The day after Yom Kippur, a prison chapel served as a safe place for survivors of crime, men who committed violent crimes and concerned citizens to hold a conversation about the importance of rehabilitation and atonement for community healing.
“I think that this day is important because we have two voices that are under heard in this process – the victim and the offender, talking about how to make community safer,” said Alex Mallick Williams, who organized Value of Rehabilitation, sponsored by Kid CAT (Creating Awareness Together).
Kid CAT is a youth orientated self-help group teaches prisoners a curriculum that includes lessons on masculinity, self-identity, feelings and emotions, communications, environmental influences, consequences, empathy and compassion, and forgiveness.
The forum participants sat in seven tight circles inside San Quentin’s Protestant Chapel, on Oct. 13, describing intimate details of how crime personally affected their lives.
Dreamcorp, #Cut50, Healing Dialogue in Action, and Fair Sentencing of Youth representatives also sat in the circles.
“We set out to demonstrate the emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion that we’ve been cultivating as we strive to rehabilitate ourselves,” said Philip Melendez, Kid CAT president. “When Elizabeth Calvin of Human Rights Watch (HRW) introduced survivors of crime, it transformed the event into something even more beautiful and powerful than I could ever imagine.”
Survivor, Dionne Wilson shared that her husband a San Leandro police officer was shot and killed in 2005 while responding to a disturbance call.
“The man who killed him is here on Death Row,” Wilson said. “That was supposed to heal me.”
Wilson received the highest penalty the system could give her, yet she said, “I got my justice, but it didn’t work.”
After being invited to attend a prisoner self-help group, Wilson connected with people who had committed great harm to others and were seeking forgiveness and healing. There she found her own path to restoration.
Since then, Wilson began volunteering as a survivor advocate and working for smarter justice policies.
“I got connected with people who are trying to change the way our criminal justice system is dealing with crime,” Wilson said. “It’s just been really shoved in my face, why we need to do this. Why this has to be normalized—the rehabilitation that has been attached to CDCR. Why that R has to be honored instead of being a tagline on the end of a name. So when people do go to prison they have the opportunity to come out healed and not turn violence onto others.”
Referring to the survivors, Melendez said, “Assisting them in finding their healing has given me the opportunity to make some amends that I really need to make.”
Stockton Councilman Michael Tubbs, 26, was the keynote speaker at the event.
“I do not like coming to prison,” Tubbs said. “My dad’s been incarcerated my entire life.”
Tubbs told the audience that all of his friends from growing up were either dead or in prison. When his cousin was killed on a Halloween night; he knew he had to do something about governmental decisions based on where a person grows up that affect individual choices leading to violence.
Anouthinh Pangthong talked about the murder he committed at age 16.
“I never considered the ripple effects for pulling the trigger,” said Pangthong. “It took me writing out my crime in detail, that it hit me the magnitude of what I done.”
Pangthong said programs like Kid CAT and the Victim/Offender Education Group helped him reform.
Borey Ai explained how his criminal thinking was changed by immersing himself into rehabilative programs offered at San Quentin. He said the programs gave him personal insight into the harm he’s caused along with an understanding of how he can impact his community.
“It is my plan to take what I’ve learned out to the community to help the youth make better decisions,” Ai said.
Charlie Spence said, “For me it’s about being able to be around people who are survivors of violent crime and being present with them and seeing what type of healing can be provided through that dialogue. I think that it’s good for people to see what incarcerate men are doing in here. It’s not what they see on TV, there are men really doing the work to better themselves.”
Xavier McElrath-Bey who has been out of prison 14 years said, “I knew I would be meeting many people whose life was a reflection of mine.”
His commitment offense was murder at the age of 13. The Chicago judge who sentenced him said because of his extensive violent nature, he is incorrigible and could not change. The statement impacted McElrath-Bey.
“I knew I wasn’t a monster,” he told himself.
After being sent to prison, McElrath-Bey said being subjected to such a negative environment created opportunities for him to get into trouble and sent to the hole. There he had time to contemplate how he was living.
“At some point we all want better. We all want normalcy,” McElrath-Bey said. That decision to seek normalcy in his life began his road toward a victim offender dialogue and healing.
“I am not an exception to the rule,” McElrath-Bey said. “I see so many people like me. I wish people in society could see this.”