Lisa Rea: Speaking at a California prison during victims awareness week (part 2)
May 18, 2009
I had a few more thoughts on my speech at a California prison during victims’ rights week. As is often the case conversations with the inmates are the most telling. Often these exchanges are so very quick not to be meaningful but sometimes they are more.
In my first blog on this subject I described the experience of speaking about restorative justice in prison with victim’s advocate Cheryl Ward-Kaiser. At the end of our speeches we were asked questions by the inmates. I wish someone had recorded the entire session. I think the comments and questions, and hopefully our responses, were important.
First, the general response after both our sessions with these inmates was a hunger to know more about what we were describing. We provided the hope for healing that restorative justice provides. We painted a picture for these inmates telling them that a growing number of victims wanted to have contact with their offenders because they desired more healing. We could take it as a “given” that healing did not occur as a by-product of the current criminal justice system whether that be in California or anywhere else in the United States. Victims like Cheryl Ward-Kaiser had questions. As Cheryl told these inmates “they’re questions that only you can answer” related to the crime and the injury you caused.
Thus, I sensed a majority of these inmates were encouraged by our speeches.
But then they had questions. One question included, “Can you help me find my victim (so I can try to make things right with that person)?” I explained that it is far better for victims to initiate that contact with the offender. Often, victims do not want that contact. But as I said in my prepared speech, often they are open to at least exploring what that process might look like. One victim some years ago said to me, “No one has ever asked.” Few know that victim-offender dialogue is an option.
An experience like Cheryl’s feeds the interest in others to explore something similar in their own lives. But one of my great frustrations with this work, over some 15 years, is that there are too few organizations willing to attempt this
work and stand in the gap between victim and offender. I said to the inmates that there are barriers and obstacles to this kind of work. Victims can’t find organizations to assist them. In some cases that I am familiar with not just in California but in other states around the U.S., victims are prohibited from meeting their own offenders when they are serving time. I spoke to one victim of violent crime in Wyoming he told me just this kind of story. I was furious. How could this be? How should those who run state and federal prisons dictate to a victim about what he or she could or could not do in meeting with the offenders who injured them and their famly? As a legislative advocate I ask do we need legislation here? My point here is that there are barriers. Until you get this close to this subject, you do not encounter the un-written law, or code of behavior, inside the correctional world. Frankly, you do not know it exists. The more I have worked with victims of crime the more I have been educated about the reality of the prison system we have created. Even those victims who promote something as “good” as restorative justice for both victims and offenders encounter the resistance from the “system”. When victims, and other advocates, hit those obstacles it’s often just shocking. You conclude: will this ever change?
Another question came from a black man about 30 years old who asked, “What do you do when you are the victim of a number of crimes yourself but here you are serving time as well? “ I had made a comment about the high level of violence happening in Oakland, California. Many of the men shook their heads in agreement. But this inmate said, “I am from Oakland.” He then explained that at least three family members were murdered but no one ever came to him to make things right. He explained that he was serving time for a crime he committed (armed robbery, I believe it was). But what about the injury caused to him? I told him that I was sorry for the pain of his loss. He was right. In these cases he was a victim of violent crime. Someone (or a number of offenders) should attempt to make things right with him and his remaining family. However, it did not negate the fact that he was serving time today for a crime he admitted he did commit. He then agreed. I explained that it would still be helpful for him to consider the steps he could take to take responsibility for his actions.
Another question from the audience: “What is your definition of a victim?”
This was a middle-aged Caucasian inmate seating in the front row. He started his question by saying, “Given you a legislative advocate, then I’d like to hear your definition.” It seemed like he was picking a fight or at least
it was a pretty curious question to ask in front of Cheryl Ward-Kaiser after hearing her gut wrenching story about the murder of her husband and rape of her daughter before her eyes (make that raped twice). But I answered as many of us do in the restorative justice arena. I said that a victim has suffered injury because crime is injury caused (by an offender) to a real human being, a victim.
Then his next question: “What is injury?” Well, this was not going anywhere. The other inmates were clearly uncomfortable with the line of questioning at the end of a rather long presentation. We finally got at what, I learned, he was driving at. He asked me if I thought there were any victim-less crimes. I said, ‘No.” I said that by using an example from the Texas Sycamore Tree Project in 1998. I met a man there who had just become a Christian and was very excited about it. He was also excited about the Sycamore Tree Project, the victim-offender program we were about to start at his prison. The offender said to me something like, “I know the victims are going to be blessed by this.” He then told me that he was doing time and close to finishing his sentence for what amounted to “victim-less crimes”. I asked for further explanation. He said that he was selling drugs and that there were no victims. I told him, “Well, after you go through the project you might change your mind.” He just smiled. But after the project was over we spent a great deal of time interviewing and de-briefing the offenders who participated, as well as the victims. This same young man told me, “You were right. There are no victim-less crimes. I realized that I had a lot of victims and definitely victims related to the drugs I sold.”
Back to the California prison, after the entire session was over the same man who had sparred with me about the definition of a victim approached me somewhat sheepishly. He said, “Well, I just wanted to hear your take on this. I know what you are saying but in my situation I am doing time for X and was sentenced to 65 years (or close).” This man was clearly over 35 years. I said that sentencing issues are another situation altogether. There is much that is wrong with how we sentence offenders in California and across the United States. But as I said to this man, “You asked me are there any victim-less crimes, and I said no. But what you are describing to me is a (possible) miscarriage of justice.” I then told of him of my strong opinion of wrongful convictions in this country, a clear example of miscarriage of justice. We agreed and shook hands.
My last story is of a young black man who shook my hand at the end of my speech but then waited to talk. He told me that he wanted to do more and wanted to make things right with his victims. How do you counsel someone so quickly? I had given the inmates an example of steps they could take to show responsibility for their crimes, including the idea of preparing a letter that might one day be shared with their victim(s). This man wanted to know more. He then made the comment, “Your understanding is at a certain level but most of the men here have never heard these ideas. So it takes some time to understand it all.” I had to agree with that. But then he reflected on the fact that I had said I was a Christian, which sometimes I do mention since that is what motivates me to do this work and keep doing it. He said, “But I’m a Muslim.” I said something like, “Well, there is nothing different between what I said today in taking responsibility for your actions and the concept of making things right with your victim that is not consistent with your faith. Is that right?” He agreed. I urged him to try to put things down on paper as I suggested by writing a letter to his victims. Thinking about it further many of the central ideas we discussed have basic similarities with many faith groups. Forgiveness is a key human experience and understandable to all, regardless of religion or the lack thereof.
My concluding thoughts are that neither victims nor offenders are adequately prepared to meet face to face. But they should be. We must do more to open the doors, and tear down the barriers that prohibit this exchange of information. For victims to experience some kind of healing and satisfaction with the criminal justice system they must be given the right to meet their offenders. At the same time offenders must be educated in ways that prepare them for this possible meeting. Who asks the questions that Cheryl and I had asked during our presentations: have you thought of your victims? Are you prepared to make things right with them, as much as possible? There are many unanswered questions but we must address these questions because by doing so we will break the cycle of violence.