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Weekends Behind Bars

Victims Visiting Prison

Nancy Mullane

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Jamee Karroll and Jacques Verduin with the Inmates
(Nancy Mullane)
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Sunday is International Forgiveness Day. Everyone knows it's not easy to forgive someone and move on, especially if the offense was criminal. To help people who've been victim of a crime forgive, there's a program in Northern California that helps people who have been the victim of a crime find forgiveness through dialogue. And who they talk to is kind of surprising.

A dozen men wearing prison blue shirts and jeans sit in a circle inside San Quentin State Prison's education center. They're attending a meeting of the victim offender education group. Down at one end of the circle Jaimee Karroll, a victim and survivor, is tuning her guitar.

Then, as the prisoners listen, Jaimee begins telling her story, "I was thrown into the bottom of the car, and the car sped away. I was immediately bound and had something put over my head, which I think was a burlap sack."

In a slow, steady voice, Jaimee recounts how when she was nine years old, she was kidnapped and sexually assaulted. "My attack involved a knife…which was constantly used to threaten me…and also a lot of physical rape," she says.

Jaimee says she's spent most of her life unsuccessfully trying to forget that day so long ago. Now, she's finding some peace by telling her story to prisoners in groups like this one.

Jacques Verduin is the Executive Director of the Insight Prison Project at San Quentin and oversees the groups. He says one day, when Jaimee was telling her story to another group, he noticed that she had a really good voice.

Jaimee told Jacques she used to sing, but stopped when she began to do the healing work from the crime. Jacques encouraged her to sing again and when she was ready, "come and sing for the group."

Jaimee agreed. After telling her story to this group of prisoners, she says she wants to sing again, for them. "It feels really profound to actually do it with you guys…to do it in the presence of men who committed acts of violence and are at a place in their lives where they're definitely committed to transcending it."

That commitment to transcend their violent pasts hasn't been easy. As part of the non-profit Insight Prison Project, hundreds of prisoners inside San Quentin attend classes in conflict resolution, violence prevention and meditation every week. Then, after years of training, Jacques says, the men qualify to join groups such as this one that bring victims together with offenders.

Jacques explains that the victims who meet with the men "are not the offenders' victims, so they're not personally related through the crime." But Jacques says, "the victims have gone through crimes like the men have committed. And so there's not only a lot of healing, but we think it's the most powerful impactful tool we have."

The process might not be right for every victim, but for many, it's an opportunity to ask questions and get answers from the only people who might have them, the offenders.

The program started a few years back almost by accident when Jacques met Radha Stern.

Radha lost her son 12 years ago in a violent confrontation with a roommate. "He was murdered by a school roommate who woke up in a bad mood and shot him four times because he put dishes in the wrong cabinet."

Radha's son, Christopher Robin, was 21 years old when he was killed, and she says she has a hard time understanding such intense acts of violence.
"How somebody could get that mad and kill somebody? It's so final. There's no graduations. There's no birthdays. There's no children. There's no marriages. There's no, there's nothing."

The death of her only son threw Radha's world into a void. The roommate was sentenced to 19- and-a-half years to life. She was sentenced to a lifetime without her son.

Then one night at a dinner party, she met Jacques Verduin, who at the time was working with prisoners at San Quentin State Prison.

Jacques asked Radha to tell him the other side of the story, the victim's side. "She had a son who was murdered, and I was spending my days with people who had committed such offenses."

Listening to her story, Jacques says, he had an insight. If he could bring the two sides of criminal trauma together, the victim and the offender, they could share their experiences: the victim's weight of anguish, the offender's regret and grief. And both sides could begin to recover.

So when Radha asked him about his work with the prisoners he invited her to meet them. One day shortly thereafter, she visited San Quentin and the program was born.

Radha says her first visit to San Quentin was a surreal experience. "Going into San Quentin or any prison for the first time is a pretty amazing experience. I mean, the sounds and the clanks and the sally ports and the guns and the guards."

She says when the prisoners arrived, she rememebers looking each one in the eyes, "and I shook their hand and I said, 'Hi, I'm Rada. What's your name?' and then we all sat down in a circle."

The men passed photos she'd brought of her son, Christopher, around the circle. They listened to her story. Radha says that meeting was the beginning of her healing. But the real turning point came the day the men at San Quentin presented her with a gift.

On the tenth anniversary of her son's death, Radha says, "They made me a quilt about Chris's life. It was very crude. It's only made with prison materials. I can't tell you how I felt that day. I was just so beautifully overwhelmed. They said, 'We all worked together. We all did our own little square. And there was so much joy in the room while we were doing this for you.'"

Since that day, Radha's visited San Quentin many times. Today she works as a facilitator in the program, helping to bring about reconciliation between prisoners and survivors.

When Jaimee Karroll finishes telling prisoners in the group her memory of the day she was victimized as a young girl, there's silence. Then one of the men raises his hand to speak.

He looks at Jaimee and says, "All I could keep thinking while you were telling it was what a brave and smart nine-year-old little girl."

Then another prisoner raises his hand and tells Jaimee how healing it was for her to come and sit with them on this day, "and talk with us and share your story as well as hear ours. We were connected in that sense and it's so, so important, and I just want to thank you for it."

No one in this group committed any crime against Jaimee Karroll, but by listening and talking, these men are doing what they can from behind bars to heal the wounds of crime.

Jaimee smiles and picks up her guitar and sings a song, "Songbird in the golden cage."

More stories from our Weekends Behind Bars series

Comments

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  • By Kay Kardian-Porter

    From Imperial Beach, CA, 06/12/2012

    Since my sons killer was sentence, I did not have a chance to talk to the defendant before the court. I've always wanted to tell him what he did to my family and me the victims Mother. I would like some information on this program. Thank you

    By Anita Coolidge

    From Fallbrook, CA, 08/02/2008

    I was very moved hearing the report on healing and forgiveness in San Quentin this afternoon. Punishment only makes a person more resentful, demeaned, and therefore potentially more violent. This process, on the other hand, can truly lead to the healing within, both for the victim and the perpetrator. Love truly is the only thing that heals our inner wounds. When can we apply this process to our global conflicts?

    By Heike Thornton

    From CA, 08/02/2008

    I wish more people would realize healing like this is much more effective rather than having the state kill people which does not bring healing to anybody.
    What a wonderful project. I wish they would do that for DR prisoners too.

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