DOI: 10.5553/IJRJ/258908912018001001004

The International Journal of Restorative JusticeAccess_open


South African female offenders’ experiences of the Sycamore Tree Project with strength-based activities

Keywords Female offenders, positive psychology, Prison Fellowship, strength-based activities, Sycamore Tree Project (STP)
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Mariëtte Emmerentia Fourie and Vicki Koen, 'South African female offenders’ experiences of the Sycamore Tree Project with strength-based activities', (2018) The International Journal of Restorative Justice 57-80

    The aim of this study is to explore South African female offenders’ experiences of the Sycamore Tree Project (STP) with strength-based activities. A qualitative, explorative-descriptive research design was applied. The sample included nineteen female offenders who were purposively sampled. Data were collected through the world café method and thematically analysed. The results identify four main themes, namely experiences of STP with strength-based activities, new discoveries as a result of participation in the STP with strength-based activities, experiences of strength-based activities and recommendations regarding the STP with strength-based activities.

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    • 1. Introduction and problem statement

      Doing research in a correctional centre can be challenging and, as a result, offenders are an often understudied and sometimes forgotten population. Offenders worldwide, also in South Africa, are confronted with dire conditions. Corrections face many challenges such as social isolation, overcrowding, violence, poor hygiene and sanitary conditions, breakdown of human dignity, prison suicide, and health problems such as HIV infection and rape (Gondles, Maurer & Bell, 2017; Goyer, 2002; Haney, 2006; Huey & McNulty, 2005; Kupers, 1999, 2005; Lines, 2006; Muntingh, 2012; Steinberg, 2005; Stern, 2001). In South Africa specifically, the most recent annual report of the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Service (JICS, 2016) reported that corrections were overcrowded, which has a negative impact on the Department of Correctional Services’ (DCS) ability to ensure offenders’ basic human rights, provide humane conditions for offenders as well as on the safety of offenders and staff. Effective functioning of corrections is also impeded by custodial staff shortages and compromises the security of both offenders and staff (JICS, 2016). The report identifies several other concerns with regard to corrections’ conditions, including the formation of and belonging to gangs, fire safety issues, lack of maintenance to structures and offenders being subjected to a lack of exercise, insufficient meal intervals and lack of correctional and education programmes in some corrections.
      Laws, regulations and policy framework are insufficient to tailor to the needs of women in corrections since they differ from males regarding specific health care and needs (e.g. pregnancy, menstruation, caregiving) (Manaleng, 2014; Van den Bergh, Moller & Hayton, 2010; Vetten, 2008). Correctional Services former Deputy Minister of South Africa, Mkhize (2010), states that corrections in South Africa are not suitable for women’s needs, because they were designed and built for men. A study done by Feasy and Williams (2009) confirms that female inmates face different problems than males, for example emotional pain and mental health problems due to their care-giving role as mothers.
      Evidence indicates that the deterrent conditions do not bring about positive change in crime rates or on the well-being of offenders, but that effective rehabilitation programmes have the potential to empower offenders to change for the better (Haney, 2006; Huey & McNulty, 2005; Katz, Levitt & Shustorovich, 2003; Shaw, 1997; Steinberg, 2005). The White Paper on Corrections (2008) supports this view and states that rehabilitation is sustainable if based on correction and development of offenders rather than through their punishment and treatment. In light of this, the available literature clearly indicates the need for rehabilitation programmes and interventions in South African corrections and especially in female corrections.
      Restorative Justice Programmes such as the STP are important in order to support and empower offenders mentally, emotionally and spiritually (DCS, 2015). Offenders need to cope with many challenges in corrections and also when reintegrating back into society, especially to change offending behavioural patterns. The White Paper on Corrections (2008) emphasises that offenders must be recognised as human beings who are a product of society and that have the potential to be valued members of the community – while under correction, it is important to keep in mind that these individuals’ well-being is still important. Offenders that are released back into society should be able to function in a constructive, healthy manner that can be facilitated through restorative justice principles (Zehr & Gohar, 2003). Restorative justice aims to repair the harm done by crime (Gavrielides & Artinopoulou, 2013; Zehr & Gohar, 2003). Gavrielides & Artinopoulou (2013) explain that restorative justice entails pain, but it is pain of a different kind – this pain is not a result of being under correction, but the consequence of recognition, self-insight, self-observation and self-reflection. Positive psychology principles and interventions have the potential to contribute to the effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes and restorative justice, potentially providing a unique opportunity to contribute to the well-being of prisoners.
      Positive psychology is ‘an exciting and explosively developing new discipline in Psychology as a science’ as described by Wissing (2014: 4). Biswas-Diener, Linley, Govindji and Woolston (2011) stress that the validity and effectiveness of positive psychology as a force for social change have been proved for individuals, from a Western pursuit, and should be expanded to larger and other groups. Research indicates that simple and intentional positive activities can increase people’s happiness and well-being (Lyubomirsky & Layous, 2013). Huta and Hawley (2010) explain that positive activities and strengths may play a major role in the recovery of vulnerable groups such as prisoners.
      Offenders can benefit from the use of strengths on a daily basis by recognising how it contributes to their well-being. According to Huta and Hawley (2010), through the use of strength-based activities, maladaptive core beliefs can be identified and long-standing patterns of thought and behaviour can be changed for the better. Several studies confirm that well-being can be enhanced and depressive symptoms lessened through a variety of strength-based activities (Gander, Proyer, Ruch & Wyss, 2012; Seligman & Steen, 2005; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009). Marshall, Marshall, Serran and O’Brien (2013) find positive psychology principles and strengths in their treatment with offenders in corrections to be very successful. Hunter, Lanza, Lawlor, Dyson and Gordon (2015) argue that a strength-based approach to offender re-entry may help reduce risk and contribute to offenders’ ability to change for the better. Taking this into consideration, the inclusion of strength-based activities in Restorative Justice Programmes such as the STP may contribute to the effectiveness of such programmes, also within the context of female offenders.
      The STP was originally developed by Prison Fellowship during 1976 to assist offenders to take responsibility for their crimes and to understand the meaning of constructs such as forgiveness, confession and repentance (Parker & Van Ness, 2010). It is a well-written programme with a detailed curriculum consisting of eight sessions that include an introduction to STP; what is crime; responsibility; confession and repentance; forgiveness; making amends; towards reconciliation; and celebration. The STP has been evaluated by Feasy and Williams (2009) and their findings provide evidence that the programme positively contributes to the rehabilitation of offenders.
      For the purpose of this research, the STP was adapted to include strength-based activities in order to enhance the programme. An outline of these activities is provided in Table 3 in the methods section of this article. Considering the limited availability of effective, positively aimed programmes and lack of research regarding restorative justice programmes – specifically the STP with the inclusion of strength-based activities – this study’s significance lies in the fact that it contributes to our understanding and knowledge of how this group of female offenders experience the STP with the inclusion of strength-based activities in a South African context.
      The research question posed is: what are the experiences of female offenders with regard to the STP with strength-based activities in a South African context? The aim of this study is to explore and describe South African female offenders’ experiences of the STP with strength-based activities in a South African context.

    • 2. Method

      The method describes the research design, an outline of the STP and strength-based activities, population and sampling, data collection, data analysis, trustworthiness and ethical considerations.

      2.1 Research design

      An explorative and descriptive qualitative design was applied for this study. An exploratory study is conducted to collect new data if little previous research has been conducted with regard to the topic of inquiry (Botma, Greeff, Maluadzi & Wright, 2010). Terre Blanche, Durrheim and Kelly (2006) explain the descriptive approach as accurately describing phenomena. Qualitative research serves the purpose to study real-world situations as they naturally unfold and can be described as naturalistic, holistic and inductive (Durrheim, 2006). The design was therefore appropriate for the study and the aim of the study.

      2.2 STP programme with the inclusion of strength-based activities

      Forgiveness, gratitude and kindness are only some of the well-known positive psychology Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) as stated by Peterson and Seligman (2004) that can be taught, through strength-based activities, to individuals in a corrections context.
      The first author presented the STP with added strength-based activities that complement the existing STP sessions in meeting different individual needs. The main objective for including these activities was to enrich the existing STP with practical skills from which the participants could benefit while in a correctional centre and when released. Different positive activities and another activity every week, as conducted in this study, seem to be more effective than only one activity running over a long period (Duckworth, Steen & Seligman, 2005; Lyubomirsky, 2007). Table 1 provides an overview of the original STP sessions and the strength-based activities that have been included while Table 2 provides more details with regard to the activities.

      Table 1 Sycamore Tree Programme sessions and strength-based activities included
      SessionExisting STP continued as previouslyActivities included in the STP
      1Introduction to STP: prepares offenders to participate in the STP.Narratives: sharing a positive life story
      2What is crime?: explores a restorative understanding of crime.Writing a gratitude letter
      3Responsibility: explores what it means to take responsibility after an offense.Mindfulness: savouring
      4Confession and repentance: understanding the meaning, power and importance of confession and repentance.Drama: parable of the prodigal son
      5Forgiveness: understanding the meaning, power and importance of forgiveness.Writing a letter of forgiveness
      6Making amends: understanding making amends as a response to crime.Acts of kindness
      7Towards reconciliation: understanding how to begin moving towards healing, restoration and reconciliation.Counting your blessings
      8Celebration and testimonies: reflecting on and celebrating what has been learnt about crime and healing.Best possible selves

      Table 2 Explanation of the strength-based activities included in the existing Sycamore Tree Project (Peterson & Seligman, 2004)
      ActivityExplanation of the activity
      Narratives: sharing life storiesThe introduction of the first session included explaining narratives to the participants. The participants were instructed to close their eyes for about three minutes and think back to something that made them very happy. An opportunity was then given to some of the participants to willingly share their story.
      Writing gratitude lettersParticipants were requested to write a letter to a specific individual to whom they wanted to express feelings of gratitude. This was done to afford participants an opportunity to express their gratitude in a thoughtful and purposeful manner that had meaning. Participants were given the option to send the letter to this person, but it was not compulsory to do so.
      Mindfulness (savouring)The mindfulness activity consisted of giving each participant a bite-size chocolate. They were instructed to close their eyes and feel the paper the chocolate was covered in, then slowly open it, smell it and taste it while concentrating on the whole process. By doing this activity, they became aware of the importance of savouring a moment like this and reminding themselves continuously about the importance of being mindful.
      Drama: parable of the prodigal sonAlthough drama is not a new addition to the existing project, the researcher has adapted the activity to be more strength-based. A new play has been written by the student researcher with a story teller. The participants portrayed the different roles and dressed accordingly for the play. Participants were given an opportunity beforehand to volunteer to play the different roles.
      Writing letters of forgivenessParticipants were instructed to either write a letter of apology asking for forgiveness or a letter of forgiveness to someone they had wronged. This letter is important to get rid of anger, bitterness and blame; for ethical reasons, the letters were not sent.
      Acts of kindnessParticipants were asked to do at least five deeds of kindness per day for the duration of one week (e.g. comforting somebody that looks distressed, let somebody stand in front of you in a queue, pick up something that someone had dropped, etc.).
      Counting your blessingsParticipants were motivated to ‘count their blessings’ and write down three good things, in general, that went well that day and why it went well. They were instructed to do this every evening before they went to sleep for a period of seven days.
      Best possible selvesParticipants had to sit down and think about their best possible life in one year’s time, five years’ time and even longer and think what goals were needed to accomplish this. This activity was done over a period of seven days for twenty minutes per day (Lyubomirsky, 2007).

      2.3 Population and sampling

      The population included female offenders of a South African female correctional centre. Participants were sampled through the use of a purposive sampling technique (Botma et al., 2010) and had to meet the following criteria: they had to be an adult female offender at the South African female correctional centre in question and remain imprisoned for at least six months in order to be able to complete the programme and participate in data collection; they had not previously completed the STP; they had to participate in and complete the coming STP (with the inclusion of strength-based activities); they had to be efficiently fluent in and able to read and write English since the programme and data collection were in English; and they had to be willing to participate.
      Apart from the indicated inclusion criteria, there were no other exclusion criteria. To ensure that the sample size was large enough for trustworthiness of data but not too large for the data collection techniques to be implemented, a minimum of fifteen and a maximum of twenty participants would be selected for data collection. The sample consisted of nineteen participants. Table 3 provides an overview of the demographic profile of the participants.

      Table 3 Demographic profile of participants (n = 19)
      ItemCategoryPercentage (%)
      • 20–25 years old

      • 26–30 years old

      • 31–40 years old

      • 41–50 years old

      • 51 years and older

      • 15.0

      • 15.0

      • 30.0

      • 30.0

      • 10.0

      Highest level of education
      • Grade 10/Grade 11

      • Grade 12

      • Graduate

      • 15.0

      • 65.0

      • 20.0

      Marital status
      • Single

      • Steady relationship

      • Married

      • Divorced/Separated

      • Widowed

      • 30.0

      • 10.0

      • 30.0

      • 15.0

      • 15.0

      • None

      • 1 or 2

      • 3 or 4

      • 5

      • 25.0

      • 55.0

      • 15.0

      • 05.0

      How often do you practice religion?
      • Seldom

      • Occasionally

      • Regularly

      • 05.0

      • 25.0

      • 70.0

      Work status before imprisonment
      • Unemployed

      • Full time employed

      • Other

      • 35.0

      • 60.0

      • 05.0

      Years already in prison
      • Less than 1 year

      • Between 1 and 2 years

      • Between 2 and 3 years

      • Between 3 and 4 years

      • Between 4 and 5 years

      • Longer than five years

      • 45.0

      • 20.0

      • 15.0

      • 05.0

      • 05.0

      • 10.0

      Years sentenced
      • 1–2 years

      • 3–4 years

      • 5–6 years

      • 7–10 years

      • 11–15 years

      • 05.0

      • 30.0

      • 35.0

      • 10.0

      • 20.0

      2.4 Data collection

      The world café method (The World Café, 2008) was used for data collection and data were collected in October 2016. Research indicates that the method is suitable for all cultures, different age groups, many purposes, and in many types of communication settings (Wheatley, 2005). During the world café session there were four tables with four to five participants and a table host at every table. Each table was provided with a paper tablecloth and colour crayons for the participants’ contributions. Researchers who are trained in qualitative data collection and the use of the world café method, acted as table hosts together with the researcher. They signed confidentiality agreements. Twenty-five minutes were given to discuss one question at every table. During the sessions, the participants were asked to make contributions and answer the question through group discussion and by making drawings, drawing symbols or writing phrases, ideas or words on the paper tablecloth. Participants were requested to explain their contributions to the table hosts and to add short written explanations to any symbols or drawings they made so that their contributions were not misinterpreted during data collection and data analysis. After the session had expired, participants were requested to shuffle and to move to a different table where a different question was discussed. After each session, the table hosts at the respective tables were responsible for indicating what the question was and what the previous group’s contribution consisted of, guiding the discussion with the new group. This process was followed until all the participants had an opportunity to answer all the questions. The questions posed during the world café were as follows: (1) How did you experience the STP with the inclusion of strength-based activities? (2) What did you find most useful in the programme and why? (3) What did you expect from the programme and how did the programme meet those expectations? and (4) What recommendations do you have with regard to the presentation of the programme with female offenders in future?

      2.5 Data analysis

      Thematic analysis was used to analyse the data collected through the world café. It is a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns within data, which organises and describes data in rich detail (Clarke & Braun, 2013). Braun and Clarke (2006) list six steps when conducting a thematic analysis, which has been followed in this study: familiarisation, coding, theme exploration, theme review, theme naming and writing up results. An experienced co-coder was used and was provided with a work protocol on how to conduct the analysis. The researcher and co-coder each analysed the data independently. Thereafter, a consensus discussion took place between the researcher and co-coder to ensure that they agree on the themes. The co-coder signed a confidentiality agreement.

      2.6 Trustworthiness

      Trustworthiness refers to the degree of confidence researchers have in their data (Botma et al., 2010). Lincoln and Guba (1985) posit that trustworthiness involves establishing credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability. The researcher ensured credibility through the application of: (1) Reflexivity (she was honest and critical in her reflection on the entire process); (2) Peer examination; (3) Member checking: the world café session concluded with a member checking session where the findings were checked with the participants; (4) Structural coherence through literature integration. The researcher ensured transferability through the use of dense and detailed description of the whole process and different procedures when reporting the research. The researcher ensured dependability by ensuring that the findings could be repeated by making use of a co-coder and dense description. To ensure confirmability, the researcher applied reflexivity and acted in an unbiased manner in order to view information objectively in order to shape the findings of the study by the respondents and not the researcher’s bias, motivation or interest.

      2.7 Ethical considerations

      The ethical principles and considerations of the study were determined by the Helsinski Declaration (Burns & Grove, 2005). The study received institutional approval and approval from the Department of Correctional Services (DCS). Regarding recruitment, participants were recruited by a prisoner who had previously done the STP. The criteria for this person’s selection was that she had no known gang affiliations, had a positive inmate record and had been trained by the researcher regarding the process of recruitment, specifically that she could not use any form of coercion or undue intimidation to recruit participants. The recruiter explained the study, its aim and the possible contribution of the study to potential participants who met the inclusion criteria and if they were interested she communicated their names directly to the researcher. Thereafter the potential participants were provided with the informed consent form by an independent person (who has been trained to do so and in person) and not by the researcher. This person is not affiliated with the prison but has also presented programmes at the prison and is therefore familiar with the prison and the prison rules. Participation was voluntary and the participants had to give written informed consent to participate. Participants are not identified in the publishing of the research. Only the members of the research team have access to the data and the data are stored securely on university premises and will be destroyed according to institutional specifications by a member of the research team seven years after publication of the results. Support services by a qualified professional located at the female correctional centre were available to participants if any of them suffered adverse psychological effects as a direct result of their participation in this study.

    • 3. Results

      The themes derived from the world café are discussed next. An example of one of the world café outputs is presented in Figure 1.

      Figure 1: Example of world café output.

      Since the data were obtained in a group setting, the quotes have not been marked according to participants’ individual contributions. Quotes from participants are verbatim and were not language edited.

      3.1 Theme: experiences of the STP with strength-based activities

      The participants’ experiences of the STP with strength-based activities are discussed in the following sub-themes.

      3.1.1 Sub-theme: positive experiences

      The participants emphasised their positive experience of the STP with strength-based activities, which is supported by the following quotes:

      • ‘Learn to deal with work through things in a positive way.’

      • ‘Feel recognised and important and noticed. Felt trusted (even as offender).’

      • ‘Uplifting for your heart.’

      • ‘It does change lives!’

      • ‘Hoped for something to eat – but it touched me inside – more than I expected.’

      • ‘… the most lovely course – was remarkable.’

      • ‘I expected the course to be boring, but when time goes by I enjoyed it. I couldn’t wait to come to the sessions.’

      • ‘It was an overwhelming good and positive experience. This was the best thing that ever happened to me here.’

      • ‘It was a positive experience, not only for me, but also for other people.’

      3.1.2 Sub-theme: spiritual experiences

      The participants reported having and undergoing spiritual experiences as a result of their participation in the STP. One participant wrote: ‘I thought we are going to read the Bible from start to finish on every session, but to my surprise it was more than that. It was actually fun, inspiring, fulfilling, encouraging and very spiritual.’ Love and trust in God

      Through participation in the STP, the participants reported that they learnt to trust God and experienced His love:

      • ‘God’s love is unconditional. We are very grateful.’

      • ‘God loves us all.’

      • ‘God’s love is an everlasting love.’

      • ‘I truly love God.’

      • ‘God’s love for everyone.’

      • ‘God never forsake us, no matter what we do.’

      • ‘Realise that God is always with us. Rely on God.’ Changed lives

      During the world café, one of the women testified how a visitor that often visits her noticed the change of expression on her face. He asked her what happened and she told him that she is doing the STP. He told her that she should never stop with the project. The way this programme reportedly contributed towards changing the women’s lives, was remarkable:

      • ‘This project helped me to discover myself and change my life to God.’

      • ‘… it really touches you and change things inside of you.’

      • ‘I thought it was just wasting time. After the introduction, something started to change inside me. You started thinking about stuff you never thought about – it changed my mindset.’ Connectedness to God

      The participants shared that they felt recognised by God and some accepted God for the first time.

      • ‘Found God.’

      • ‘Made you feel connected to God and other people.’

      • ‘With God everything is possible.’

      • ‘… it felt to me that I got recognised by God and other people.’

      • ‘I found Jesus and love and now I’m in peace.’

      • ‘This course helped me to get closer to God.’

      3.1.3 Sub-theme: group cohesions and sharing

      The effectiveness of participation and sharing in the group was pointed out by the women and reportedly contributed to the success of the programme for them. They shared:

      • ‘… everybody was accepted and ideas could be shared freely.’

      • ‘Took time to get to know others in the group and truly take notice of them.’

      • ‘Don’t feel lonely anymore (feel included in group).’

      • ‘I never participated in anything with fellow inmates when I came in. I would not even become friends, until I attended the Sycamore Tree Project. I became my old self and started making friends and participating with new experience.’

      • ‘We felt close to people in the group … We have started to trust one another …’

      • ‘This project allows you to get to know other people.’

      • ‘Opportunities to share and care.’

      • ‘… build new relations within the group.’

      • ‘… learned to trust each other during the programme.’

      • ‘… interaction bonded group.’

      3.1.4 Sub-theme: positive emotions and understanding emotions

      The participants identified several positive emotions that they experienced and also becoming aware of their own and others’ emotions and being able to understand these emotions:

      • ‘Made you aware of other people’s feelings.’

      • ‘It made me aware of my feelings and then you can think about other people’s feelings.’

      • ‘Can’t pretend – focus on feelings and address it.’

      • ‘The emotions that stood out with the course was love and joy.’

      • ‘I found peace and happiness in this group and joy.’

      3.2 Theme: new discoveries as a result of participation in the STP with strength-based activities

      The women also made new discoveries in several areas of their lives, such as forgiveness, family and personal growth.

      3.2.1 Sub-theme: forgiveness and conviction

      According to the findings, forgiveness was experienced as one of the most useful teachings. Participants reported that forgiveness restored relationships with God and people and had a healing effect:

      • ‘… gave me a chance to forgive and to be healed.’

      • ‘Experience that forgiveness is the most important thing in our lives. You feel free. Need to forgive, no matter what.’

      • ‘You need to forgive yourself before you can forgive the next person. Always forgive, even if the next person is not sorry.’

      • ‘When you forgive, you feel free.’

      • ‘Forgiveness is not a feeling, but a decision and it is not for the other person, but for yourself for peace and love and healing.’

      • ‘Forgiveness is freeing.’

      3.2.2 Sub-theme: realised that families are precious

      Participants indicated that their participation in the STP helped them realise the importance of their family:

      • ‘Realised the importance of family.’

      • ‘Realise the hurt of us and our family.’

      • ‘Family stick with you no matter what and they don’t judge you.’

      • ‘The importance of the family.’

      3.2.3 Sub-theme: experienced personal growth

      The participants reported personal development, which is reflected in the following quotes:

      • ‘This programme has taught me a lot.’

      • ‘This course taught me how to be a better person.’

      • ‘Experienced a sense of purpose.’

      • ‘Through time I built a wall around me to survive. I thought that I am alone and will survive alone, but during this course, that wall’s bricks were taken out one by one. Bricks like unforgiveness, loneliness, sadness and ungratefulness.’

      • ‘Learn to take responsibility for your action.’

      • ‘I learn a lot … now I know how to deal with the situation I’m facing.’

      • ‘I have learnt you cannot talk your way out of a situation, you behaved your way into.’

      3.3 Theme: experiences of strength-based activities

      Participants’ feedback regarding the strength-based activities is discussed in the sub-themes below.

      3.3.1 Sub-theme: narratives (life stories)

      The women indicated that they experienced the sharing of life stories as being unique and valuable and it gave them more confidence to share.

      • ‘The narratives, sharing life stories was valuable. Previously we would not tell people our stories, but this confidentiality we felt in the group was special and that gave us confidence to share.’

      • ‘Through story telling you can understand somebody so much better.’

      • ‘It actually makes you feel better if you share your life story … by telling your life story, you can get help … helped me so much.’

      The narrative/life story activity can also be facilitated by presenters or facilitators being willing to share meaningful parts of their own life stories. Through sharing your life story, you can build trust in the group and explain something about life which that the participants can identify with. For this reason, I shared a part of my life’s story with the participants in the form of Lorinda’s story, a story about my daughter, which the participants reported positively on:

      • ‘I loved the story about Lorinda and the part where she said I can lose anything on earth, but as long as I have Jesus I have not lost anything.’

      • ‘Lorinda’s story touched us and shows us that there are some people who care for you. She is always praying for us every day, but we don’t know her.’

      • ‘Lorinda’s story was so inspiring, motivating, encouraging – something moved in me.’

      3.3.2 Sub-theme: writing a gratitude letter

      The participants reported that the activity of writing a gratitude letter was both valuable and enjoyable, and testified to being lighter and happier after they had written it. They also reported finding it easier to express their feelings through written rather than spoken words.

      • ‘When writing the gratitude letter, it lifts a weight from my shoulders. In the letter it expresses my feelings more than the way I would actually speak. Gratitude = to say it in writing that shows seriousness.’

      • ‘Once I have put it in writing, it meant a lot to me.’

      • ‘I realised that I have to treasure everything.’

      • ‘The gratitude letter was outstanding. I wrote it to my husband and actually realised how much he is really doing for me.’

      3.3.3 Sub-theme: mindfulness (savouring)

      The participants found the activity of mindfulness through the form of savouring to be a memorable, joyful learning experience. The chocolate eating was a practical way in which they could experience the value of savouring a moment.

      • ‘Savouring activity leads to experience of past memories.’

      • ‘Savour every special moment… be mindful of what God gives you.’

      • ‘The one I felt most useful is mindfulness.’

      • ‘The savouring strength-based activity was very valuable. We learnt when we ate the chocolate to savour the moment, only to think about that moment.’

      • ‘The savouring moment was the most joyful moment in this group.’

      3.3.4 Sub-theme: drama – Parable of the prodigal (lost) son

      Some participants pointed to the impact of this drama.

      • ‘During the role play of the lost son, you get to know other inmates. You see a side of other people you don’t know. It also helps you to love yourself. You also get to know new people and gain friends as well.’

      • ‘The prodigal son made me feel emotional. Outside I was alone, without God, and now I feel recognised and I know God now.’

      • ‘I enjoyed and understood forgiveness when it was done through a play about the lost son.’

      3.3.5 Sub-theme: writing a letter of forgiveness

      Based on what participants shared, this activity helped to free them of personal issues and was easier to write than saying it in words.

      • ‘The forgiveness letter meant a lot, because not only writing it, but reading it to the other person was a whole different thing than just saying it. It made me feel much lighter and better.’

      • ‘Like the forgiveness letter: I asked my daughter if she will forgive me because she is a victim, not my victim, but because she is my daughter, she is a victim. So, writing the forgiveness letter telling her to please forgive me meant a lot.’

      3.3.6 Sub-theme: acts of kindness

      The women shared that they have learnt that you do not need to give somebody material things to be kind. They also reported that they experienced what it feels like to be kind:

      • ‘Sometimes you do kind things to people, but you are not aware of it; The acts of kindness was very useful. We have learnt that to show somebody that you care don’t need to be financially – a simple hug or a smile can mean a lot.’

      3.3.7 Sub-theme: counting your blessings

      The findings are suggestive that, through this activity, the participants really learnt to appreciate even the smallest blessings.

      • ‘Count your blessings, whether big or small. Appreciate every little thing you have.’

      • ‘Counting your blessings and the ability to apply this to others as well.’

      3.3.8 Sub-theme: best possible selves

      This was the last strength-based activity in the programme and although the women did not have much time to practice this, they still experienced it as motivating.

      • ‘To become your best possible self.’

      • ‘The last strength-based activity Best Possible Self is motivating us. We are able to go wherever we want to go, we are able to do whatever we want to do …’

      3.3.9 Sub-theme: general experiences of activities

      Some participants did not reflect on specific strength-based activities, but on their general experience regarding all of them:

      • ‘Changed my mindset with the help of strength-based activities; … strength-based activities helped a lot.’

      • ‘Strength-based activities were a positive experience.’

      • ‘Strength-based activities: It was good to see all the research that was done on it and it was nice to see that it actually works.’

      • ‘I definitely found the strength-based activities the most useful.’

      3.4 Theme: recommendations regarding the STP with strength-based activities

      The participants made several recommendations regarding the STP with strength-based activities, which are discussed next.

      3.4.1 Sub-theme: programme

      The STP with the inclusion of strength-based activities is the core of this study and is discussed under the headings of continuity and time, presented to others and facilitator characteristics. Continuity and time are important

      The participants emphasised their need for the continuity of the programme in order to learn and to grow more. They also felt that two hours a week is not enough.

      • ‘The course must be done continuously.’

      • ‘The programme should be done continually.’

      • ‘We must extend time.’

      • ‘Sometimes not enough time to implement strength-based activities.’

      • ‘Programme too short, because two hours per session is not enough time.’ Should also be presented to others

      A recommendation was made that the programme should be presented to other people besides offenders.

      • ‘The programme must be done by everybody.’

      • ‘It should be for everyone.’

      • ‘The course must not just be for offenders, but for our family on the outside too.’

      • ‘Course must be for officials too, e.g. not judging people.’

      • ‘Let offenders and officials do the course together.’

      3.4.2 Sub-theme: facilitator must have the right characteristics

      The participants placed great importance on the needed skills and characteristics of presenters or facilitators of the STP.

      • ‘The presenter or facilitator plays a major role in this whole process.’

      • ‘The character of the person who gives the course must be loving and caring.’

      • ‘… don’t judge us and love us for who we are.’

    • 4. Discussion

      This section provides a discussion of the results and integrates relevant literature in this regard.

      4.1. Sycamore Tree Project sessions

      The results strongly suggest that the respective sessions of the STP were meaningful and informative for participants. All of the participants reported experiencing the STP positively as a life-changing and learning experience. The findings indicate that the STP contributed to the women’s understanding of the impact of their crimes. Resch (2014) describes advantages of offenders taking part in the STP as social advantages, inner healing and taking responsibility for their actions since the STP often encourages offenders to ponder on the sessions and to think seriously about them. A quantitative study done by Feasy and Williams (2009) on the STP through the implementation of an analysis of Crime Pics II with a pre-test and post-test, showed statistically significant positive changes in attitudes across the entire sample of 5,007 participants (13 per cent being women).

      4.2. Strength-based activities

      In this study, the STP was adapted to include a variety of strength-based activities. The findings strongly suggest that the utilisation of strength-based activities in this context played a valuable role since participants clearly emphasised their positive experience of these activities. It is important to note, however, that their positive experience is based on the inclusion of strength-based activities in the STP and not on the strength-based activities alone. No research on the implementation of strength-based activities (as outlined in this study) in correctional centres could be found. However, the ‘Good Lives Model’ of Ward and colleagues applies a strength-based approach to offender rehabilitation, specifically sex offender treatment programmes, and preliminary findings are suggestive of the effectiveness of the programme (Good Lives Model, 2017). Research on strength-based approaches by Hunter et al. (2015) indicated that strength-based activities have the potential to contribute to offenders’ ability to change. Resch (2014) refers to a quote from a serial robber in his research:

      My victim was a child and when I went to rob, there was this boy, who looked at me, he did not cry, but those eyes looked scared. For four years I have seen those eyes in front of me, they have always tormented me all night (p. 25).

      The offender therefore decided to write a forgiveness letter to the child, which was described as being freeing and healing. This is supportive of the meaningful and positive experiences that offenders can have from participating in strength-based activities, such as the forgiveness letter.
      Maruna (2001) makes a strong argument for the use of narratives as a strength-based activity in offender rehabilitation and explains that, through the construction of their own narratives, inmates can gain an understanding of their own lives and behaviours and take control of their futures.
      In this study, the findings indicate that the strength-based activities in general were experienced positively by the participants and have the potential to contribute to positive change. A study done by Gander et al. (2012) confirmed that well-being and depressive symptoms can be enhanced through a variety of strength-based activities. This statement is also supported by research done by Sin and Lyubomirsky (2009). The strength-based activities are similar in some aspects in that they are brief, can be self-administered, are non-stigmatising and they can promote positive feelings, thoughts and behaviour (Layous & Lyubomirsky, 2014; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2004). Offenders can benefit from it on a daily basis, while contributing to their well-being. The results supported the following studies. Long-standing patterns of thought and behaviour can be changed and maladaptive core beliefs can be identified (Huta & Hawley, 2010). Strengths encourage moral behaviour, the savouring of positive life experiences, boost self-worth and self-esteem, deter anger and bitterness, and contribute to eudemonic adaptation (Lyubomirsky, 2007; Lyubomirsky & Layous, 2013).
      On the other hand, Resch (2014) found that offenders, who sign up for the STP, can face a variety of fears (e.g. fear of storytelling) as a result of the contents of the STP. The results of this study showed the opposite. The narrative (sharing life stories) was clearly indicated by the participants as one of the activities they experienced as especially meaningful and positive. The goal is to create an atmosphere of confidentiality and trust. In this study, the findings also point to the value of the facilitator first sharing a part of her life story (Lorinda’s story), as this helped to establish trust and was experienced positively by the participants. Sharing of life stories should also not be compulsory and only the participants that willingly want to share should share their stories.

      4.3. Experiences of participants

      Regarding the women’s participation in the STP with strength-based activities, five types of experiences are emphasised in the findings, including spiritual experiences, group participation and sharing, learning experiences, emotional experiences and the experience of new discoveries.

      4.3.1. Spiritual experiences

      There is evidence of many experiences of spiritual transformation in corrections through the years. The findings of this study confirm that faith-based programmes – such as the STP – can lead offenders to have spiritual experiences, although there were no dramatic conversion experiences reported in this group of participants. According to Johnson (2011), most religious conversions in corrections are not dramatic, but rather tend to take place over time. He stresses the importance of these religious experiences and describes them as turning points, which allow offenders to build a new foundation. He goes on to explain that one cannot assume that religious conversions in correctional centres are meaningless, since they could build a bridge to other faith-motivated individuals and dramatically change a person’s behaviour. Watts (2016) describes it as a state of permanent visibility and observation in which an offender’s spiritual nature is tested.

      4.3.2. Group dynamics and sharing

      According to the results, group work in this context was extremely useful. Trust and confidentiality seem to be the most important factors that contributed to the success of group participation and sharing in this research group. The participants were requested to sign a confidentiality agreement, which may also have contributed to this. Bible (2011) states that incarcerated women have many reasons why it may not be safe for them to disclose information and, as a result, it is common for women in prison not to know the details of other incarcerated women, despite sincere friendships. In light of this, it is important that the participants voluntarily share only what they are willing to share.

      4.3.3. Positive emotions and understanding emotions

      The results showed that participants became aware of their own emotions, which is powerful. According to Layous and Lyubomirsky (2014) the end goal of strength-based activities is not to eliminate negative emotions, but to assist individuals in their emotional maintenance. When experiencing a negative emotion, an individual can recall a strength-based activity to cope with this emotion. Seligman and Steen (2005) reported on the empirical validation of strength-based activities and the fact that participants tended to be less depressed and happier after doing an activity for one week.
      Emotional literacy can help offenders to see incarceration not as a meaningless and frustrating time, but as an opportunity to transform their lives (Silva & Hartney, 2012). McLaughlin (n.d.), a Prison Fellowship volunteer, explains that female offenders do share emotions and thoughts more willingly than male offenders. Casarjian and Casarjian (2010) explain that if offenders can let go of primary identifications characterised by negative emotions and limited beliefs, they will find their true self. They will then respond differently and not be overwhelmed by such emotions.

      4.3.4. New discoveries

      The results revealed new insights regarding forgiveness and conviction and personal growth and change. Forgiveness and conviction

      McMenamin (2012), who has ministered to women for nearly three decades, stresses the main reason why it is difficult to forgive – we do not completely understand the full meaning of forgiveness. In this study, the STP sessions and the writing of the forgiveness letter provided a platform for offenders to fully understand the concept of forgiveness. An interview with Casarjian and Casarjian (2010) revealed that self-forgiveness should never take a righteous attitude, but should be equated with feelings of remorse and regret for pain caused. Discovering personal growth and change

      Ruini and Vescovelli (2013) indicate that strengths such as forgiveness, gratitude and kindness can foster post-traumatic growth. They contribute to social change because individuals experience support and they are also found to strengthen relationships. According to McNeill, Batchelor, Burnett and Knox (2005), there are different factors that contribute to offenders’ personal growth and change in order not to re-offend, e.g. complex personal resources, therapeutic relationships, offender’s belief, and a programme or intervention. A study done by Amuche and Mayange (2013) reveals the importance of offenders’ self-esteem and personal development and stresses the fact that counsellors and corrections officials should be aware of this fact. An offender cannot develop a good self-esteem if not handled with respect, love, care and dignity.

    • 5. Conclusion

      The findings show that the participants experienced the STP with strength-based activities as positive, without exception. The results strongly suggest that the STP and strength-based activities complement each other. While the STP sessions include learning processes, the strength-based activities consist of life skills (tools) that can be used in everyday life. The strength-based activities were clearly emphasised in the results and the participants placed a great deal of importance on their positive experiences in partaking in the strength-based activities.
      For the purpose of this study, the strength-based activities were conducted in a group setting and could not be determined through a person–activity fit diagnostic (Lyubomirsky, 2007). It should be noted that, due to person–activity fit, individuals may not find the different activities useful or effective to the same degree and that this should be a consideration in studies of this nature (Lyubomirsky & Layous, 2013; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2004). Ideally, there should not be more than a maximum of twelve participants in a programme at a time. The discussions and sharing form a very important part of the project and there is not enough time for everybody to participate sufficiently if the group is too large. The facilitator of the STP should be well trained in presenting this project and should have a clear understanding of the strength-based activities. It is also advisable that the programme should run permanently and that a new programme should be initiated as soon as the running programme has concluded. More programmes that are run at the same time with respective facilitators can also be beneficial, as many offenders have to wait for a long period of time before they get a chance to participate in a restorative justice programme such as the STP.
      It is advisable that prisoners with long sentences have the option to repeat the STP (ideally every second year) as a refresher. Another possibility is to develop an adapted version of the STP that acts as a refresher course only. A follow-up programme after the STP is recommended, such as the Prisoners’ Journey, a programme written and supported by Prison Fellowship, which is being evaluated for approval by the correctional centre where this research was conducted. It may be valuable to include offenders’ family members in the programme in some manner (e.g. attending a particular session once a month or initially inviting them to one particular session), if they are willing to participate.
      Due to the study’s qualitative nature, the study is context-specific and therefore not generalisable to other contexts. The published information on the study does, however, enable other researchers to repeat the study in different contexts, thereby making the study transferable. It could be valuable to do research in other contexts, including other female and male correctional centres in South Africa, which can provide a broader perspective. Longitudinal research on the experiences of the STP is recommended as it can contribute to an improved understanding of the long-term experiences of participants. Quasi-experimental studies with a control and experimental group and pre- and post-tests could also prove valuable in measuring the effects of participation in the STP and the STP with strength-based activities.

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Acknowledgements: The authors would like to make special mention of Lorinda Fourie, an exceptional individual whose strength, courage and kindness inspired this research to a great extent.

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