For eight years, I worked with inmates at San Quentin Prison. Through the auspices of the Insight Prison Project, a San Francisco Bay Area based non-profit, I taught violence prevention and workshops on gender reconciliation with Peter Van Dyk. All of the men came to these classes voluntarily. They learned about becoming peacemakers and transformed themselves from violent men capable of murder and rape into safe men who know themselves well. They deepened their humility and kindness. Many are now out of prison and doing well as productive citizens in their communities.
While I was working at San Quentin, I received training in two restorative justice courses on Victim-Offender Education (VOE). My teachers were David Doerfler and Rochelle Edwards. In VOE, inmates learn to become accountable for their crimes on many levels. They see how they were affected in childhood, how they became violent, and how their actions rippled through many people’s lives. It is one of the few classes inmates receive in which they speak to the group about the exact nature of their crimes. They tell the story of what they did to go to prison in the first place. It is an emotional and potentially healing class that seeks not to punish, but to support the men in their journey to wholeness.
A few years later, I began teaching conflict resolution and victim-offender education in Siskiyou County at the Yreka, CA juvenile hall. I revised the victim-offender course for teens, and shortened it because of budget constraints. I’ve been teaching at-risk teens at juvenile hall since 2012. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done professionally. At first, I was shocked by the kids’ lack of respect for a learning atmosphere, the teacher and the classroom. It took a while to get my bearings, but after a while I deepened into it. Their stories are heart wrenching, coming from generations of pain, addiction and abuse. I fall in love with every single student, and pray for their eventual maturity and healthy choices.
Sometimes, I need to remember that I’m planting seeds with these kids. Some seeds take root, some wither away, and some will blossom many years from now. I’ll never know how much my students have absorbed and integrated into their young lives. It is an honor to work with them.
Incarcerated people are some of the many invisible people in our society. Some folks want to lock them up and forget them. Instead, we need more great classes and training for people who never got the basics when they were young. No one is only a victim or a perpetrator. In finding our true nature, we can let go of stereotypical roles and stop acting out of terror and violence. Peace education, in its many forms, is needed today more than ever.