Author: Tess Frame
As mortals, our justice system is flawed. The goal of legal and prison systems in society is to bring justice and consequences for wrongs done, rehabilitate, and (if possible) reintroduce every reformed criminal into society successfully, ensuring that crime is no longer perpetuated. However, there are infinite variables in each case. A combination of choice and circumstance leads each person to their fate, and no two are the same. It’s not within our power to fully heal or redeem each other (or ourselves). How can healing be found, from the crime and from the incarceration, for the victim, perpetrator, and their families and loved ones?
As I searched for the answer to this question, I spoke with several individuals with ties to the prison system in search of a variety of perspectives regarding incarceration and the process of healing and forgiveness that families go through. Among the people I spoke to were a Relief Society president of a women’s prison in Utah, the Reentry Services Program Coordinator for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, local religious leaders who have helped and counseled individuals and families through the justice process, and individuals with experience as the incarcerated person (or as a family member of the incarcerated person). Each interview gave me important information regarding the legal and emotional processes that a convict must go through, but one story in particular gave me the insight I needed to address every nuance.
A friend, Sarah, shared her family’s still-incomplete experience with healing and forgiveness after her grandfather committed crimes against some of the younger family members. His crimes were discovered almost ten years after the abuse had occurred. Once he was confronted by the affected families, he lied and even attempted suicide to escape consequence. He was ultimately arrested, sentenced to three years in jail, and excommunicated from the Church.
Learning of the betrayal tore the family apart. Some relationships were shattered, and others were made fragile by the pain caused. Sarah’s mother, the daughter of the offender, continued to maintain a relationship with him through his jail term. Right before Sarah left on her eighteen-month mission, she accompanied her mother to visit him in jail. Sarah described seeing her incarcerated grandfather, saying he had been visibly, physically humbled. The Spirit had left him, and he was desperate to be worthy of its presence again. He was obviously remorseful, and spent his time in jail learning and sharing the gospel he had known all his life.
When Sarah’s grandfather was released from jail early for good behavior, he completed a period of probation and mandatory counseling. He had to work to rebuild his relationships and his worthiness. His jail time was just one part of a long repentance (and forgiveness) process. He has since re-received the baptismal and temple covenants that had been broken. Despite his working through the steps of restitution, both legal and eternal, his betrayal continues to have lasting, generational consequences for much of the family. Many of them have become estranged from each other. Some have left the Church.
“This was six years ago, but there’s still a lot of hate and pain,” Sarah said. “Some of those family members seem that they will never be able to move on from the abuse. I’ve seen such depth of anguish in my family, but also a lot of healing through the Atonement.
“We don’t always get to choose what happens to us in this life, but we get to choose how we handle it. The family members who have leaned on the Savior and sought healing through the Atonement have been able to find it. And the family members who feel embittered toward God and feel justified in their actions continue to be poisoned by their own hatred. It’s been really interesting to compare the two methods. But still, no one can judge where they are in their process of forgiveness and healing. Feeling hate and pain doesn’t mean God isn’t still trying to help you.
“We partake in the blessings of the Atonement, and we are confident (or at least hopeful) that it will work for us. But if you think the Atonement doesn’t also work, or maybe even hope it doesn’t work, for the people who have harmed you, you aren’t fully trusting in the Lord’s ability to make whole, to erase sins and sorrows.”
This was the message that applies to every person, every family, every crime, every sentence. The Atonement works for everyone. Everyone. The sinners and the righteous, the rich and the poor, the believers and unbelievers. No one is exempt from its healing power. There’s no asterisk at the end of that sentence, no *except for those who have sinned against you.
Just as it’s not always possible for our legal system to produce change, it’s not always possible for us as individuals, either. We don’t have the ability to compel contrition or changes in behavior. Sometimes, it even feels beyond our ability to forgive. Fortunately, where our earthly efforts for restitution and absolution fall short, God’s eternal systems for justice and mercy are never-failing.
Our Father in Heaven loves us all equally and yearns for the return of every one of His children, regardless of their sins. It’s easy to see the truth in this statement when we apply it to ourselves, but less easy when we try to apply it to our abusers, betrayers, or enemies.
And yet, that is what is asked of us.
How, then? How do we actively seek healing and forgiveness? I asked Sarah how her mother had been able to forgive the grandfather and support him through his time in jail.
“My mom explained that if the roles had been reversed, she knew this man would visit her and support her. He would have written letters and sent uplifting articles to help and support her as she rebuilt her life, so doing those things for him felt like the right thing. She knew that what he had done was deplorable, and believed he deserved legal consequence. It was an important part of his repentance process, and once he had seen the process through, she recognized that it wasn’t her job to carry the weight of his judgment.”
Her feelings of love, her happy memories, and her bond with the incarcerated family member hadn’t been negated by her simultaneous feelings of sorrow, fear, and anger. She knew she had to allow these things to live side by side in her heart somehow.
Some family members have reached this point of forgiveness, and some feel they have found healing and forgiveness through the Atonement, but will never have a relationship with the grandfather again. Trust renewal isn’t always possible, even if forgiveness is. Even Sarah’s mother feels occasional pangs of resentment as she continues to process the trauma this abuse caused, and has to pause and seek peace from God.
The pain of disappointment, anger, and sorrow may not ever go away completely, but the Savior can lift those burdens if you turn to Him in faith. If it feels impossible to forgive, remember that while God is a loving God of mercy, He also delivers fair justice, and we can know that even if justice isn't achieved in this life, it will be in the next. Our anger and inability to move on do nothing to hold our offenders accountable. They only hinder us from being able to feel the fulness of the Spirit, and prevent our own closeness with the Lord.
Where there is deceit, betrayal, abuse, and heartbreak, there is opportunity for reparation. Just as the Savior’s Atonement allows us to be fully redeemed from sin, it provides the peace, comfort, and healing as we recover from the harm inflicted by others’ actions. It may not always feel within our ability to forgive, but it is always in God's ability. If you feel unable to find personal peace, forgiveness toward your offender, or relief from your resentment, remember:
“[...] The Savior loves to restore what you cannot restore; He loves to heal wounds you cannot heal; He loves to fix what has been irreparably broken; He compensates for any unfairness inflicted on you; and He loves to permanently mend even shattered hearts.”
We are all sinners, and we are all in need of healing and redemption through the Atonement. Listening with an open heart to the various stories that were shared with me as I researched for this article gave me such an expanded understanding of the compassion each convict deserves. My hope is that we can minister to those affected by incarceration with a new sense of love and understanding.
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