In 2004, Rochelle Edwards created the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) with Insight Prison Project. 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 training ends with participants meeting a panel of victims for a healing dialogue.
I was one of three “victims” (for lack of a better word) to participate on the panel at the end of this very first class. Along with me, another woman, whose husband had been killed while riding his bike to work by a drunk driver (leaving her and two children alone) and a third woman, a rape and stabbing victim, volunteered to share their stories. The men in the VOEG training were also to tell the stories of their crimes during the panel, and in most cases it was the first time for them to tell the story in a group. They may have previously discussed the crime with their attorney or close family, but sharing your crime is not done in prison. Because this was such a unique and important event for the men, I felt it was my job to listen objectively and not pre-judge the experience.
We met in a large classroom in the prison, sitting in a circle, with the “victims” at the top edge, along with the facilitator, Rochelle, the men filling out the circle. We started out introducing ourselves to each other by going around the circle and saying our names. Next Rochelle discussed the rules: no interrupting, confidentially about what was said in the room and raising your hand if you wanted to speak.
The hardest part for me in listening to the men’s stories was perceiving a moment when the crime could have turned around–or at least not escalated to murder. In one situation, the crime went from a drug binge to a robbery (to get more drugs), which was interrupted by a person who was then killed. As the perpetrator told his story, I could see a few places where good decisions would have resulted in a lesser crime. Often, it is these missed judgments calls that lead to more severe crimes, generally from robbery alone to robbery and murder.
It also struck me how little time some of the crimes took. Quite often, a split-second decision changed many lives. Another robbery went wrong when people came home while it was taking place. The burglar had a gun and people got hurt. That was not the perpetrator’s plan but that was the result.
And, drugs! I was shocked at the bad decisions a human will make under the influence of drugs, when a person seems to lose all reason to the addiction. In every case, these were not drawn-out and planned events, not crimes of vengeance where the perpetrator prepared for the crime for days or weeks or months. A second or seconds was all the difference between a good decision and a bad decision, between life and death.
I also noticed that December is a very crime-filled month. People are desperate around the holidays to feel they can provide for their families. Even drug addicts want to help their families celebrate Christmas. The holidays put you up against your own walls.
As I listened, I realized as well, that I was seeing these 12 men at least 20 years after they had committed the crime they were incarcerated for– in many cases they had been in prison even longer. They had come into the prison system as young men and were now middle aged and older. We all are a work in progress, and since they had entered prison, these men had been doing many different kinds of personal exploration, taking classes and soul searching in order to be ready to participate in the VOEG curriculum. They were not the same young men who had committed a heinous crime. Instead, they were human beings who wanted to understand why their lives had led them to prison and who wanted to work to make sure their lives never went in that direction again.
When everybody had told their story, we all stood and a San Quentin inmate said a blessing. We all held hands, then said the name of someone we had hurt or been hurt by. I said “I love you, Christopher!”
Once the four-hours had passed, I was so tired, that when I got home, all I could do was eat a quick dinner and go to bed. I was too tired to share it what I had experienced that afternoon; I needed to sleep and let the beautiful brutal truth sink in.