the state?
Each jurisdiction is different, but generally speaking, around the world, we have a good working relationship. In countries where security is a greater concern there would be more restrictions in terms of volunteers being able to go in, but generally speaking the prison systems are very open to what we do, but we are also sensitive to security issues and the needs there, and we don’t impose our set vision of what we think needs to happen.

Why should society as a whole worry about how we treat prisoners?
The main reason is very logical. The vast majority of prisoners will eventually be released into the community. If there is an intervention to help them look at life differently, turn over a new leaf and, from our perspective, experience an encounter with God and a transformation in their lives, often what happens is that they go into prisons with one set of criminal skills and unfortunately they learn new skills. If there is no intervention they are going to come out worse. So that is obviously a concern to society. So the work of Prison Fellowship, in terms of intervention, becomes critical, we want to work ourselves out of a job, so that those that go in don’t get drawn back into the cycle.

Some of the statistics are staggering. In Brasil, for example, the recidivism is sometimes as high as 80%. So 8 out of 10 prisoners will go back into the system. But in Brasil there is a project called Associação Para a Protecção e Assistência aos Condenados (APPAC). And they have been doing it for 35, almost 40 years. And whereas the rate of recidivism is 80% over three years, with APPAC it is 12%. That is just over one person in every 10 goes back to prison.

So on one hand you have safer streets, but you also have an effect on the budget, because when criminals go to prison the state has to pay to keep them there, so the less of them go in, the less the state has to pay for housing, clothing, keeping them. So it is not logical to say leave them there, because most of them are going to come out, what happens when they do? So the intervention that Prison Fellowship around the world brings is really to cooperate with society and Government, to help alleviate the problem of crime.

This is a Christian project…
It is a Christian based organization. We have seen evidence of where, when a person has an encounter with God, and their life is changed, that often results in a mindset shift which helps in that journey away from what they have perhaps known all their life, which is crime. There has to be that point in their life where there is a 180º turn.

How do you reach people who live from crime and for crime, for whom an encounter with God is probably the last thing on their mind?
In some respects that is true when they are on the streets. But when you get to prison the experience is that your life is suddenly stripped of everything. Your freedom, your sense of dignity, self-esteem, self-worth. You are literally at the bottom of what life can throw at you. It is usually at that point in time that you begin to think of the larger reality of your life. So quite the on the contrary, I think there is a greater openness of prisoners in terms of their spiritual life than what you might think, because they are at the bottom of the barrel.

This is an ecumenical movement. Do you do any interreligious work as well?
For example in the Middle East. In Egypt, in Minya, which is known for extreme Islamic views, Prison Fellowship International operates largely out of Minya, where a Catholic priest and an Imam formed a group called Hand in Hand. When it comes to prisoners the needs are so immense that you can’t act alone, you have to work together. Whilst we each have our own beliefs we are not there to convert each other, but to serve the needs of prisoners.

Prison Fellowship International was founded where?
The organization was founded in the states. But in many countries prison ministry already existed, by other names, and we invited them to be part of the organization, to make things more efficient.

What is the reality of the prison systems in Western Europe?
Dominique: I can underline the fact that in Switzerland, Northern Europe, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, the prison system treats the prisoners with more dignity than in Latin and southern Europe. In a way the system is more advanced.

What is it like to reach out to someone, try and help them, and then see them come out, commit a crime and all the work was in vain?
I think people who work in prison fellowship are generally very resilient. Because you are right, it is painful and disappointing that somebody you have worked with for a couple of years goes out, seems to be doing well, and then falls again and ends up in prison.

But the heart of the Gospel is that there is hope, even if we fall once, or twice, or three times. One thing we look at is how long were they out for? If it is like a revolving door, and they are in again after one month, but the next time it’s a year or two years, and ultimately they stay out altogether. We have to have a long term perspective.

There is a subculture in prisons, a sense that somebody who has grown up on the streets and knows nothing else, not a day of work, just picking pockets, breaking into people’s homes… you have a whole mind-set that needs to change. When you have an encounter with God it is easier, but there are years and years of learning which need to be unlearned. It’s not that if you do a good job the person should come out and never go back again. You have to take a long term view.

However, some cases, like the Brazilian APPAC, do give you a much greater level of success.

How about the people you want to help, but they are just not interested?
You have to give somebody a measure of freedom of choice, but the idea is that success breeds success. When they see a change in another inmate, they see that that person is able to stay out of prison longer or altogether, then they say that there is something they are missing. Because prison life is not a life, the sense of deprivation of human freedom is a huge loss.

It’s one of those situations where those who are successful tend to pique the interest of those who do not seem interested, but there will always be those who are no interested at all, but that is something we just have to live with.

Dominique Alexandre, à direita
You also work with families of people who are in prison, how important is that work?
Dominique: We have a special programme, Angel Tree, it is a programme for children of prisoners which helps the parents, father or mother, who are in prison, to get together to strengthen the family link between them through Christmas Presents. This is with the help of volunteers who go to meet the incarcerated person, help him write a letter and choose a present which then the volunteer might buy on his or her behalf and give to the child, or then organize a meeting; it varies from country to country.

We also have summer camps for children of incarcerated parents in many countries. We really consider the children of incarcerated parents as a very important target, because the experts say that a child who has a parent in prison is five times more likely to go to prison himself one day. So it is prevention for these people, and it is also a way to help them not to be stigmatized, because it is very easy for them to become victims of how people look at them at school because they have parents in prison.

Also, outside of Europe children are incarcerated with their parents in some countries.

Until what age?
Sometimes indefinitely, we have seen cases of kids in their early teens incarcerated with their parents.

And subject to the same conditions?
Essentially, and probably worse, because of potential abuse. Families and kids are very important because the families, if you think about it, are innocent victims of crime. It’s not their fault that their father committed a crime. They suffer the consequences of that person’s offending, and there is a high likelihood of them ending up in prison, so it is breaking that cycle.

It must be a tough judgement call. On one hand I understand the importance of establishing and maintaining a connection between children and their incarcerated parent, on the other, you probably don’t want some of these people to have much contact with their kids…
It’s a good point, but I think what we’ve seen is that when a father begins to see his responsibility as a father, that softens him to another reality. Because up to the time of incarceration some of them didn’t have a clue how many children they had fathered.

Now you still have that, some of them will never want to have any contact with their kids, so in a sense it’s a self-filtering process. But those who do, even if they are a bad example… a child always needs his father, will always look up to him, even if he is a criminal. Change the father, you change the child. We have seen wonderful examples in which the person in prison for the first time realises his responsibility as a father.

In some respects it is a tough balancing act, but we’ve seen that when a man takes on his responsibilities it changes his perspective and makes him more amenable to change as well.

I take it for granted there are exceptions where the father has been abusive…
Of course. We know from the system what the prisoners are in for, and if it’s a crime against their own family… But having said that we’ve had situations in which we had reconciliation programmes, because whereas the physical separation is necessary, the emotional and spiritual reestablishment of that bond is something that can happen. So we have these programmes, not only between victims and offenders, but between offenders and their families as well.

So you work with victims as well?
Dominique: Yes, it is a priority. In Italy we had a programme called the Sycamore Tree programme where victims and offenders in prison come together and, over six or eight weeks in sessions we share and the offender will grow in the understanding of the impact of his crime and how it has affected the victim. It is not his victim who is in front of him, but a victim who has suffered from crimes. The testimony of the victim raises awareness of the offender to the impact of the harm done and helps him to enter into a process of being sorry and willing to repair the damage done, in as much as he can.

Sometimes it’s just writing a letter saying how sorry he is, when it comes from the heart, that can help to heal the victim’s heart, because the victim also needs some support in understanding that the criminal has also been a victim, during his childhood, and that helps the victim enter this healing process.

In Italy we brought together victims and offenders of the Mafia network and it has been very productive in that people, after the sessions, gave their testimony saying that they are not the same people and that they feel reconciled with the offenders, with themselves, with God and with society in general. This is an example, but they are really a priority in our organization.

Have you ever been in situations of danger?
Threatened, probably not. We have at least a hundred thousand volunteers worldwide, so somebody may have had that experience that I don’t know of, but generally speaking they never raise the issue of personal safety. Prisoners have the idea of honour among thieves. When they see a volunteer come in, with no agenda, not paid to do it. There is a purity of motive there which the prisoners appreciate. If anything, I think they would have protection against other criminal elements inside the prison.

Manipulation, yes. Again, when you’re dealing with prisoners who have, all their lives, seen life from a very different perspective, antisocial behaviour and manipulation are clearly there. That is why training is so important, to help the new volunteers understand that they are dealing with people who are completely different from anybody you have dealt with before, there will be manipulation and you have to be prepared for that.

But personal safety is really not a huge concern for most of our volunteers, the purity of motive is appreciated. Because many of these prisoners have never had a visit before, they have no family, they have been completely cut off. The very fact that somebody is interested in them, with no other agenda, is powerful, life giving.

How about success stories, stories that have touched you?
Do you have all day? There are Many.

One I encountered not too long ago in Singapore, it’s part of a faith based programme. Forty guys who have been in prison, some of them upwards of 20 years. Many of them are part of these secret society mafia organizations, but they renounce that. They actually stand in a yard in front of 500 other prisoners and renounce their links to the secret societies.

Another thing they do, they have tattoos covering every square inch of their bodies, which show their affiliations, and half of these guys decided to remove the tattoos from their bodies, which is a hugely painful process. And I asked them why they did these things.

And one of them looked at me and smiled a toothless smile and said “because I am a son of God. I have a new boss. I am a new man”. As Paul says in Corinthians, if anyone be in Christ he is a new creation, all things have passed away, all things are new”.

And these men have embraced their fatherhood, they have embraced their wives, they have asked their wives for forgiveness, some of them wanted to reconcile with their victims. That, to us, is why we do what we do.

In these situations would they be putting themselves in danger?
Absolutely! When they come out they are at risk of being taken out by an unhappy boss, but they realize that this encounter with God is so powerful that they are willing to do anything and take their rightful place in the community. But again, honour among thieves, the boss might say that he made a free choice, and respect that.

I have many stories, but I think particularly of one inmate in Switzerland, called Ludovic, and he has completely changed. He said to the volunteer, “since you started visiting me I am a new person, this is a new life for me.” The guards also noticed this change. He avoided a riot in the prison saying that they needed to find peace and avoid violence. Whereas before the visits he didn’t want to hear anything about God or religion, and he was quite violent. His behaviour has changed completely and he has opened to God. This is through the fact that he has had a visit, a human presence. The volunteer didn’t even speak of God, but he was there to tell him that he was someone important and that somebody was caring for him. That was the start of a change for him.

There are many different programs, some secular, others state run, yours is a Christian programme. What is the difference?
The key word is transformation. Most programmes, as good as they are seek to bring a level of rehabilitation, change the person, but when you are dealing with a sub-culture which is completely different, the whole notion of rehabilitation is incremental at best.

But when that person has an encounter with God, that transformation is where we think is the key, that personal relationship with God becomes a key trigger for, again, an 180º turn. The 180º happens quicker with an encounter with God than it does with an incremental rehabilitation.

Voluntários europeus da PFI
It’s not that these other programmes don’t work, but what you want is to really get to the heart of the person, help them see. And Sycamore Tree programme really does that, makes them take responsibility for their crime. Because the vast majority of criminals will tell you they are not guilty, not because they did not commit the crime, but because it is their parent’s fault for neglecting them, it’s societies fault for not giving them a job, it’s everybody else’s fault, there is no responsibility. The transformation doesn’t quite happen, they will find another justification for doing what they are doing. But when they take responsibility then they see that they need to change. Not society. And that, to me, is why there is such significant success in programmes like APPAC and other faith based programmes such as the one in Brazil and in other parts of the world.

Dominique: I would add one word. Our ministry is based on Matthew 25, of course, when Christ says “I was in prison and you visited me”. We try to look for the presence of Christ in the prisoner. So even if there is only 5% of good in this prisoner, and 95% bad, the fact that he starts to look to this presence of God, just through the fact that we start a friendship with him and start to trust and care for him, this part will grow and God is, little by little, taking his place in his life.

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