By Phoeun You
Lucia De La Fuente impacted the lives of 10 Spanish-speaking San Quentin prisoners with her skills as a counselor and teacher.
“She taught me how to deal with my traumas. I can own up to my crime and hold myself accountable for it,” said Manuel Murillo, one of her students.
De La Fuente is one of three volunteers that recently launched Victim-Offender Education Group (VOEG) for Spanish-speaking prisoners.
“It’s the other Spanish facilitators like her that are essential and important to help me express my feelings and emotions. It’s not only a change for me; it’s a change for everyone in the group. Now I have more confidence,” Murillo added.
VOEG is a self-help program inside San Quentin that adopts restorative justice practices to find healing for both offenders and survivors.
“This program is about forgiveness and accountability. They go together,” said De La Fuente. “It’s about being accountable for the harm and forgiveness and it is about being accountable for the good they’ve done. Everyone has a different process for forgiveness.”
In 2012, De La Fuente, a Mexican student, entered the United States on a visa to research Restorative Justice to earn a Ph.D. Her journey with VOEG began in a restorative justice facilitator training with IPP (Insight Prison Project), where she met former VOEG Program Coordinator Sonya Shah and VOEG facilitator Lesli Pastora Reyes.
Reyes recognized De La Fuente’s potential and invited her to co-facilitate the first Spanish VOEG with Steve Granville.
After the third phase of training, which was held inside San Quentin, her belief in restorative justice was confirmed. De La Fuente witnessed a group of inmate facilitators model exercises from the curriculum. “That’s when I decided to go nowhere and stay here,” said De La Fuente.
As a Mexican citizen, De La Fuente understands the importance of serving the underserved community. “There was a cultural component that was missing (from VOEG). Everyone grew up in a different place. There’s something about having the same heritage. You don’t need to explain yourself all the time, because everyone gets you,” said De La Fuente.
When the class began, De La Fuente, a soft-spoken petite young woman, was uncertain of her role as a facilitator. “The day that I met the group, I was afraid to say the wrong things and hurt them,” she said.
Two years later, on Jan. 16, 10 Mexican men completed the first Spanish VOEG class. In class, the men shared what they took from the program and expressed how De La Fuente helped change their lives.
|“This program is going to help me
to fully understand the impact of my criminal
behaviors and keep me from living a criminal lifestyle”|
“She was there every step of the way when I had a hard time understanding the assignments. She was willing to stop and break each step down so I could understand it,” said Jose Segura, who was recently found suitable for parole after serving 20 years. He aims to continue using what he learns out in the community. “This is going to help my kids because I can open up and better communicate with them. I can now be an example of their positive change.”
Eduardo Gonzalez said, “She helped me understand the process of my crime — who I was then and who I am now. I use to have a difficult time expressing my feelings and emotions. This program is going to help me to fully understand the impact of my criminal behaviors and keep me from living a criminal lifestyle.”
Reyes said of De La Fuente: “She was really timid — not sure if she was ready to facilitate. Now she is so confident in her abilities. (The participants) call her ‘The General.’ She is not shy. When she sees something, she’ll call it for what it is. I’m more flowery.”
“Working with (De La Fuente) helps us see the best in men,” said Reyes. “It’s helped her confront some things that she wasn’t ready to. It’s healed us both.”
After discussing the impact of the program, inside facilitators Arnulfo T. Garcia and Jorge Heredia presented certificates of appreciation to De La Fuente and Reyes on behalf of the participants. Both accepted the certificates with tears.
The students “have taught me that it’s okay to be in a vulnerable place,” De La Fuente said. “I didn’t know how to say no to people. I wanted to please everyone even though I didn’t want to. Now I can say no, because if I’m not OK, I can’t be OK for someone else.”
Despite the success of her experience, De La Fuente admits it is difficult being away from her country. “Life was hard in America trying to adjust to western culture.” Aside from receiving a national scholarship, she struggles to find income.
De La Fuente plans to continue with VOEG and wants to expand restorative justice abroad. “I want to keep doing this with the youth and women,” said De La Fuente.
Re-energized and clear with a vision, De La Fuente hopes to one day implement programs like VOEG in Mexico and different locations in Latin America. What drives her to continue her restorative justice endeavors is remembering the injustices that exist in her native land.
In two years, De La Fuente is scheduled to receive her doctorate in social change, focused on restorative justice, from California Institute of Integral Studies.