It was a little before five o'clock Monday evening, March 27, 2017. I parked the car, joined the team and entered the prison. With both a sense of curiosity and trepidation; I intentionally and compliantly tagged along handing over my driver's license in exchange for a visitor's badge. I was visitor number 10 - the one with eyes wide open, heart beating rapidly, and hopeful - hopeful that I would be safe; hopeful that I would gain a better understanding of my friend's life purpose; and hopeful that I would somehow be able to contribute to a transformative experience.
With badges on, we proceeded down the hallway through detection systems and waited for the doors to open. Not sure what was behind those doors, I found the small talk amongst the four of us, deafening in the wake of anticipation. The first of many doors opened, we stepped through and the rush of fear pounded every fiber of my being as the clanging of the door slammed shut behind us. I was in, there was no turning back.
With a deep breath and another short wait, we were greeted by a guard who escorted us out of one building, through the courtyard and into our final destination, the building where our conversation would take place. As we traversed the grounds, I heard a dog barking and imagined that it was a German Sheppard. Naturally, I glanced over my shoulder and said to the others with nervous laughter, "just making sure that bark wasn't headed in our direction." (I'm not sure where I would have run, but I was ready to run for my life.) The guard responded with what I thought was humor, "Don't worry mam, those dogs are trained to only go after white. It took me a second to realize he was not joking; the prisoners were all wearing white uniforms. I breathed a sigh a relief as I looked down at my tan pants and black blouse.
On many levels, it seemed as if it were another day at work for me. We entered the room, arranged 18 chairs in a circle and waited for our participants to join a very intentional and deliberate conversation - a conversation in which lives would be changed.
Kim Book is a survivor, the founder and Executive Director of Victims' Voices Heard Inc. - a non-profit organization that gives victims of violent crime the opportunity to meet with their incarcerated offender and teaches victim empathy to incarcerated offenders. She is a friend for whom I am extraordinarily grateful. My appreciation and understanding of what it is to be human and to be given by a purpose has greatly expanded.
We gathered. Our conversational circle included 14 male inmates with varying crimes and sentences from murder and life in prison to the illegal use of drugs and alcohol serving shorter periods behind bars; plus, two facilitators, a guest speaker and me, the observer.
One of the facilitators asked the participants to introduce themselves by sharing their name, the crime they had committed and the impact of their retribution. With utter disbelief, I was struck by the powerful presence of each. As they spoke, each looked me square in the eye and spoke with an ownership, engagement and intention that I found astounding and hopeful. Having applied, interviewed and been chosen to participate in this program, these guys were clearly there to be heard, to learn and to be better. *
The evening's agenda centered around our guest speaker's story of the murder of her 33-year-old son in May of 2015. A month before his birthday and wedding celebration, his fiancé witnessed an attacker kill him while pulling his young children from the car in front of their home.
Fighting back the tears, I listened with all my heart and joined the others in expressing profound compassion for her pain, courage and commitment to heal, to solve this crime and to go on.
What I witnessed and learned:
They too were sad.
They too wanted to help her heal.
They too wanted to help solve this crime.
They too hoped that she would find forgiveness.
They too wanted to do the right thing.
They too want to connect.
They too want to make a difference.
They too are leaders.
They are us.
Through shared experiences of powerful communication and action we shall change her world, their world, the world.
Practice and Power on,
* Victims Voices Heard has received national recognition, as it has been shown to reduce the re-offense rate of participants by up to 50%, well-above the national average.