Students "Go Inside" for a Book Club with Soledad Lifers
It's an unlikely study group—high school students sitting down with men who will spend years in prison for crimes they committed. But that's the make up of the book club that meets regularly inside Soledad State Prison. Together they read Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden and other classics supplied by the National Steinbeck Center.
"If I had this kind of education on the outside, maybe I wouldn't be here on the inside today," says one inmate. The men have been so touched by the experience that they have established their own tuition fund. They want to raise enough money to send a young man to Palma who could not otherwise afford the tuition. The men pass the hat from cell to cell and collect whatever fellow inmates can give from their meager earnings on prison work assignments. They’ve raised $7,000 so far and hope to find matching funds from supporters on the outside.
The book club is just one activity the Palma School and Soledad in Partnership program sponsors for students. The Partnership is a logical outgrowth of the mission of the Christian Brothers who founded Palma High School. The order stands in solidarity with those on the margins of life. For the last four years, Jim Micheletti, Campus Minister, has been carefully building the program and passionately spreading the word about the impact it is having.
Twice a month about 25 students, parents, and community members sit down with inmates to exchange stories and learn to see each other as human beings first. The students have an up close, sobering look at what can happen when bad choices lead to violence and bloodshed. The inmates who participate have put in years of hard work to accept responsibility for their actions, sign up for employment training and other rehabilitation opportunities, and find restoration whether they are ever able to leave the prison or not.
For both the students and the men, this program teaches restorative justice principles in a way that few experiences can equal.
Why We Work for Restorative Justice
A few month ago Fred LaPuzza, Director of the Office of Restorative Justice/Detention Ministry in the Diocese of Orange, had a visit from Jose A., a former inmate. Jose was granted parole after seven attempts, and he had successfully finished half of the five-year term.
When he was 16 years old, Jose got high on PCP and killed another boy in a gang fight. He was tried as an adult and given a sentence of 25 years to life. Today Jose is in his late 40s, has just been accepted as a union carpenter apprentice, and is going to college to become a drug and alcohol counselor. He told La Puzza that he wants to help other young people who are on drugs or in gangs so what happened to him and his victim does not happened to someone else.
Jose said his college instructor had asked his class to write a paper about something that caused them to change their lives. "That’s why I’m here talking with you today," Jose told LaPuzza. "The Restorative Justice volunteers changed my life. The insights they brought to me and my other cell mates made us realize the ripple of harm we caused so many others. My life has completely changed because of Restorative Justice volunteers coming into the prison and working with us. I want to say thank you, to you and all your volunteers.”
Ending the Rippling Cycle of Violence
Sue Reif, OSF, sits in a weekly circle with women who are serving life sentences for murder. She's a facilitator for Insight Prison Project’s powerful Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG). The women in the group delve deep into their lives to understand better what led them to violence and address unresolved, traumatic events in their lives. "It is painful to listen to their stories of childhood wounds, but amazing to watch them gain strength and heal," says Sue. "The women come to understand how victims can become victimizers, and how their behavior has affected their victims, families, and communities." The VOEG sessions conclude by bringing in victims/survivors of homicide who have also been engaged in their own healing journey. Sue reflects, "There is no way to begin to describe the connections and healing that take place between the women and the victims/survivors. I have become convinced that 'hurt people, hurt people' and only those who have done their own inner work and healing can truly bring healing to others. We then become instruments in the liberation from the rippling cycle of violence as we help bring the peace of the Gospel."
Sue Reif is the director of Healing Hearts Restoring Hope in Los Angeles.
Action & Hope in Fresno
From campaign forums to pastoral letters to new partnerships for change, Catholics in the Diocese of Fresno have made extraordinary changes in 2016. Over 1,000 one-on-one interviews helped to identify issues the community wanted to address. In late spring more than 600 people attended a mayoral candidate forum and brought restorative justice issues to the table. Now that the election is over, the community continues to meet with elected officials to ensure implementation of the commitments made. People are beginning to believe they can influence priorities instead of only reacting to crisis. The work has led to formation of Faith in the Valley, a coalition that reaches across five counties and empowers thousands of people to join in the process. "The grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) has allowed us to formalize and strengthen relationships in amazing ways," says Andy Levine, one of the organizers from the local PICO affiliate, Faith in Fresno.
Peace and Justice Training for Students in Oakland
The overarching aim of Oakland's 2016 Peace and Justice Academy is to heal West Contra Costa youth who are impacted by trauma and community violence and help them become empowered, resilient young people who can create change in their schools and communities through the use of restorative practices, community organizing, and the arts. More than half of the participants have been transferred out of mainstream high schools due to academic or behavior issues. The program includes creative activities that encourage self-expression, training in restorative circles for conflict resolution, and exposure to community organizing through workshops with local organizing partners such as CCISCO. The ending celebration was a trip to see the SF Giants play from seats in the luxury suite donated to Catholic Charities for the Academy.
Diana Campos Joins the Work for Restorative Justice in California
This fall the Restorative Justice Office at the California Catholic Conference welcomes Diana Campos as our new intern. Through this assignment, Diana says she intends to expand her knowledge about restorative justice and internalize her faith. Diana, 22, was born in Mexico and arrived in the United States at the age of one. She is currently undocumented but is proud of her roots and finds blessings in the difficult situation. Diana says, "It has molded me into the person I am today and helped to set my goals."
Diana is in the process of receiving her Bachelors of Jazz Voice degree at California State University of Sacramento. "My faith is a work in progress," she admits, "but I'm grateful for what I have. I love my humble parents and crazy sisters!" Music, community and family are her motivations in life, and she strives to be a more loving and understanding soul every day.
Lio Finds a New Life
Lio had been in prison for 27 years and had almost given up hope of ever being released. Without a reliable family environment and home, the Board of Parole would not return him to the community. Lio found both waiting to welcome him at The Francisco Homes. During his three years there, Lio learned that although he was short in stature, he could dream big dreams. Recently he came to give Sister Teresa, Executive Director, a big goodbye hug on his way to a new home and job.
CCHD Internship Shapes Career Choices
Edwin Valdez came to work for the Restorative Justice Office at the California Catholic Conference in 2015. The internship position was made possible by a grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). CCHD, a division of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, works to break the cycle of poverty by helping low-income people participate in decisions that affect their lives, families and communities. Here are Edwin's thoughts on his internship >>
A Chaplaincy that Facilitates Victim Offender Dialogue
Sam Smolinsky was one of 30 men commissioned by Bishop Robert F. Vasa into the Diocese of Santa Rosa's Order of Acolyte in late October 2015. Sam is helping to bring a Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) to Pelican Bay. This is the first time VOEG has been offered at a high security institution. VOEG is a practice developed by the Insight Prison Project at San Quentin State Prison where the program has been transforming lives for over ten years. In a facilitated group setting, each prisoner examines his offense, the impact of his actions on victims, and his personal history. VOEG culminates in an encounter with a panel of surrogate victims. The process has been shown to increase the prisoner’s personal insight, empathy for victims and for others, and commitment to lead a law-abiding life in the future. The goal in the VOEG program is restoration for all parties. As an Acolyte, Sam now can assist the deacon and priest during the liturgy of the mass for the prisoners. He can also distribute Eucharist and expose the Blessed Sacrament.
Once a Victim, Now an Advocate
“When someone is killed in your family, your life changes. You start living in the cemetery,” reflects Rita Chairez. Her brothers were shot and killed on the streets of Los Angeles. Grace joined a Healing Circles group hosted in her parish and began to hear from families of the incarcerated that their pain was as deep and life changing as hers. “Through this group I found myself beginning to pray for the people who killed my brothers,” she says, “It has been a great weight lifted off my shoulders.” Rita has used her transformation to help other families of victims and offenders find peace. This year, Rita was an advocate with Fred LaPuzza, Dir of RJ for the Diocese of Orange, for justice legislation with the California legislature.
Speaking Out on Lethal Injections at the Capitol
California’s death penalty took center stage in early 2016 as officials held a public hearing on proposed new rules that would allow the state of California to resume executions and use a single drug in its lethal injections. “We cannot overcome crime simply by executing criminals,” testified Father George Horan of Los Angeles told CDCR officials and hearing attenders. Father Horan joined other voices at the public hearings to make Catholic Social Teaching about mercy and respect for life part of the legislative process. Father Horan has been an active spokesperson for more than 25 years on the death penalty and restorative justice issues. He is the Founder of Healing Hearts Restoring Hope, a support and advocacy group for people impacted by homicide.