Whenever I think back at speaking in a prison I always think in short vignettes.You meet people (inmates and staff) on the fly. It’s not a place to have a sustained conversation. My memories of the interactions are what I’m writing about here.

My speech was focused on victims-driven restorative justice, as we told the prison staff in charge. I tried to focus my comments on the basics of restorative justice but also steps that these offenders could take to make things right with their own victims. We both spoke twice together with Cheryl staying to make a third presentation on her own.

The inmates we spoke to had chosen to be in the audience. Many of them had served long sentences, a percentage of them under some kind of protective custody. During these two sessions we spoke to 100 inmates per session. The area where we would speak was in a prison wing with inmates seated in rows of chairs. I was a little surprised at where the event was held (it was not in a classroom, a setting I was more familiar with). It was in the wide open with a podium and a microphone set before the men. It was noisy. It reminded me of the fact that in California prisons overcrowding is running at about 200% of capacity. That was evident that day. We were speaking alone with no other speakers except one representative from Friends Outside, an inmate support organization, which would follow our presentation.

The inmates were a cross section of men. They seemed like largely older inmates. A good portion of them were Caucasian, Latino, and some African Americans. The location of the prison was very rural, a fact I considered that day as I thought of how much time it would take for any inmate to receive a visit while behind bars.  Most men had tattoos, rather the norm. One inmate told us later he would get out soon. He was covered with tattoos including one on his neck that read  “Nation” with one word before which I could not make out. I thought that missing word could have been Aryan Nation, the white supremacist group that does a lot of organizing in the prison system in California and nationally.

My comments were meant to bring attention to the injury an inmate causes to his victim or victims. But at the same time to provide some kind of hope that perhaps as I said “some day” even these offenders might have the opportunity to make things right, as much as possible, with their victims. That was a message that Cheryl and I shared. We had spoken together in the past but often in a formal setting such as a criminal justice conference or on the radio more than once. Cheryl and I had spoken in prison separately quite a few times including a number of speeches at Solano prison in Northern California at events sponsored by the inmate-led victim offender reconciliation group (VORG). We both knew many of the inmates there. This was different today. No  faces we knew. We did not know how our message would be taken or what impact it would have. As I said to the inmates, we are here because we care and we believe in what we are doing.

My points in my speech stressed the need for direct accountability in an offender, the need for taking responsibility. I assumed that this is something many inmates hear during their time behind bars, often though through programs like the 12-Step program which is intended to assist inmates with chemical dependency. A component of the 12-Step program includes making amends with those you have hurt. But hearing from a victim and an advocate for restorative justice we assumed was somewhat rare.

The response to Cheryl was palpable. Her story always provides a sort of jolt.  Cheryl is a strong speaker, a strong woman: someone you assume has gone through many things over her life. And she has indeed. Cheryl is a survivor. Cheryl‘s husband was murdered and her daughter raped with a shotgun during a home evasion where all three family members were present. The crime partners were a group of juveniles looking for a safe or strong box that as Cheryl says “did not exist”. There is no way to think that any inmate could sit there and hear this story without listening, truly listening. The room was quiet when Cheryl spoke.

So moving was Cheryl‘s story that I noticed correctional guards coming out from their posts to listen. Cheryl’s comments that had the most effect probably were the words “I don’t hate them.” She explained that she hates what they did but she does not hate them. She told of her experience with the criminal justice system which began 18 years ago with a memory that angers her even to this day. She remembers being virtually “locked out” of the court room during the long months of court hearings that took up her case and the murder of her husband and brutal rape of her daughter. Locked out? At that time victim participation was minimal. The victim was not welcome in the hearing room. Victim impact statements were not the norm. Cheryl said she spent most of her time looking through a window or getting a glimpse now and then through a door that remained shut to her.

I have heard Cheryl’s story many times. I know that restorative justice gave her the power to understand that she had rights that in those early days after the crime was committed were ignored. Cheryl has often mentioned the importance of the work of Jim Rowland, an early advocate for restorative justice in California when he headed the California Department of Corrections.  Rowland, appointed by Republican Governor George Deukmejian, saw the need to balance the rights of victims and offenders. Rowland saw the need to bring victims to the table when discussing the impact of crime on real lives of victims. He was an early champion of victims but in a way that promoted restorative justice.

After Cheryl spoke she later told me one inmate approached her telling her that he had served many, many years behind bars but had “never heard a victim like her speak before”. I do not know if he never heard a victim speak inside or never heard a victim like Cheryl Ward-Kaiser. Cheryl’s message was one of hope. She explained that she had met with a few of the crime partners and was hoping to have one on one contact with each. One crime partner had taken full responsibility for his actions and apologized to Cheryl and her family in court, a fact that is deeply important to Cheryl. She told the inmates that he was soon up for parole and “I’ll be there,” she said. She told the inmates that she would work for the inmate’s release. Part of her “pact” with the inmate was that he would stay out of trouble and “keep his nose clean.” Thus, she stressed, I’ll be there not to oppose his release but to support it.

Not all the crime partners handled themselves in the same way. In fact, as she told her audience one offender she met with in person over a number of hours. “She never apologized to me. Not once,” she said, almost incredulously. But nevertheless, Cheryl wanted to meet each offender in person and will do so. But Cheryl ‘s experience with the system occurred because she wanted that contact with the offenders. She made it happen with the help of a few, but with little help from the state and those who oversee the rights and needs of victims of crime. But she knew what she wanted and she went for it. That was 18 years ago.

Cheryl’s comments, though, like mine talked less about rehabilitation, per se. We probably touched talked about “changing your life” while serving time but what we focused on was taking responsibility for what you have done. My speech gave some context regarding what victims-driven restorative justice was all about. Cheryl told how restorative justice played out in her own life with a handful of violent juvenile offenders and their violent acts that changed her life forever.

Since I directed the first intensive in-prison victim offender program in Texas called The Sycamore Tree Project, I had experiences that I knew would be meaningful to these inmates. This pilot project, a program of PFI, brought victims of crime together with inmates who had committed largely violent offenses but none were related cases. I told the inmates that there were steps they could take to prepare themselves for the possible contact that they “one day” might have with their victims. This is something that could give them something productive to think about and work on.  

I shared a copy of a letter written by one offender participant in that Texas Sycamore Tree pilot project. He had prepared a letter to his victims, a process that was required during participating in the project, usually at the end of the 10-12 week project.  As I read the letter the inmates could hear how one inmate had grappled with understanding how his life of crime had injured victims in his life. As the inmate wrote in his letter, “the longer I’m locked up, the longer my victim list gets.” He said that his list of victims could easily total 100, describing what his life of selling drugs had done to this long list of victims which included family members, people he sold drugs to, and the neighborhood where he sold drugs. This inmate had learned how to take steps to move towards making things right. This victim offender project had brought him to this point and helped him process how he could apply what he was learning to his own life.

As I told the inmates, you might not be able to have contact with your victims, or victim. It could be it never happens, in part because the victim(s) might not want to meet with you but you can still prepare yourself for that day, regardless. Sometimes in my experience victims of crime need time to consider such an option. Sometimes victims change their minds. Nevertheless, the process is important in “taking stock”. Inmates can figure how they might attempt to make things right.

I ended both of my speeches with the story of a victim in Southern California who had written me at The Justice & Reconciliation Project (JRP), a nonprofit I founded. This victim told me that she didn’t have any place to turn but heard that maybe I (we) could help her. She wanted to reach out to the inmate who had killed her son in a gang related crime. A request like this, I told the inmates, was precious, one that we never ignored. Through JRP, this victim was able to attempt to find that offender in the maze of the correctional system and ultimately attempt to make contact. She told me that she wanted to tell the inmate that she forgave him. The inmate was serving a life sentence in Pelican Bay prison, a SHU or secured housing unit, incarcerating some of the state’s most violent offenders in California.

That inmate, as I told the inmates who were listening quite intently, never responded to at least four letters written to him by me and another mediator attempting to assist this victim in need. At one point, the victim herself wrote to the inmate directly through my organization. Still, no reply. In the letter we only presented the facts that the mother of the man he had killed wanted contact. We were there to assist in this process and perhaps work towards one-on-one victim offender dialogue. My strong words to the inmates that day encouraged them to think twice if such a contact ever came their way.  “Be ready!” I cautioned them. ”You might have such an opportunity… think again if you do nothing. What healing could occur in the life of the victim but also in your own?” I urged. What an incredible missed opportunity that this inmate in Pelican Bay had chosen to pass by. It was possible that that opportunity might never be there again.

After both our speeches concluded, as the men readied themselves to leave the area, we were approached by a line of inmates waiting to thank us by shaking our hands and some saying “God bless you.” Some waited to say something more.

I will write more thoughts soon on my further reflections and some conversations I had while in prison.