Week One: Victim/Offender Education Program
In the Time Before November 8, 2016
On my tiptoes, I could scan the contents of the top dresser drawer. I was nine or ten years old. My parents’ room was not forbidden, just foreboding, so I’d never peered inside Pop’s bureau before. My mother was in the room. She was putting laundry away, folding and fussing over each item. We were convivial, having a lovely day. No tension, none of my usual backtalk or petulant attitude.
The landscape of the top drawer was spare; my father was not a man of clutter. I held each item to examine it and show my mother. The watch fob that didn’t work, she said, came from his father. There were silver cuff links and tie clasps. The slingshot he made when he was a boy in North Carolina was slack. He was proud to have made it, she said. It was his only totem of childhood. Handkerchiefs did not intrigue me, but my exploring fingers hit something solid. I lifted the small pistol from the back of the drawer and aimed it at my mother. Not intentionally, it was more like a compass needle seeking north. She gasped,
“Put that down! It could be loaded!”
Gaining more and more clarity on what I had just almost done, I uncurled my fingers from the grip. Was my finger on the trigger? Could I have killed my own mother? My horror gave way to tears. My mother took a quick step toward me, took the gun out of my hand and put it back in the drawer. The gun was for burglars, she said, along with the baseball bat behind their bedroom door. My father was lithe and very slight of build. He never hit anyone in his life.
When I last checked, perhaps a few weeks later, the gun was gone.
This memory hasn’t stirred for decades. But it did after a week in California as a participant in the Victim/Offender Education Group facilitator training. * We stayed with friends and commuted each morning across the Golden Gate Bridge into picture postcard sunrises. In a San Rafael church activity room we joined a circle of other participants. The group consisted of formerly incarcerated people who had spent decades inside, as well as employees and volunteers at other prisons. Our training followed the curriculum used inside with VOEG participants.
VOEG is a restorative justice program, focused on accountability and healing trauma. The starting point is to write a crime impact statement. This is a detailed accounting of the day leading to the crime that resulted in incarceration, the crime itself, and the aftermath, including the real or imagined impact on the victim, their family, friends and community. Listening to the stories of our colleagues who had been incarcerated, their naked truth, speaking the names of their victims through barely controlled sobs, was breathtaking. They also dove into understanding the harmful environments of their youth and behaviors that led to criminal activities and arrest. These were the steps leading them to emotional awareness. They had to dig deep and deal with the whole spectrum of their experiences and learn emotions. Then they could take full accountability for their actions, which allowed them to know empathy and practice compassion.
On the third day of the training, those who had been cleared went to San Quentin. We wore black, white, or brown as we had been instructed. No blue or denim like the men inside. We brought nothing in but our car key and driver’s license. No pens or paper, no device capable of picking up a digital signal. Getting inside meant a series of checks, one large iron gate closing before another opened. Once inside, we were escorted to the chapel, where we sat with twelve of the men who had completed, and now co-facilitated, the San Quentin VOEG program.
One by one, the men showed us how the program worked, which meant telling their stories. Every story I heard included easy access to guns and drugs. There were stories of single mothers working several jobs, abusive parents or step parents, or the lure of gang life that won over other life choices. The hardest stories to hear were of childhoods full of physical and sexual harm, shame and humiliation. Their hearts had hardened with these forms of abuse. How could they care about another person’s life when they had been raised with such meanness, disregarded, and provoked in their powerlessness? In other stories it seemed another youth or a girlfriend was killed without any more provocation than a look or a comment. This glance or snide remark proved to be life long humiliation’s last straw.
“Hurt people hurt people, healed people heal people,” was a constant refrain.
Each man I met was able to describe in detail the events that shaped his decisions and how he had come to take responsibility for his part in the events. There was liberation in all this truth telling, in listening too. Listening was learning for these men who had been boys with dreams and desperate intentions.
In the homework for the San Rafael group I shared vignettes from my younger days when I was caught in sexual, economic, and emotional power plays. I was drunk for the sexual un- pleasantries but not for the later relationships where I stayed despite economic and emotional abuse. I know that if I had continued drinking and doing drugs I would have landed in jail, died in a boating or car accident, or by an overdose.
Listening to the men in San Quentin and the people in our San Rafael group who had spent decades incarcerated also taught me the fragility of a fraction of a second. An impetuous trigger pulled. The gun goes off. Someone takes the bullets and dies in the instant of that decision or in the split second of that mistake.
Realizing how close I might have been to shooting my mother that day, or going deeper into addiction to either kill or die, only offers the tiniest mirror to understand how thin the line is between who is in and who is out of our jails and prisons. It was a line that I didn’t cross that summer day on my tiptoes. And I know now how so many men and women have crossed the line or been pushed by the accumulation of systematic oppressions, abuse, neglect, and denied expectations. VOEG works to bring those inside back to healing and emotional intelligence that is as inspired as it is enlightening. They told me that having healed in VOEG, not only have their lives been changed forever, they’ve been able to change the culture of the yard at San Quentin.
Healed people heal people.
*Insight Prison Project
This morning I received news that LaMerle Johnson, Sr., amazing, loving, caring, eye-twinkling, life coach, father, brother, friend died in a canoe accident on Wednesday, December 7, 2016 at the Rockwood Leadership Returning Citizen retreat.
I met LaMerle at the VOEG training. He opened my eyes and heart to all the possibilities of healing, coming out of a life of harm and prison and hurt and being a joyful man. He personified “healed people heal people.”
My heart is broken — more light is let in. Our work goes on.