What happens in the Sycamore Tree Program?

Part of an interview with Sycamore Tree Project facilitator Martin Howard and radio host Peter Janetzki from 96.5 fm in Brisbane

PETER: Where did the idea come from to bring crime victims into prison?

MARTIN: Okay. The idea is to help both inmates and crime victims to understand the consequences of the crime offence they’re involved in. There’s an idea around called Restorative Justice and this is a way to apply it in a prison setting. Obviously, some of the people who most need Restorative Justice are in prison for a long time.

It actually provides a very controlled environment for us to run our program. It’s unfortunate that crime victims have to come in to the prison to experience that. But it’s the only way it can be done. And even though it is in the prison, crime victims soon get over that difficulty. It becomes a place where people can connect and form friendships.

Peter, it gives me  joy to sit here after probably speaking to you about this for the first time about eight years ago, I think. For you to be with us on that journey, and to encourage us, and to have us on the program to talk is really special. And today, it’s very special for me to sit here and be able to say, “It was awesome.”

PETER: Could you give people a thumbnail sketch of How do you get a project like this into the prisons? It’s not easy is it.

MARTIN: It’s actually very difficult for people to comprehend the idea of bringing together natural enemies in that situation. For the average person, it’s hard to get your head around, but especially for someone who’s running a high-security prison who has responsibility for anyone who comes and goes. For them to come around to the idea that they are going to bring crime victims in, who are the people who are probably most angry about everyone in prison, to actually do that, is a huge step, to be able to accept that kind of thinking.

PETER: So where do you start?

MARTIN: I think it was probably eight years ago when I went to the first jail and said, “Look, this is our idea. It has worked everywhere else and we think it can work here.” Their first reaction was to say, “Well, I don’t think we can handle those crime victims coming in. Sorry.” We went away and thought about it a bit more.

Governments change and policies change. We went back again and talked to the director general and the minister. That was a breakthrough for us. We went in and sat down with those guys at the top and explained it. They understood what we wanted to do. I think they wanted to see something new happen in their system as well. That was very refreshing.

More about the content of the Sycamore Tree Project

So we had to sell them on the idea – we had to put a proposal together to explain what the goals of the program were, what our expectations were, what the issues would be for them. We had to put that on paper. It had to go through their layers of management. But we also had to kind of keep that in front of them, and keep reminding them to consider it. There are all sorts of reasons why they could just leave that on the shelf because it’s too complicated.

Woodford Prison was particularly interested in the program. The interest was actually driven by the general manager there, and her team. They were very interested in the potential for this to help rehabilitate prisoners because they have seen a lot of programs, they have seen a lot of programs fail.

And they saw the potential in this to increase the empathy in inmates and to bring them on a bit of a breakthrough journey. That’s what the aim of prison is, even though it’s generally very unsuccessful at that. That’s what they want. They want a breakthrough for those guys.

PETER: Well some people in the community must think you’re a lunatic to take this on right?

MARTIN: Yeah, because they’re natural enemies, they’re two groups of people that generally are very angry at each other. So that’s a tricky hoop to get people through. But I found that by sharing experiences of others in the Sycamore Tree project in lots of different countries around the world, the way that it works cross-culturally, some of the values in it – and you explain a little bit about the approach that we take, they begin to understand that, “yes, this is possible”.

It’s a big paradigm shift for people and some people are just not ready for that paradigm shift yet.

PETER: Like hitting your head against a brick wall?

MARTIN: But that’s the way it is with social movements. You’ve got to work with the people who get it. And when they get it, the light goes on. There’s something exciting about that.

PETER: So that paradigm shift is a way from, I guess, punitive or retributive type justice to what we’re talking about.

MARTIN: That’s right.

PETER: There’s a lot of healing that may still take place at multiple levels not just for those who have been crime victims but also those who offended, and the families of both and the community. That’s what Restorative Justice wants to tackle, doesn’t it? .

MARTIN: Exactly. I think people have an instinct that there is something wrong with the justice system and the way that we deal with crime. People don’t know exactly what’s wrong with it. But when you start explaining that crime is more than just a guy who did something wrong, that there’s always repercussions across the community, and these consequences aren’t really being addressed. Amazing stories have come out of the program of crime victims who have just gone through hell in the justice system.

I’ll give you an example. You’ve read about Ross in the group. He was one of the other crime victims who entered this program.

PETER: Yes, this is the guy who lost his son in that tragic murder in Toowoomba a few years ago?

MARTIN: Yes. When his son was murdered, he had to pay the bill for cleaning up the mess that was left after that murder. A few people were killed in the house. At the end of it all, he gets the bill. This is his parents who are going through a court case – get a bill for the clean-up. That involves building repairs because patches of carpet had to be removed, parts of the wall had to be pulled out by police to be used as evidence. So it was $20,000 on top of funeral costs – on top of everything else.

PETER: Apart from the grief and the loss.

MARTIN: Yes. The trauma.

PETER: That’s insult to injury. It’s rubbing salt in the wound, isn’t it?

MARTIN: Exactly. But people never think about this. We’re so fixated on the problem of catching the criminal and bringing him to “justice” that we totally ignore the victim. And that’s the message that’s coming again and again through this experience of giving people a voice on this topic. When you give crime victims a voice, you’ll be amazed what you hear.

PETER: So true, Martin.

MARTIN: I should add that Ross has successfully helped change our laws to provide compensation and assistance for the loved ones of homicide victims.

PETER: Now, I know where the name Sycamore Tree comes from but maybe some people are thinking, “That’s a bit of strange name for a program.” But it’s very intentional. Would you like to explain that?

MARTIN: Sure. It comes from the story of Zacchaeus where, in the Bible, Jesus encounters this scumbag called Zacchaeus. He’s a tax collector. So he’s a traitor as well as a guy who has ripped off people with his tax job. When Jesus has encountered him, he confronts him about his wrongdoing.

Zacchaeus has climbed a sycamore tree to get a better view of Jesus. And Jesus walks over to Zacchaeus under the sycamore tree. That becomes a focal point or a turning point for Zacchaeus.

PETER: And there’s no way he was getting a front row seat.

MARTIN: Exactly. He had to get up that tree to get a view. But it’s interesting that we see people who are caught up in a life of crime. They do have a curiosity, they do have a conscience, often about what they did wrong, and they are seeking something more substantial. I think we see that in the program. And that becomes a story that we use as a process in the group discussions.

We start with that story and we act it out. We look at the situation from Zacchaeus’ point of view before and after the event and from the crowd’s point of view. That forms a kind of template about how we can look at each other’s situation and getting in the shoes of a person that we may not understand.

PETER: So Martin, was there a structure to the program, like topics, each time you went in?

MARTIN: There was, yes. Each session was a whole new topic. We introduced the program – then we look at “What is crime?” And we define crime as something that affects a lot of people beyond the initial incident. We talk about the “ripple effect”. Then we go on to topics about forgiveness, about confession, truth-telling and matters of the heart. So we actually look at all the things that the justice system leaves out.

We look at the personal issues surrounding forgiveness. If we look at that, everyone has an experience of forgiveness or unforgiveness. Each person in that group addresses that topic from their own perspective. We don’t set up “the prisoners” versus “the victims”. Everyone has had a problem with forgiveness and everyone has had a problem with repentance or confession, reconciliation – these are topics that affect us all. And we address them each from our own perspective.



Martin lives in Brisbane Australia and loves meeting and writing about the amazing people who are changing our justice system. He is a prison facilitator for the Sycamore Tree Project in Queensland, Australia. Contact: martinhoward.info