Murderers turned peacemakers
How is it that women, with dark pasts, serving time for murder and manslaughter, could possibly become honored peacemakers?
Their story is one of personal commitment to themselves and the community in which most are destined to live out their lives. “This is an environment filled with conflict and violence. There is a dire need and want for change,” says Susan Russo, one of the fifteen initial peacemakers, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the largest prison for women in the world, Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, CA. “Mediation interests all of us because we are lifers and long-termers hoping to make a difference in teaching our peers that there is a better way.”
Beginning her quest in 2007, Sue Russo wrote over 50 handwritten letters from prison to mediators all over California. Her letters went unanswered until August of 2009 when one of her letters made it to me, Laurel Kaufer, Esq., a Southern California mediator and peacemaker and founder of the post-Katrina Mississippi Mediation Project.
After the crime: the power of restorative justice. Dialogues between victims and violent offenders
Violence, rape, murder and other abusive crimes: not usually pleasant subjects to read about, yet Susan Miller's book left this reader with a positive feeling. This is largely due to Miller herself, who presents the information in a straightforward, sympathetic but non-judgemental way; to Kim Book, who started the organization Victims' Voices Heard after her daughter was murdered; and to the participants themselves. Not all victims felt able to forgive, and this should not be a criterion for 'success'; but they followed the Amish precept: don't balance hurt with hate. Not all offenders accepted full responsibility. Miller divides restorative justice into diversion, taking the place of the criminal justice process for relatively minor cases, and 'therapeutic' RJ, where the offender is already in custody or has served a prison term. These cases are all in the latter category.
Giving back: RCI’s Restorative Justice Program helps inmates help others
On a recent Friday morning, 13 inmates at the Racine Correctional Institution in Sturtevant diligently worked on their needlework, their nimble fingers pulling together tiny stitches or weaves. The fruits of their toil lay strewn about the tables: a Mickey Mouse look-alike, a doll, random bears and other stuffed animals, as well as scarves, hats and more slowly took shape.
Those bears and lamb pillows have made their way into little hands around the community, and those mittens and gloves will keep others warm this winter.
Charity Crafts is part of the prison’s Restorative Justice Program, through which inmates find ways to give back to the community, according to Tommie Thomas, RCI program supervisor.
Colorado mother wishes for meeting with son's killers
The 3-year-old boy affectionately known as "Biscuit" was sleeping in the back of a parked old Cadillac when the shooting began.
Fourteen bullets hit the car in the drive-by shooting outside a northeast Denver duplex. Biscuit was shot in the head and died. His brother, Calvin, four days shy of his 7th birthday, and a teenage cousin were unhurt.
Sharletta Evans — mother of Biscuit, or Casson Xavier Evans — came to forgive the gunmen, who were 15 and 16 years old at the time of the Dec. 21, 1995, shooting. But it took years for her to decide she wanted to meet them in prison, hoping for closure.
A new Colorado law encourages the state Department of Corrections to facilitate such reconciliation meetings. Yet it's a process that requires they be safe and don't backfire on victims. And prison officials say there's simply no money to make it happen in the near future.
Restorative justice prison ministry manual available
from the article by Chris Meehan at crnca.org:
...."Restorative justice provides another way," said Lamsma. "Where retributive justice is concerned with violation against the state, restorative justice is first and foremost concerned with the person or people who were harmed in a crime . . . Restorative justice aims for healing of victims, for communities affected, and even for offenders, in the hopes that a cycle of destructive behavior will be broken."
Helping the community, building connections
Recently, we shared the article “Give prisoners the chance to help the community” by Erwin James in which he describes prison as consisting of “enforced idleness” and working to “create model prisoners instead of model citizens.” Erwin describes the benefits of programmes allowing prisoners to do something for the community. Referring to his own participation in a Braille unit when incarcerated for murder, he says, “...it was the first time in our lives that we had experienced the satisfaction that can be gained from helping other people.”
I thought about Erwin’s article as I read about prisoners making trauma bears in the Australian state of Victoria. The programme – a partnership between Prison Fellowship Australia and the prisons – teaches prisoners how to sew and stuff the soft toys that are used by emergency service personnel to comfort children in trauma situations. The prisoners may also pay for the materials to make a soft toy for a loved one. Programme volunteers describe the paradox of watching the men who have caused harm work to create the soft toys. As described in the article, “Masculine hands clenched tight ready to harm or reaching out to thieve and finally bound for prison now develop something creative and productive that brings joy to traumatised children and their loved ones.”
A scary, but exciting prospect
Recently, I was in the Bahamas to conduct a training seminar on the Sycamore Tree Project® for Prison Fellowship Bahamas. A diverse group of people including prison officers, volunteers, and police officers gathered to learn about this in-prison restorative justice programme. Through the day and half of training two emotions stood out: fear and excitement.
For many, especially the prison officers, the idea of bringing victims into prison to meet face-to-face with prisoners (but not their own offenders) was novel and a bit overwhelming. Although the programme has a positive track record in close to twenty countries, the training participants still had serious concerns about how this would work. For one thing, how do you handle victim anger? Why would victims want to go into prison? Isn’t this just setting up an explosive situation?
Dialogues can offer healing for crime victims
Recovering from a crime can be a deeply personal process for victims, but Maryland's corrections system offers victims who are interested a chance to interact with their attackers.
The state is able to arrange dialogues between victims and the person incarcerated for their crime.
Sycamore Tree: Week 3
A week with huge expectations: we have three visitors coming with us. Ann (not her real name) a young lady, victim of a robbery, whose car was violently attacked while she was in it and whose bags were stolen and Ray and Vi, whose son Christopher was murdered by a gang of violent youths high on alcohol and drugs. Ann and Ray and Vi are effectively surrogate victims for the men - a taster, in a group, of the experience of a victim – offender conference or mediation.
Give prisoners the chance to help the community
"I want to be out there, helping people," says one prisoner in the report, who could have been speaking for many of those I met while serving my own 20 years of prison time.
....Probably the best such experience was when I joined the Braille Unit in my first long-term high security prison. The 12 of us who worked in the unit had all been convicted of murder and for most of us it was first time in our lives that we had experienced the satisfaction that can be gained from helping other people. The prison held more than 700 of the most serious offenders in the country, but the only official opportunity for any of us to put something back into the outside community that we had harmed so badly were those 12 places in the Braille Unit.