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Lisa Rea: Speaking at a California prison during victims awareness week (part 2)

May 8, 2009

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

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

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

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

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.


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