Author’s note – Have you ever met someone you felt you have know for your whole life? I have.
I met Jaimee in 2006, when we were both on a Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) panel at San Quentin State Prison. The group was facilitated by an Insight Prison Project staff, Rochelle Edwards and an inmate peer facilitator. VOEG is intensive 6-8 month training for inmates who wish to understand themselves better, how their life experiences and decisions led them to prison and how their crimes have impacted their victim(s). The purpose of the training is to help the offenders understand and take responsibility for the impact of the crime(s) they have committed. The class ends with participants meeting a panel of victims for a healing dialogue. Jaimee and I were two of the victim panelists–I the mother of a murdered child; and Jaimee abducted by two men at the tender age of 9.
What I remember most about that day was Jaimee’s story. It was so hard to hear. I was very moved by the trauma she endured and the amazing woman she has become. Her journey was very difficult and I remember saying to her, “You are so brave; much braver than me.” She replied, “We are all brave.”
WOW, that gave me a moment for pause. I felt that I had known her for years. Working in a prison environment, you start off relationships at a very high level. There is no “What do you do for a living and what is your astrological sign!” You get right down to the real stuff very quickly. Again it is brutal truth at its best.
As I got to know Jaimee better, I realized we are both looking for our crimes NOT to define our lives. We both feel a responsibility to learn and educate because of our experiences but we DO NOT want the crime effect to erode the quality of our lives. We want better lives in honor of surviving our experiences. Christopher’s murder is a trauma and a tragedy many people stay very stuck in. I did not, and in Jaimee I found a soul mate.
Jaimee is very tall and when I met her she had a huge mass of curly hair that I am sure gave her grief on occasion too. It did what it wanted!
Jaimee and I quickly became the dynamic duo. We preferred to work with each other in our volunteer work with prisons because we felt completely safe with each other. Jaimee would always want to talk last and I always went first. Even if we worked with other people on the panel, she always managed to go last. I think she is shy and wants to wait as long as possible to share her deep feelings about her abduction as a child. Framing panels with the two of us, we found a way of getting inmates to get deeper into their truths. There is a big difference in saying “I did it” and realizing how you have affected your family, the victim’s family, your community, the victim’s community and yourself.
On one of our first adventures we traveled to High Desert State Prison in Susanville, CA, a level-four (high security) prison. When I asked Jaimee to come with me, she told me that she has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and was having treatments. But she still wanted to go, if the schedule worked. And it did, the visit falling between her treatments. My husband, Gary, came with us too, his first time to visit a VOEG panel. We all flew to Reno, then drove the two hours to Susanville.
Even thought it is prison, San Quentin has some soul. It has beautiful murals painted by inmates over the years and a beautiful view of Mount Tamalpais. High Desert does not. It is a huge cement building with large sliding and locking doors. The men wear waist chains. We were told that this was for their protection because High Desert housed many gang members. Because the prison is isolated, it does not have much programming or volunteers. The surrounding town is small, having grown up around the prison.
The warden at the time escorted us around the prison and stayed with us for the panel, which is unusual. The men we worked with at High Desert were younger than we had experienced before, primarily because many had been members of gangs. What amazed me when I saw the age of many of the men was that what you grow up with and think is “normal” is so far from normal really. Growing up with bullets flying passed your house in the very dangerous Del Paso Heights area of Sacramento; whole generations of thieves who stole whatever they needed when they needed it – it was the only reality some of the men knew. And, having to come to prison to find out that not all fathers beat you to within an inch of your life – regularly.
In the dialogue conversation we learned of a young man who had killed another in an alcoholic rage and black out. He did not remember much, but the evidence was there, along with witnesses who saw the crime. The young man had been on a waiting list for three years for Alcoholics Anonymous. This was shocking to me. San Quentin, where I do most of my volunteer work, had over 7,000 volunteers and many classes of all kinds.
The staff had lunch brought in for us, but not for the men. They had paper bag lunches. I could not eat food from the outside in front of them. I don’t think Gary or Jaimee did either. We invited the men to have ours, then watched how difficult it was to eat with waist chains. Once we served them, It was hard to hold the paper plate, and they had to bend down to eat their food.
We were a quiet crew heading back home that evening. It was a long haul to Reno and then home. This was the first time any of us had been in a level-four prison. It was very different from our other experiences and we were sobered by the day’s events. We felt grateful that our lives are spent free.
Jaimee and I went to Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad next. It was an overnight adventure and we did our best to make it fun. We stayed in an old bed and breakfast and treated ourselves to a nice dinner the night before. We were making an impact wherever we went–the two of us sitting with 10 – 15 inmates speaking from our hearts about the crimes that shook our lives is very powerful. Most inmates never get to experience the details of how the crime they committed affects the victim and his or her family. In our stories there is always something the inmates can relate to their crime. Here are two reality checks sitting in front of them and they end up experiencing some of the grief they have caused.
I felt so comfortable sharing my work and life with Jaimee that we have bonded as life-long friends. I can talk to her about anything and she will listen. If she feels it is necessary, she will give me a reality check and it is always welcome.
Sadly, though, Jaimee’s cancer was not behaving, so my time with her shifted to
supporting her through what she called her “Chemosabe.” I would drive her to her chemo appointments and stay with her for comic relief. We had some very wonderful times doing very hard things. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. It is very intimate to be with someone in a chemo lounge. Jaimee has been through four years of cancer fight. She has had four rounds of chemo and is now in a trial. I want her back to VERY healthy. We still have much work to do together.
Jaimee is still the same, though now her short wavy hair is totally different than
when I met her. Same great lady inside, always–my pal Jaimee.