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Healing from Harm and Unlearning Violence

by Sonya Shah 

Sonya Shah is an assistant professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, a volunteer facilitator in the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) at San Quentin, an activist, and a writer.

"I just want to know,” Mack paused and took a moment to ask what was in his heart, “how do I live with the stigma of being a murderer?” Mack was on the brink of tears. His face was red with vulnerability. Serving twenty-five to life, this man in his mid thirties was participating in a dialogue between victims and offenders at San Quentin State Prison in California. He had just finished revealing the details of his crime thirteen years earlier and was left with more truthful questions about the meaning of his life.

On the surface, Mack had just “taken accountability” for the violence he had committed. But in the deeper poetry of accountability, Mack held the pieces of his life in his hands, felt each for texture, and placed them on the table. Then, in the nakedness of truth, he began the painful journey of fitting them together until the real picture of his life unfolded in a circle of ten incarcerated men, three facilitators, and three victims of violent crimes in the room.

In this exercise, offenders meet with “surrogate” victims— real victims, but of harm caused by other offenders. I was one of three victims serving a surrogate role. Before Mack spoke, I had just finished explaining how childhood sexual abuse had stunted my emotional development. I talked about the years I had spent unlearning patterns I had adopted at age six for survival, and the grueling process of learning new patterns in my twenties and thirties. I told the group I still have trouble trusting men; that I still shove my feelings inside and, like an untended pressure cooker, I explode periodically onto the closest bystander, an emotional event that has cost me many meaningful relationships.

Picture 27
Perpetuation by Darius White. Prisma Pencil.

Offenders and Victims Talk Face-to-Face

For many, the moment when a victim and an offender come together is a peak moment of a restorative process. This is the moment when the victims express how they were harmed and what they need today and the offenders take accountability for their crimes. But what is all of the “invisible” work that comes before this moment? For me it’s a commitment to confronting negative behaviors and stunted emotional growth that originated in my childhood. And for the “offenders”— what does it take for them to truly articulate their crime and its impact? What does it mean to make accountability not a buzzword but a solid foundation for a life path? Can one engage in processes of accountability without healing, and shouldn’t they be connected?

True accountability can’t be faked. True accountability requires an offender to commit to entering those deep, dark, scary, shut-down places and attempt to heal. Healing is hard work. There is nothing easy about finding a new relationship to unresolved trauma in one’s life. There is nothing easy about picking apart how exactly one is locked into the emotions and thinking of a child. There is no simple or singular way out of feelings of shame and humiliation from childhood experiences of abuse or poverty. And for some offenders, what does it take to confront the structural oppression and the historical legacy of colonialism, slavery, immigration, war, or genocide that are lodged in their bodies?

When offenders can see how all of the pieces of their past fit together, they can connect the dots of their life that led up to a crime and experience accountability in a deeply embodied way. There is a saying in this work: “the only way out is through.” It means the way to self-liberation, the way to hold the stigma of murder, to reclaim one’s rightful place in humanity, to repair relationship to community, is to commit to “doing the work” of healing. In restorative justice, we need to embrace all of the important restorative processes—in particular the lifelong work of healing that victims, offenders, and people in the community need to undertake in order to repair.

Members of a Victim Offender Education Group graduating class of 2010 in San Quentin prison pose with facilitators Rochelle Edwards (at front), Jaimee Karroll (at back), and Jack Dison (far left).

The Process of Unlearning Violence

A year later, I am a volunteer facilitator in the Victim Offender Education Group program at San Quentin, the same program where I sat as a surrogate victim. The program was founded by Rochelle Edwards based on the work of David Doerfler, and is heavily influenced by the principles of restorative justice. It is a twelve-to-eighteen-month program that is spreading: five classes are offered in San Quentin, which is an all-male prison, and 125 men are on the waiting list there. The program is reaching prisons in Dublin and Alameda, and working with post-release programs such as Homeboys in Los Angeles. This is thanks to the tireless work of Edwards and the staff of Insight Prison Project, the nonprofit that houses the Victim Offender Education Group.

I often step back and ask myself why programs like the Victim Offender Education Group or the Resolve to Stop the Violence Program in San Francisco are successful. What makes these models, above others, work? In my heart there is also “the other” questions. The questions that we as a society are dying to know because our humanity depends on it: If “violence is learned and can be unlearned,” how do we know when someone has changed? How do we know when someone is no longer violent? What is the evidence? How does someone transform, exactly?Periodically I study the literature on violence and its causes with the excuse of presenting it to my undergraduate students. I review James Gilligan’s work around shame and humiliation; I look at the complex sociopolitical and historical patterns of different genocides. But mostly I pay attention to the men at San Quentin: I listen to what they say in trainings, graduations, and in my class; I talk with my co-facilitator, Jaimee Karroll; and I write down the words of wisdom that the men at San Quentin, Edwards, Karroll, and other facilitators say in passing. Their anecdotes are precious evidence of transformation and how it occurs as a real process of liberation from violence.

The other day I went to an information session for the Victim Offender Education Group. Edwards stepped up to the microphone in the San Quentin Catholic Chapel and rattled off a list of “evidence” of transformation to a room full of more than one hundred men waiting to get into the program. The evidence, although delivered casually, is teased out of an assessment that the Insight Prison Project is conducting of its programming and impact. Below is the gist of some of Edwards’s comments (italicized), followed by my own observations:

After attending the Victim Offender Education Group, the men in the program report:

1. A decrease in violent or negative behavior. This is perhaps the most significant, tangible, and commonly heard evidence. I heard a story at the program’s graduation a few months ago that captured this. The graduate said, “Yesterday a man on the yard came up behind me and smacked me on the back of the head with a few rolled up sheets of paper. Then let me tell you where my mind went—it went to taking a baseball bat and beating him up. But that isn’t what I did. I walked away, man; I just walked away.”

2. The ability to connect the dots of their life to the day of their crime. At a training session for outside facilitators, one of the program’s inmate facilitators captured it in a way no one else could: “How did I go from being a boy who wouldn’t step on an ant to a gun-toting gang banger? In this program I was able to retrace my steps, learn, and apply the tools to process that.”

3. A real connection to one’s emotional self. At that same training session, another man said: “When I came to the program I was skeptical. I am an intellectual and not in touch with my emotions. But people said to me—if you want to go home, you have to go to the Victim Offender Education Group. I had to know my emotional side. I know stuff about everything else but not me. In the program, I learned about me.”

4. An increase in thinking critically. Critical thinking and critical self-reflection are important mechanisms the men in this program learn to build into any moment in which they are triggered by someone else’s actions or behaviors. By creating the reflective space to step back, step away, or go talk to a friend, a man can move away from engaging ina violent incident to “checking in with himself,” meaning processing on an emotional, intellectual, cultural, or historical level why he was triggered.

5. Recognition that anger is not a primary emotion but a secondary emotion. Once a man recognizes he is getting angry, he can look for the feelings behind the anger to primary emotions such as fear or hurt.

6. An increase in empathy. At the program’s graduation, a man said, “In my family we shed blood before we shed tears. Not only did I learn how to cry in this group, I couldn’t stop crying when I heard the other brothers in the group tell their stories.” Once he developed compassion for himself, he was able to develop empathy and compassion for others.

7. A better understanding of the body-mind connection. Another inmate co-facilitator commented, “Mind-body connection is paying close attention to one’s experience in the moment without the mind judging or evaluating that experience. It has a lot to do with redirecting the activity of
the mind to feeling bodily sensations.”

8. Learning conflict resolution skills and better communication skills.

9. Healthier relationships with family members and friends.

10. A desire to “give back.”  Some of the men at San Quentin find that with healing and transformation comes the next step—the desire to share, teach, and facilitate others through the same process.

This is not just a list. The more time I spend with the men in the Victim Offender Education Group, the more I see how they actualize these transformations in everyday interactions. I also see the desire these men have to continue to grow and learn about themselves. Most importantly, as a witness to the process of transformation, I am convinced this evidence of change confirms that violence is a product of social conditions; that violence is learned and it can be unlearned. It gives me great hope for our shared humanity

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