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Home  >  Features  >  The Healing of the Sycamore Tree


The Healing of the Sycamore Tree

The Healing of the Sycamore Tree

Wednesday November 16 2022



As Prisoners’ Week begins on Sunday, Martin Forrest outlines the work of a project focussing on restorative justice and victim awareness.



Nemo me impune lacessit...that's the motto on the coat of arms outside the High Court in Glasgow. No-one attacks me with impunity, retributive justice, society's instinctive approach to the problem of crime.


But to the people who work in our prisons it is not just a ‘problem’ we're confronted with. It's human beings. And given that one day the vast majority of those in prison in Scotland are going to get out, the prison service is deeply committed to helping those in custody to transform their lives and address the issues that led them or keep on leading them to prison.


And retributive justice on its own will not do that. Healing is also needed, the restoration of hearts and minds, the repairing, where this is possible, of people and relationships that have been torn apart.


Which is where chaplains in prison have a distinctive contribution to make. Biblical justice is restorative. God's response to human wickedness or carelessness is always driven by concern for the victims. But God's concern for the perpetrator is also clear, from the protection of Cain, to the prophets' desire to 'restore' sinful Israel, to Jesus' persistent forgiveness.


And one of the most effective ways chaplains have been able to help those in our care to address the consequences of their actions has been through Prison Fellowship’s Sycamore Tree course. In Low Moss Prison, since 2012, we have run over 40 of these six-week courses with almost 400 participants successfully completing it. Led by a small and amazingly committed team of volunteers this course uses the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus to explore the experiences of victims and the possibilities, limited though they may be, of perpetrators doing at least something to repair some of the damage they have done.


The course begins by pointing out that victims often feel marginalised by our justice system because retributive justice asks three questions: What law has been broken? Who is to blame? What punishment is appropriate? But here all the focus is on the offender.


Restorative justice puts victims back at the centre by asking three different questions: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Whose responsibility are they? Sycamore Tree asks the participants to consider who Zacchaeus’ victims were and how he might have hurt them. They are then asked to think about their own victims, how they have been hurt and what they might be feeling now.


This takes those doing the course to some painful places. Many of them say they had never really thought about their victims before, or never properly considered just how many people had been affected by their actions. For a short and very simple course, Sycamore Tree packs a powerful emotional punch. Just recently one of the participants, serving a life sentence for murder, had to leave the room in tears and spent the rest of the afternoon pouring his heart out to one of the chaplains.


Some of those attending the course start off by arguing that theirs was a ‘victimless’ crime, especially drug dealers who claim they are simply meeting a willing demand. I remember one high-level dealer telling me that on the outside he’d actually met very few real drug addicts. Only when he came into prison did he start to realise the destruction drug use had on many of his ‘customers’ and only when he attended Sycamore Tree did he begin to take responsibility for the way he’d made his ‘living.’


But the biblical story doesn’t end with Zacchaeus just feeling bad about himself. After his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus does what he can to make amends to those he’s hurt. This isn’t always possible for those who attend the course but it does encourage many of them to think at least about their families and how they might be able to put things right for them. And the process of thinking through the damage they have done helps most of them to see that restorative justice involves more than just doing the time and paying for the crime. While many of them will be prohibited by law or licence conditions from ever having anything more to do with their victims or their victims’ families, if there is anything they can do to make up for their actions they often say they want to do it. Many start thinking about voluntary work or other ways they might be able to pay the community back.


In Scotland at the moment we have, as far as I know, no programme of restorative justice. So at the end of the Sycamore Tree course we cannot offer the participants any form of restorative practice that actually involves victims. But what the course leaders now do is ask them all to write letters to their victims, letters which will never be posted but express what they’d like to say to their victims if they could. This has now become probably the most emotionally intense part of the course. It would surprise many people just how remorseful many of those in prison actually are. They know how much they have hurt others and let down the people they love the most. Sycamore Tree brings many of these feelings to the surface and it’s often absolutely heart-breaking to listen to those brave enough to read out their letters.


Most of those serving life sentences cannot put right what they’ve done, not for their victims or their victims’ families. And yet they still try to say ‘sorry’ knowing that ‘sorry’ doesn’t even begin to repair the devastation. But the story of Zacchaeus meeting Jesus is the story of an offender as well as his victims. It’s about God healing, forgiving and restoring the offender. And if that makes any offender a better human being when they are eventually released, then the Sycamore Tree course and the brave, dedicated women who run it in Low Moss, will have done a good thing, a Gospel thing, the work that Jesus has given us to do. 


The Sycamore Tree is run by the Prison Fellowship at Low Moss Prison in Bishopbriggs.


Martin Forrest is a member of the Chaplaincy Team at Low Moss.


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