A 72-year-old woman and an incarcerated Black man shared stories of how they avoided becoming leaders of hate by forgiving the men who committed crimes against their family members.
“Forgiving someone who committed an atrocious crime against your loved one is hard to do, but the offender will live in your head until you do,” said Darnell “Mo” Washington in San Quentin State Prison’s Catholic Chapel. Washington was a featured speaker at the Restorative Justice Symposium on Aug. 13.
Cheryl Ward-Keiser stood before a mixed crowd of about 100 incarcerated men and visitors, and candidly told her story.
Teenagers entered her home in 1991, looking for a safe. Three boys tied up Ward-Keiser and her husband, Jim, while a girl waited outside in the getaway car. There was no safe or money, but the robbers didn’t believe that. They made Ward-Keiser’s daughter, Roxie, strip and put a shotgun in her mouth, threatening to blow her “f-ing head off.”
Next, they threatened to rape her and Roxie. Jim stood up and was shot and killed, while Ward-Keiser was lying on the floor with a foot on her neck and a gun against the back of her head. The robbers fled. All were caught within 27 hours.
“I ended up marrying the cop that caught them,” Ward-Keiser said. “I have a special request: the f-word has done the most damage to me. I beg you to remove that word from your vocabulary because the moment I hear that word, I can feel that gun at the back of my head.”
Despite the atrocities committed, Ward-Keiser sought out the men and woman to forgive them.
Ward-Keiser said that as a Christian she had to forgive. “I didn’t know how to do it, but I knew that I needed to. I know that as I walk, my child walks behind me. If I hated, I would be the leader of hate and I couldn’t be that kind of mother because if I did, I take us all down.”
After being diagnosed with three different cancers within three months, Ward-Keiser decided God was telling her she didn’t have forever to reach out to the teenagers. She started writing to them. Then she went to visit them all, including the man who raped Roxie.
“He asked, ‘What did I hope to have come from doing this?’” said Ward-Keiser. “I answered, ‘That we become friends.’ He moved back and said, ‘We can’t.’”
Before the visit, just seeing that man’s name on an envelope caused a flashback of that dreadful night.
After the visit, the man wrote Ward-Keiser and said, “You set me free.”
Ward-Keiser said, “I saw a totally different young man across that table and my flashback was gone. Only meeting him could have done that.”
The offender has honored her husband by having no disciplinary infractions in his 25-year prison record, added Ward-Keiser.
She ended saying, “I know the system makes it hard to find your victim and say you are sorry. I do this as much for me as I do for you.”
After hearing Ward-Keiser’s tale, guest Sevan Poetry said, “I’m thinking about the things I haven’t forgiven people for that are so small.”
Next, inside speakers Washington and Trinkell Leon Bland took the podium.
Washington spoke about struggling with staying centered after finding out Bland, who arrived at San Quentin in 2016, assaulted and hospitalized his aunt in a drug-induced rage in 2011.
When Bland found out he was going to the same prison as Washington, he thought, “This isn’t going to end well.”
Washington discussed the dilemma with fellow Restorative Justice facilitator Louis Scott, who told him, “Mo, it couldn’t have happened to a better person — you believe in Restorative Justice.”
Instead of retaliating, Washington sought to restore. They talked and Bland signed up for the group Restorative Justice.
Bland said, “I did something atrocious to someone I really love. She was not at fault. There was no reason. It didn’t just affect me and her, it affected our family.”
Washington responded, “When it comes to violence, enough is enough. If I would have done something to him, my family would have been suffering.”
Symposium host Chris Gallo asked the audience for feedback.
Azadeh Zoharbi of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights said, “I feel a renewed desire to have that compassion infused in the way we govern ourselves.”
Mike Webb said, “I apologize to all those who were done wrong and never got to hear I’m sorry.”
Leonard Walker said, “Restorative Justice is powerful; ya’ll better stay with it.”