For a decade Rochelle Edwards has counseled San Quentin inmates through her program Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG). Now preparing to move on, Edwards shared with us what she has learned about healing, redemption, insight and forgiveness.
Edwards started VOEG in 2004 with one group and has since established 28 groups across the state.
“Over the years working with prisoners who’ve been through the program and survivors, together we’ve continued to improve on the VOEG curriculum, to make it what it is today,” said Edwards.
“Forgiveness is important for everyone, regardless of the degree of the transgression. And it’s most important for the forgiver, the person doing the forgiving.”
She thinks that in a healthy society we need to figure out how to integrate members who have caused harm and been harmed, instead of furthering alienation between them. She says this is what continues the cycle of offense and alienation.
“Over and over again I’ve had the experience of people sharing events or stories from their lives that they’ve never talked about before,” she said. “Oftentimes, these stories or events were very traumatic and as a young child they didn’t have the tools or right meaning to process them.
“These men knew they wouldn’t have the chance to meet their victim, so I created the VOEG curriculum for people who wanted to do accountability work and connect the dots of their lives — to have them begin to question how they ended up in prison, and give them the opportunity to meet with survivors of similar crimes.
“I feel like this work chose me, and I’ve had some great experiences, but now my life is ready for a new transition,” said Edwards.
Her transition includes leaving VOEG in the capable hands of Sonya Shah.
In 2009, Shah began volunteering for the Insight Prison Project (IPP), which acts as an umbrella organization for several rehabilitative programs.
“Jamie Karroll [of IPP] had asked me to be on the survivor panel for a pilot VOEG program in Alameda County’s Juvenile Hall,” said Shah. “I noticed that it was a very healing experience to both talk with the youth about my past traumas and have them share theirs.”
Shah, who is the Justice Program Director for IPP, completed her VOEG training in 2010 and has been coming into San Quentin ever since.
“I was immediately drawn to the VOEG process, specifically how our past experiences, our childhood, our socio-cultural influences shape who we are, and how trauma so easily manifests into harming behavior, both harming to oneself and to others,” Shah said.
“We have groups that are in Spanish for youth and for women. So our curriculum has to adapt to the unique needs of each community.”
Shah said the work that Edwards has created with the men of San Quentin is nothing short of phenomenal.
“You can see the work the men have done on themselves through how they actively listen, like every word is important. And they respond in a manner that demonstrates you are being heard. That’s progress on a large scale,” said Shah.
Edwards considers VOEG one of the best ways to explore personal trauma and the ensuing release of such trauma through behavior that is not positive for society. It is a way to explore the relationships we have, the one with ourselves and the one with people around us and our community.
“There has to be a way for people in prison to be connected and stay connected to the community, and the best way to do that is to have people come into the prison and build both professional relationships and skilled development through those interactions and offerings,” Edwards said.
“The VOEG process is quite mutual,” she continued. “We’re all learning from each other, the men I have worked with are my teachers, my children are my biggest teachers. And all my relationships are opportunities to learn.”
She thinks that her sense of wanting to be of service to incarcerated people comes from working on a farm as a youngster.
“A lot of the people I cleaned stalls with on the farm were individuals who had been to prison. I didn’t know it as a kid, but that was a form of restoration; so helping the incarcerated just feels right,” said Edwards. “Restorative justice restores our moral compass, our morality, our sense of self, who we were intended to be before our lives were interrupted.”
Edwards said the VOEG groups emphasize creating a safe container, a safe place for small groups of men and women to come together and begin to unpack their past, to take off their masks.
“They are witnessed in their truth and learn new tools that were missing at the time of their crime,” Edwards said. “We, as facilitators, enter into a conscious relationship with the members of our group, recognizing that our interactions have the potential to be reparative.”
Edwards said her transition should allow her more time to focus her efforts toward developing The Victim Offender Dialogue Program throughout California.
She will continue running a VOEG group. “I’m just scaling back and developing other interests,” said Edwards.
Through her years with the program, Edwards says she has learned one important thing:
“Through VOEG I’ve learned that men and women in prison are more than the worst day of their lives — and they can heal and take their rightful place in society.”