It's A Gray Area: Making peace, even while in prison

A few years ago, a woman named Susan Russo, who was serving a life sentence without possibility of parole at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif., sent a letter to attorney Laurel Kaufer, saying that their prison environment was filled with conflict and violence, and there was a dire need and desire for change.

Could Ms. Kaufer help?

The answer was yes.

In response, Ms. Kaufer and her colleague, attorney Douglas E. Noll, established a peace mediation program at that prison, initially with 15 inmates as students, and it has been successful.

But it wasn't easy. These two mediation professionals soon found out that Ms. Russo was right. Confrontation and violence were a standard and routine part of almost everyone's existence at the prison.

Nevertheless, they established a program through using simple communication skills based upon listening — really listening. That means that the students were taught to listen to what other people were saying and then to acknowledge what the speakers said by repeating it back. The benefit is that this shows other people they are being heard, which is a huge ratification of their humanity — and also a proven way to reduce tensions.

By using this simple skill, the 15 female inmates were slowly able to reduce conflict and violence and bring some amount of peace to the prison. For example, rather than using pepper spray to break up potentially violent situations, prison guards started to call in Ms. Kaufer's students to mediate them. It often worked.

Of course, no one can avoid conflict. But the secret is for people in conflicts to understand that they have choices about how they will respond and react to them. Conflicts become destructive when people give in to anger, which then thwarts their ability to make good choices about how best to respond.

But choosing to listen, understand and confirm the other side's views and feelings often results in addressing the problems peacefully on their merits, instead of having them escalate to violence.

Teaching these lessons and skills to our children would be a wonderful gift.

So instruct the children close to you that the next time they become angry, frustrated or feel disrespected, to literally stop and take a moment to list as many choices as they can think of about how to respond. Then show them how if they stay focused upon their feelings and those of the other people involved, they will more than be able to arrive at a peaceful and beneficial outcome.

Life skills like these will bring permanent beneficial result into their lives.

Included in this approach is staying away from blaming, judging or criticizing others, because this is almost always counterproductive. When people take ownership of their own actions instead of blaming or criticizing others, they will most likely realize that they are captains of their own ship, that they are in control of their own destiny.

That has been the result at Valley State Prison. So far, none of the 75 inmates who have been certified as "Peacemakers" has even been reported to be involved with violence. In addition, since 30 inmates have been certified as mediators and another 20 as instructors, mentors and coaches, the program is now self-sustaining — maybe even transferable to other correctional facilities.

Furthermore, the participants hope that by the end of 2011, at least 20% of all of the inmates at Valley State Prison will have been certified as Peacemakers, which will go far in bringing peace into the entire facility. With results like these, it is not surprising that the program has been endorsed, even lauded, by the acting warden and the chief deputy warden.

Another tribute to the program is seen by the fact that the inmates themselves have donated more than $1,300 to pay for needed written materials. Because all of these contributions come from their wages of 21 cents per hour, of which 14 cents are automatically transferred to the California Victim Compensation Fund, this represents their earnings from more than 9,280 work hours!

In today's world, the Department of Corrections is not appropriately named, because it mostly has become a Department of Incarceration and Warehousing.

But we all must understand that most of those incarcerated will someday be released back into society. Wouldn't it be better if they had learned some coping and peacemaking skills before that occurs?

You can help this occur by making a contribution to the Fresno Regional Foundation for Prison of Peace, 5250 N. Palm Avenue, Suite 424, Fresno, CA 93704. People who are incarcerated really can use our help. For more information, visit http://www.prisonofpeace.org.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of "Wearing the Robe: the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today's Courts" (Square One Publishers, 2009), and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or http://www.JudgeJimGray.com.

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