Living the principles of Restorative Justice that I had learned in my class, along with the “therapeutic breakthrough,” I experienced at San Quentin State Prison when Richard read his (article – “Against My Will”, March 20, 2010)letter, I decided to pursue a one-on-one victim/offender dialogue with my perpetrator. I needed to know–or at least try to find out-that the person who murdered Christopher was human enough to feel the pain of what he had done; to feel just what he had taken from our family by murdering my son. I can understand horrible mistakes–if you learn from them and was open to that possibility with my perpetrator. Knowing this would make me feel better about the tragedy: even if Mark were incarcerated for the rest of his life, I didn’t want two lives to be wasted.
In preparation I spoke with other families who had participated in a dialogue. Both had burning questions they had needed answered by their perpetrator before they could fully grieve: “What were the last words?” “How long did you ______?”
I did not have any of these burning questions. The murder case was made very clear to me in the trial, and I was accepting of the details. I was more focused on the type of person I believed my perpetrator to be; and hoped I was wrong.
In preparation for my dialogue, I began meeting once a month with Rochelle Edwards, a licensed psychotherapist and Victim Offender Mediator of severe and violent crimes. Rochelle works with both victims of crime and their offenders who wish to engage in a dialogue about the impact of the crime. The purpose of the dialogue is to provide victims of crime the opportunity for a structured meeting with their offenders, in a secure, safe environment, in order to help them with their recovery process. A dialogue provides the offenders the opportunity to fully understand and take responsibility for the impact of their crime, which can help in their own recovery as well– if they are truly open to doing the heart/hard work required.
During the eight months we met, she also met with Mark, my perpetrator, in Coalinga (she had to travel four hours each way) to prepare him for the dialogue. Mark would ask questions through Rochelle and I would respond and/or ask questions back. During this process, I did come up with some questions I wanted to ask Mark when I saw him, as well as a few things I wanted to share. I wanted to know if Mark was “doing time or using time” (If he was contributing to his prison community in any way). I wondered if he had ever considered jumping bail and what the anniversary of Christopher’s murder was like for him. I also wanted to share a dream I had that Mark rang my doorbell – which I answered–and he told me, “I’m free and I just wanted to say ‘I’m very sorry about what I did.”
Here I was again, touching memories that had been quiet for some years. It was like seeing the movie again. I relived the first moments of intense trauma and wound up feeling quite calm, proud that I have managed not to let this tragedy ruin my life. I chose to live and I am living happy and well.
Mark was encouraged to have a support person during the dialogue; he chose his sister. I asked a dear friend, Jaimee Karroll, whom I had met doing Victim Offender Education Group work in San Quentin. We had also been to three other prisons together serving on victim panels and had developed a very caring relationship. We are both “victims’ (for lack of a better word). Jaimee was abducted as a small child and held captive. We worked with inmates together and had learned to care for each other in a very instinctive and supportive way while doing very emotional work. When Jaimee agreed to support me through the dialogue process, I felt a calm come over me. I knew was in capable hands with her as my support and Rochelle as the facilitator. My family and friends were very encouraging of my choice to go ahead with the dialogue. Their love has been a constant on this journey of mine.
While preparing, I realized it was important to give this experience all my attention, so I arranged my wonderfully busy life to be quiet the month before the dialogue. I marked off the month on my calendar and made very few appointments. I did spend time with friends and family at home and reran the movie in my head a few times. The last month Rochelle, Jaimee and I met once a week to go over fears, questions and concerns.
My big concern was that when I saw Mark for the first time again, I would react in a very emotional way, which would be difficult for me. Often when I met with Rochelle and Jaimee we discussed this fear, which I learned to talk myself through by saying that this dialogue was my choice: I could walk out of the room and the prison at any time.
Rochelle’s curriculum is structured for inmates to understand themselves better, to grasp how their life experiences and decisions led them to prison. Also important is for them to gain insight into how their crimes have impacted their victim(s), their own families and their community. The purpose of this intensive work is to help offenders fully understand and take responsibility for their actions and to make the necessary changes in their lives, in order one day to live a productive life free from prison. The belief is that given the opportunity to understand their choices in life and the impact those choices have had on others, offenders can play an important role in restoring to whole the lives of their victims, their community and themselves.
The more individual offenders understand themselves and the impact on their victim(s) becomes personalized, the greater hope we have to reduce recidivism and witness offenders making the necessary changes to live meaningful and productive lives. At the end of their intensive eight months (this can be up to a year) work with the facilitator, the offender is ready to meet face-to–face with the victim (s). It is ultimately the facilitator’s decision when the inmate is ready– sometimes that is never.
At the time, to engage in a dialogue with your perpetrator, you needed to get permission, from the California State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; which we did. Then you need to have the Warden of the prison you are going to visit approve. We did this as well. A date was set. I wanted a record of the event. I knew a family who participated in a dialogue a year before ours. They had it video taped and so I lobbied the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to also be able to video tape. It was important to me that my family be able to see the dialogue in the future, if they wished, especially my daughter, Christina. I was not planning on doing this twice.
The dialogue we were participating in was the fifth ever in California to be approved by the CDCR. I was told “No” (so many times) to video taping. Every time I was turned down I was referred to yet another department, which eventually turned me down. After a while, I became extremely frustrated, feeling I wasn’t being heard. A friend advised me to contact my State Assembly person Jared Huffman’s office. His office got me permission to audio tape, though not video tape, but I was satisfied. Agreement was reached three days before the dialogue date. I also had to sign a confidentially agreement for the actual dialogue.
Now we were set.