Many incarcerated people believe sexual crimes committed against women and children warrant extreme punishments, but two survivors of childhood sexual abuse visited San Quentin State Prison and spoke of therapy as a better solution.
Chelsea Miller, who was molested as a child, and Keith DeBlasi, a sex trafficking victim, attended a Restorative Justice Symposium in the Catholic Chapel on March 3 and emphasized the need for healing for both the victim and the abuser to stop such crimes from occurring again.
“Ninety-five percent of the offenders are men, and 80 percent were victims themselves, and we aren’t helping them,” DeBlasi told an audience of about 150 incarcerated men and 30 community members. “Are we crazy or what?”
DeBlasi had been a teenager when his abuser lured him with a meal at McDonald’s, introduced him to alcohol and pornography and manipulated him into the world of sexual exploitation.
“I am a survivor of…sex violence against men and male victimization,” he said, adding that victims often self-harm or harm others until they are able to deal with their trauma.
DeBlasi used to investigate sex crimes as a Berkeley police officer, but he changed when he came to a Brother’s Keepers support group for suicide awareness and rape trauma at San Quentin. He said it was the first time he felt heard. He now sponsors the group in another prison.
“Man is characterized above all by what he does with what was done to him,” said DeBlasi, who also sponsors a group called Wisdom of the Victim: Creative Humanity Building in a World of Hurt.
The other guest speaker Miller also spoke about her struggle to overcome her sexual past abuse from family members.
“For many years after that, when I was no longer living with my abuser, I continued to be victimized in many situations that I walked right into,” Miller said. “It undermines your self-worth and your trust in your instincts.”
Miller, who mans a crisis hotline for Bay Area Against Rape and visits sexually assaulted women in the hospital, believes an offender can’t heal unless he can talk about it.
“I try in my work to think about perpetrators of violence as people with complicated stories,” Miller said. “If all we ever did was serve survivors and lock up everybody…there will always be another little girl getting hurt because we have not talked to this dude.”
Incarcerated restorative justice member Richard Richardson, who was at the event, said he was impressed by their talk. “For them to come in here and speak openly about their past, especially about rape — being truthful and honest in front of a crowd, takes courage. Instead of revenge, they want the person to heal.”
Miller and DeBlasi still struggle to forgive their abusers. “He never went to prison, and he’s married and he has two horses, which is really offensive because I love horses,” said Miller about her abuser.
But they firmly believe that healing is important. “Every protective person I’ve ever known, they say I would kill that man for you,” she said. “I would be better served if everybody can build on the ability to tolerate. I need other people, his family and network, to say ‘I forgive you, and I see you and you can’t do this again.’”