Taking 62 violent prisoners, putting them in the same dorm, and requiring them to participate in a Restorative Justice program sounded to Sunny Schwartz like a good way to stem their criminal thinking and recidivism.
“‘You don’t put 62 violent men in a open dorm,’” Schwartz said deputies told her. “They thought it would compromise officer safety.”
Schwartz used the Restorative Justice (RJ) model to create The Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) in the San Francisco County Jail. It is a mandatory program that requires moving violent men into a dorm for 10 hours, six days a week.
The project began with 40 “strange bedfellows.” Yet Schwartz reported that there were no fights the first year, while other dorms without RSVP had 68 fights.
She also reported seeing a Skinhead become friends with a Black man. The Skinhead also attended an event inside a synagogue where he apologized to the Jewish people, who applauded him afterward.
“‘I never thought I’d live to see someone, who identifies with Nazis, apologize,’” Schwartz said an old man told the former Skinhead.
Schwartz said, “Restorative Justice has three parts: offender accountability, the voice of the victim and community involvement.”
Without all three components, it isn’t Restorative Justice,” she added. “We need to build a community that eats together, sleeps and programs together.”
She also noted that 80 percent of the men she interviewed for the program were victims of violence.
“Everybody is hungry to do things differently and bring sanity,” said Schwartz.
When asked about whether the program being mandatory is a good idea, Schwartz noted that the deputy sheriffs didn’t think it was fair.
“They force people to cough and squat, but it’s inhuman to stop their violence,” Schwartz said. “It works.”
The 27-year veteran of the justice system spoke on Sept. 10 of her experiences at the Restorative Justice Symposium inside San Quentin State Prison before about 60 incarcerated men and 20 outside guests.
“I haven’t met a Democrat or Republican who hasn’t responded to the idea that what we need to do with prisoners is get them to hold a mirror up to their behavior and their lives, not kneel on pebbles,” Restorative Justice Facilitator Dwight Krizman quoted from Schwartz’s book, Dreams from the Monster Factory.
She said she worked in the San Francisco County Jail while attending law school and noted, “This is a monster factory; they (incarcerated people) are getting sicker, not better,” said Schwartz. “I wanted to get as many people out as I could.”
The former remedial student passed the bar exam on her second attempt and became a lawyer. However, in 1989 she decided to return to the SF county jail to work for former Sheriff Michael Hennessey. He “allowed us to bring people inside. He didn’t want another warehouse.”
Hence, RSVP was born.
San Quentin resident Romeo responded during feedback that “it is so easy to punish someone for committing a crime. It makes you angry. Naturally, you want to punish the person. But if I sit back and have some empathy — ask what is the unmet need…If I can understand that, maybe I can prevent it from happening to somebody else. I think that’s what Restorative Justice is all about. Not looking at the crimes but what made the person commit those crimes.”
Krizman noted that the Restorative Justice group inside San Quentin began in 2004 and is having an effect on society.
“There is a connection between us and what goes on outside the wall,” said Krizman. “What we do here is really powerful. The state of Colorado has picked it up. Oakland School District uses RJ as part of their conflict resolution. In many cases it has started here, because some of us have gone home and continued the work.”
Guest Dennise Gipson said, “I can’t wait for a lot of you guys to come home….because we could really, really use you.”
Schwartz said, “Our culture and dignity depends on the work you are doing inside. What we are doing is changing our generation for many years to come.”
Darnell “Moe” Washington noted the difference RJ has made for him.
“I used to say this rehabilitation is killing me; now I’m making origami butterflies,” Washington said. “I’ve been restored, and it happened in RJ.”
RJ participant Wyatt McMillian said, “I grew up in a household with a lot of abuse toward children. I didn’t learn how to be a man until 2008. When I tell my story to outside guests, I get something I never had, and that’s empathy.”
The event was hosted by resident Mike Webb.