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Lisa Rea: Speaking about victims-driven restorative justice at a California prison during Victim Awareness Week

May 6, 2009

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

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

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

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.  


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