Mrs. Leigh Ann Davis flew in from Texas to speak at a Restorative Justice (RJ) symposium at San Quentin on the topic of supporting people with intellectual disabilities. She also stressed the importance of overcoming shame and speaking out against abuse as paths to healing.
“Shame is a huge issue we are not dealing with,” Davis said. “Shame is the prison and we have to find our way out.”
Davis is the director of criminal justice initiatives for The ARC, an organization that works to help people with disabilities. The ARC has 630 chapters nationwide.
The symposium took place at the Catholic Chapel on Dec. 1. Incarcerated person Lenny Beyette emceed the San Quentin Restorative Justice Interfaith Roundtable event. He introduced Davis to a crowd of 40 community members and 80 incarcerated men.
Davis said she is passionate about teaching people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to speak out against their abusers. She noted that she had difficulty speaking out against her own past abuse because of shame.
Dressed in a red sweater and with her blonde hair tied in a ponytail, this Christian woman with a Master of Science Degree in social work told the audience her stepfather had molested her from the ages of 5 to 10. “I didn’t really tell anyone, because of the shame, until I was 13,” Davis said. “I went to church camp and I started believing that I do have value, but I still find myself in that prison, like “Who are you to get up and talk to people?” and that all came from that trauma.”
Davis never sought her stepfather’s arrest.
“For me, justice isn’t about someone being in a building; it’s about someone getting healed,” Davis said. “If him wearing (prison) blue meant coming here and doing restorative justice, then I would want him to go to prison. But most prisons aren’t (as rehabilitation oriented as) San Quentin.”
Davis said she has taken steps to make sure her stepfather isn’t molesting others.
Her talk transitioned then to what she described as an invisible population: people with intellectual disabilities (ID).
At age 24, Davis started helping people with intellectual disabilities. People with ID have an IQ under 75. Their mental health issues can’t be healed with medicine and they lack the ability to take care of themselves. ID can come from “in vitro” blood poisoning or fetal alcohol syndrome, for example.
One in six men experience sexual assaults, according to Davis, and those with mental health issues are even more likely to be victims of such violence.
Her talk resonated with several incarcerated men who said their daughters have been molested.
“She (Davis) impacted me with her level of honesty and sincerity when talking about a subject people usually steer away from,” Kerry Rudd said. “It was helpful. With my daughter, she’s been going through a lot, but today helped me have a better understanding.”
Lloyd Payne, stepfather of a 7-year-old girl who was molested, asked about what he could do to support her.
“With my daughter, she’s been going through a lot, but today helped me have a better understanding”
“Be there for her to have conversations if she has questions,” Davis said. “Be a consistent male role model and make sure she gets therapy. Emotionally healthy as you are, you can pass that on to her and if she needs to cry, she can do that with you.”
RJ facilitator Darnell “Moe” Washington discussed connection. “We have a problem in America and the problem is disconnection,” he said. “We are all connected. When you see something happening in another community and think that it has nothing to do with you, it does. Look at the opioid crisis, mass shootings. If this is affecting all of us, why ain’t we all fighting this as one?”
Part of the symposium involved both incarcerated people and community members sitting in circles to discuss shame and support for disabled people. These dialogues were confidential but whatever happened in the nine different circles left an impression on the guests.
“This is my first time coming to anything like this;” said Dr. Kristian, a psychologist who also sponsors a Criminal Gang Anonymous program at California Health Care Facility, Stockton. “Today has blown me away. The men asked me to get involved with RJ to see if we can bring it to my facility. I’m excited to go back to work on Monday and say this is what happened on Saturday.”
Karen Newton, who works at a non-public school with kids who have mental health issues, said, “I work with kids involved in gangs, involved in shootings; I’ve been punched in the face. But it’s not who they are; it’s what’s happened to them. I’m told we don’t want them in prison because they’ll end up like the people in prison. I want them to be like you—you, but just not in here.”
Davis said, “I feel like you guys have what it takes and we need this out in the free world where we struggle to have these types of conversations.”
—Al King contributed to this story