Melissa Davis keeping the community safe on both sides of the law

By Kevin D. Sawyer

There is a growing number of individuals working in law enforcement who labor freely, beyond what their profession requires of them, to increase public safety.

Meet Melissa Davis, who has been working as one of Marin County’s probation officers for a little more than 12 years. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from University of California, Santa Barbara.

For nearly four years, Davis has been coming inside San Quentin State Prison to teach inmates how to stop violence in their communities.

“I have one foot in one program and one in the other,” said Davis. “I’ve always worked in the arena serving others. I do a lot of it voluntarily and a lot of it as a probation officer.”

Because of the work Davis has done with GRIP (Guiding Rage Into Power), a program that teaches inmates the consequences of domestic violence, she was awarded the Generation Ali Boxing Robe donated to the program by someone who worked with the late three-time heavyweight champ, Muhammad Ali.

“I was blown over,” said Davis. “It was an incredible honor, and I was very grateful.” She said the robe signifies Muhammad Ali’s philosophy of walking the walk and standing up. “I was very humbled. It’s going to be wonderful giving it to the next recipient.”

“We have aptly named it ‘The Victory Robe,’” a group sponsor said. “The victory robe is awarded to someone working within GRIP that has overcome challenges in an exemplary way and who is deeply dedicated to serving the community.” Winners of the robe have their name embroidered on it in gold letters. Each year the previous recipient of the robe passes it on to the new awardee.

This year Davis was recognized for her work over the years teaching domestic violence prevention to the men at San Quentin. She has also worked to certify a selected number of GRIP inmate facilitators as state-licensed domestic violence instructors.

According to Davis, California law requires probation officers to audit intervention programs to certify them. Facilitators need 40 hours of training to become certified. She helped the men in GRIP reach the mandate.

“I believe they’re the only 52-week group in the nation that has certification,” said Davis. “It was a huge accomplishment for the guys in GRIP. “I think it’s a real shame for the lack of funding for more groups.”

Davis said the Insight Prison Project (IPP) previously certified the domestic violence program at San Quentin. But when IPP stopped its certification, Jacques Verduin, who founded GRIP, asked her to do the certification for his program.

“Jacques is authentic,” she said. “He doesn’t do the work because he wants to be recognized or get rich.”

“It’s a wonderful program,” said Davis. “I’m always impressed with the level of depth the guys have.” She said it is because they get to the root of their problems which have to do with violence. “It’s always a very rich dialog, and it’s reciprocal.”

“I don’t judge,” said Davis. “I try to have a dialog with the participants.” She does not ask the men what crime led them to prison. The men share their stories and experiences voluntarily. “Trust is huge in order for people to get vulnerable. One thing so good about GRIP is that they teach emotional intelligence.”

Davis said she previously supervised offenders. Currently she works in investigations and writes reports, but the majority of her work has been with domestic family violence. She thinks a sense of community has disappeared and families are disenfranchised from each other.

“There’s all of this disconnect,” said Davis. “I see parents that are desperate to help their child.”

She said parents can’t always afford to put kids in counseling. They can’t get kids to do things; sometimes due to lack of resources.

Repeating the old maxim, Davis said, “It takes a village,” and that programs and education should be provided early on. “If communities have enough (prevention training) the violence won’t be there.”

Davis said GRIP participants have asked why a similar curriculum is not taught in schools.

“I’d like to educate in the schools,” she said, adding that society has to also say “enough is enough” and become the change it wants to see.

Davis said other groups at San Quentin such as CRI (California Re-entry Institute) and TRUST (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training) have asked her to participate in their workshops.

“My objective is to have organizations address workplace violence,” said Davis. “I’m grateful to be able to do this work. I learn as much as I’m able to give.”

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