Nearly 50 outsiders ventured inside a state prison, finding their way to its Catholic Chapel for a Restorative Justice symposium that brought crime victims, community members, and offenders together in dialog.
Every person, whether free or incarcerated, placed a name tag on their chest so they could practice the tenants of the new approach to criminal justice on a first-name basis.
“We have everybody here with every race of free people interacting with inmates,” said Rose Elizondo, a community volunteer who has been coming inside San Quentin for many years. “This is what God sees as community,” she said, comparing the symposium to how Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries builds community.
The symposium featured keynote speaker Rita Renjitham Alfred, head of the Restorative Justice Institute in Berkeley.
She asked people in the audience to close their eyes and think about the image of community. “What does that look like?”
“It looks like a circle of people,” an inmate said. “A circle of children sitting around a bonfire,” one of the free people said.
Alfred then invited the audience to turn to each other and say something about the other person’s name. With smiling faces, gestures of friendliness and heads nodding, inmates and free people chatted for several minutes, until a bell chimed.
Understanding history is important when working to make change in the community, Alfred said. The change could only occur through self-awareness and the ability to utilize empathy. When you bring those things together with a foundation of values, the needed change will come, she added.
“We need the people with the power
working with the people with no power”
“We need the people with the power working with the people with no power,” she said. “The people with power need a way to show the people without power how to behave. The strength of the powerful is formal, while the strength of the powerless is informal. The strength of Restorative Justice is the circle. However, how do we get the people with the power to sit in the circle?”
Alfred identified seven beliefs embodied in all people, relationships, and communities:
The true self in everyone is good, wise, and powerful. What we do is not who we are.
The world is profoundly interconnected; we must realize our actions have consequences. What we do to others, we do to ourselves.
All human beings have a deep desire to be in a good relationship. “There’s much suffering in the world but the greatest suffering is being alone,” Alfred said, quoting Mother Teresa.
All living beings have gifts and everyone is needed for what they bring. All gifts are indispensable to the well-being of the whole. Diversity in human nature is required for the whole.
Everything we need to bring positive change is already here. We believe our communities hold great reservoirs of resources.
Human beings are holistic. The mind, body, and spirits are important to our being.
We need to practice living from the core self.
Dr. Mary Elliott has been coming inside San Quentin to help facilitate San Quentin’s RJ group since 2007. There are about 115 inmates in the group with about 200 on the waiting list.
“I was impressed by the quality of presence of the men in blue,” Elliott said. “Their power of truth, power of sincerity and power of involvement is authentic.” For guidance, she said the group uses The Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Barbara Toews.
In the beginning, Elliott said that they struggled to get people from the outside to participate.
“It took a lot of time to get the ball rolling,” she said. “However, what kept the group going was the work of Leonard Rubio, Vinny Russo, Kevin Tindall, and many other dedicated inmates.”
Rubio and Russo have since paroled. However, they still support the group, Elliott said. “When Leonard left, the guys stepped up and did a fabulous job, especially Kevin Valvardi. Kevin created chapter questions from The Little Book of Restorative Justice that are helpful to the group.”
One community member, known by inmates as Ms. Jen, has been teaching RJ for about three years in Santa Rita Jail. She said that she has classes for maximum-security detainees. Around 200 to 300 people have been through her program.
Ms. Jen says she hopes Santa Rita would not build new jails with the money it receives from the realignment fund, “but to build a ‘one-stop-shop’ for offenders who want to turn their lives around.”
“I envision a community center that serves probationers and newly released inmates who have educational, health care, and child services needs,” Ms. Jen said. “The problem right now is finding the right place, where the community would be welcoming to the idea.”
A student enrolled in the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) said she is learning new approaches to psychology by combining the mind, body and spirit into her study.
Originally from New Orleans, she said it was her first time inside San Quentin. “All the checks coming into the prison were interesting,” she said. “Then it was calming; the peaceful feeling I got when entering the chapel.”
Another CIIS student also said it was her first time coming inside San Quentin. “My education is teaching me not to just diagnose people and give them some medication, but to understand mind, body, and spirit in order to give more effective treatments for problems.”
In honor of the children and teachers killed at Sandy Hook last December, inmate facilitator Dwight Krizman read each name and age, while inmate facilitator Rafael Calix rang a small bell.
“Because we practice Restorative Justice and nobody is talking about the shooter or his mother, we’d like to ring it two more times, so that we may learn from this,” Alfred said. The bell rang twice more.
The audience was divided into 10 circle groups consisting of 10 people (a mixture of free and incarcerated people) who engaged in dialog amongst each other for about an hour and a half.
Quoting Nelson Mandela, Tindall told the audience, “No one truly knows a nation, until they’ve been in its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones.”