On Mother’s Day in 2010, Ayoola Mitchell’s middle son, D.V., was murdered in Oakland. His killer was never found.
Fifteen months before that incident, in January 2009, Mitchell’s oldest son survived 17 gunshot wounds. Again, the assailants were never prosecuted.
“After experiencing trauma and/or tragedy, you either become bitter or you become better. One thing for sure, you will not be the same,” said Mitchell, a long-time San Quentin volunteer.
Ayoola shares her experiences in various prison forums and rehabilitative programs directed at inmates who have committed similar crimes.
At San Quentin, she facilitates “Power Source,” a youth offender program, and “Making Time Count,” a program in Reception Center.
“Actually seeing a mother who lost a son to gun violence is impactful,” said Andrew Wadsworth, who heard Mitchell’s story when he attended a victim impact group meeting in the prison. “Now I understand what my victim’s mother is going through. I used to think that a mother would cry at the funeral, and that would be it.
“Now I know it’s hard for them to celebrate birthdays or holidays. I have to hold myself accountable for that,” said Wadsworth. “Just seeing Ayoola’s strength and ability to forgive is humbling. Her story helps me to be mindful that people you hurt are going through it.”
Mitchell has five surviving children, ranging in age from 15 to 40. She acknowledged that Mother’s Day will forever be a trigger for all of them.
“It’s a balancing act between the older and younger ones, when it comes to the manifestation of their trauma,” said Mitchell. “With the girls their trauma shows up in different ways. For example, my middle daughter does a lot of writing and Spoken Word.” For her sons, it’s a constant worry.
“I went through a period of time as a result of the trauma and tragedy where I was overly concerned with their wellbeing. This is called the trauma brain,” said Mitchell. “My whole world was changed, and how I perceived the world was different.
“I know 90 percent of the time that they are safe, but a tape in my head starts to play if they are out with their friends and I text and they don’t respond right away”.
“It’s even harder with my sons because they are Black men. They could get pulled over by the police and you start to wonder how are they going to deal with that? It’s a challenge,” she added.
Powerful memories of the death of her son can rush in, even while doing regular tasks such as shopping or driving past certain areas.
“I was taking my son shopping one day, we were laughing and having fun and we drove past Children’s Hospital of the East Bay, the hospital that saved my oldest son’s life. All these memories starting flooding in – I remembered sitting in the waiting room, waiting to hear the news,” Mitchell said, reflecting.
“I didn’t focus on arrests — my focus has always been on the healing of my family. I have been working within the criminal justice system since 1981. Because I know the system is flawed, I didn’t focus on arrest. However, that does not translate to condoning violence,” Mitchell added.
“Actually seeing a mother who lost a son to gun violence is impactful”
“It’s difficult because people don’t know what happened,” said Mitchell. “They just say ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ and ask, ‘so what did the kids get for you?’ I’m forced to decide if I should be transparent–which could, in turn, traumatize the person asking.
“Those who cause harm don’t think about the ripple effect of what they do,” continued Mitchell. “They weren’t thinking it was Mother’s Day and how that’s going to affect someone’s life forever.
“You have some people who say they are for prison reform until they get impacted. I have been doing this work long before I was personally impacted,” said Mitchell. “But I know for others who have been impacted it’s more complex.”
Mitchell said she grew up around law enforcement. Her father was a police officer with the San Francisco Police Department for 38 years. Her uncle worked for the same department for 40 years.
But it was her reading about activist and former UC Santa Cruz Professor Angela Davis that shaped Mitchell’s passion for social justice.
“I started thinking: what is this system really about if this educated, middle-class Black woman can get persecuted and prosecuted?” said Mitchell. “So I went to San Jose State and obtained a degree in Criminal Justice.”
Mitchell has had a long career working in the Criminal Justice System. She first came to San Quentin in 1984 when her church brought a group of teens to the SQUIRES Youth Program.
In 1987, she worked on her first Death Penalty case as an Investigator with the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office. In more than 35 years, Ayoola Mitchell has worked in many capacities.
Her goal is to reform the flawed system, to decrease the number of people America incarcerates and to reduce the length of time they serve.
“This is my ministry, working behind these walls, ” said Mitchell, who is a Christian. “God called me to do this work.”