Murderers turned peacemakers
Sep 06, 2011
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.
As soon as I read the letter, I was hooked, but also knew that I couldn’t do it alone. Still standing at the mailbox, I called my friend and colleague, Doug Noll, the only person I would consider working with on a project like this. Doug is a superb trainer, mediator, and restorative justice expert. I read the letter to him. He was silent for about a nano-second before he said, “I’m in. What’s our next step?”
We spent six months working our way up the chain of command to convince the prison authorities to let us run a pilot project. When we got the final approval, we selected our first fifteen women, all long term and life inmates, and the training began less than a month later.
Ten weeks later, the first 15 women were fully trained mediators and within two weeks of completing their training had conducted over 25 mediations and dozens of peace circles within the prison.