Four survivors, Rita, Sammie, Nora and Michelle, shared testimonies of the impact of crime on their lives at the California Institution for Women (CIW), April 7.
They joined 100 offenders and the Chief Deputy Warden for the inaugural “In Their Shoes: Victim Awareness Event.”
The day began with participants designing signs to honor their victims, which they wore throughout the day. The morning was spent walking laps while exchanging stories about crime and its far reaching consequences.
Before the event, participant Aimee Gana thought that there would be a divide between herself and the victim speakers. She spent the walk talking with Sammie.
“We opened our hearts to each other and I left feeling like the world was smaller. I recognized the commonality and interconnectedness of the experiences of victims and offenders alike. It was life changing,” commented Aimee.
The event was a collaboration of CIW’s three restorative justice based programs: Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG), Bridges to Life (BTL) and Restorative Justice Victim Impact Workshop (RJVI). Each group manned a booth during the event to provide participants with information about their programs.
All proceeds from the event, totaling over $500, were donated to “Healing Hearts, Resorting Hope (HHRH),” a Los Angeles based organization that provides services to crime victims, survivors, and others in the community affected by homicide. HHRH plays an important role at CIW by providing offenders with services designed to increase empathy for their victims through taking responsibility for their crimes and their healing.
The afternoon was devoted to creating a sacred space for healing. A victim panel consisting of detailed personal accounts of the tragedy inflicted by violent crime offered offenders an intimate glimpse into the lives of crime survivors. Nora spoke of the murder of her 17 year old son. When asked about her feelings toward her perpetrator, she stated that she wished she could tell her offender, “You’re my son now, and bear the responsibility of making me as proud as he would have.”
Intertwined with the still excruciating pain caused by their losses was a message of forgiveness. All of the victim speakers encouraged offenders to return to the community as healed and productive citizens. In her search for understanding, Michelle has dedicated her life to helping offenders heal by becoming a drug and alcohol counselor. Rita’s losses drove her to become the victim’s ministry coordinator in her Boyle Heights community.
When asked about making an apology, Rita explained that “sorry isn’t good enough,” she wanted offenders to understand that they need to show a tangible transformation in their lives. Her goal in working with offenders is to make her community safer by ensuring that offenders she speaks to never make another victim.
“As I listened to the stories of mother’s whose children had been murdered, I thought about my victim’s family. I finally grasped the enormous impact my actions had on many individuals,” shared participant Angelina. She said that hearing the raw emotions of the speakers helped her to cut through her own denial and face the humanity of her victim.
Many attendees left the event changed; they expressed how the unexpected compassion and forgiveness of the crime survivors inspired them to seek their own healing.