Saturday, January 4, 2014

Prisoners are people, too

About two months ago, a Dept. of Corrections Victim’s Services employee asked if I would speak at a Victim Impact Panel. This panel would feature four victims, about 20 prisoners, and several facilitators, and… it would be interactive. We would talk back and forth with the inmates. I immediately agreed. 

This morning I felt sick to my stomach, nervous, thinking the worst, not wanting to go. These criminals would probably think I was weak for forgiving the man who killed my son. They’d probably think that Dustin, a man who wanted equality for all people, who championed the underdog, was foolish. What was I thinking putting us both out there like that? The last thing I needed was for either of us or the rest of our family to be victimized yet again.

I arrived at Oregon State Correctional Institution at about 9:30. Right away a metal sculpture on the premises stripped away my fears: a large giraffe... with a Rudolph nose and antlers. (I collect giraffes and I took this as a good sign). 

The other three speakers and I were led through the gatehouse and into the prison. We were told that the participating inmates had been convicted of a wide range of crimes and that some would eventually be released from prison while others wouldn’t. We were separated into two groups: 2 victims, 9 offenders, and 3 facilitators sitting in a big circle. The men looked like anyone you’d meet in public: Steve, Jeff, Robin, Moe, Steve (another), Hawking (?), and four others whose names I can’t remember even though I tried (I’m taking notes next time!).

The other victim, Kay, went first since she was “experienced” at this type of panel. She talked about her and her children’s victimization at the hands of several abusive partners. She could have been talking about mine and my kids’ lives. My favorite part was when she told a story of how, after years of support groups and therapy and being on her own, she finally got the courage to fulfill a life-long dream: owning and riding a motorcycle all by herself. It was very uplifting and inspiring.

Then it was my turn. I talked a little about how I was raised, how my kids were raised, about Dustin specifically in more detail, and what happened to him. I told what’s happened since he died, including meeting the young man who killed him, and my public speaking. I told them how I am a little crazy sometimes. It was emotional and I got a little teary and had to take big breaths to be able to go on.

I wish I could have recorded what happened next or at least that I could remember better. Except for the topics and where we were at, it was like talking to caring friends over a meal. In a very candid manner, each man expressed their appreciation for our being there, for being brave enough and caring enough to make ourselves vulnerable to them. They shared who they were in their own small or big ways and how certain things we had shared impacted them. One man told how at the age of 13 when he was a gang wannabe, he and his brother killed the man who had been abusing their mother and how things had just gotten worse from there; he wishes he could talk to his mother but she won’t have anything to do with him.

Another young man said he has a 24 year old sister who keeps on drinking and driving, what would I say to her? She doesn’t understand the risks she is taking, he said, how much it would hurt others if something happened. About a half hour after I told him what I would say, another inmate addressed him directly and said he’d ask her if she’d put one bullet in a gun and then go out into public and just randomly shoot it.

Most wanted to know how Kay and I could be forgiving, how we had gotten to where we are, what we wanted now. Someone stated that after Ashawntae had asked me to help him get his driver’s license back, that that would have been the end of forgiveness for him. Another put Ashawntae’s asking for help with his driver’s license in a new light, he said he wanted to possibly give me another perspective: maybe it wasn’t as selfish as it sounded. One of the men wanted to know what I would do if Ashawntae didn’t want the same things for his life that I want for him. He said this to not only include if Ashawntae goes back to a life of crime, but just has different values and goals in general.

Family First Caregiver Appreciation Event
A couple men talked about how they wished they could talk to their victims, how they long for that opportunity to apologize and explain and try to help some of the pain. Several people talked about Family First, a program started by inmates to promote the importance of family and involvement as a way of getting and staying on track, among other things.

Much of what happened today is left out of this blog. I can’t adequately say what really happened in that room. Even the stories I told aren’t the whole stories and my re-telling of stories or questions lacks the emotion, the intent, the human quality of the person talking. It is impossible to explain why or how these men had me in tears, had me thinking that I was the one there to learn and to grow and to become more compassionate. 

They made me want to change even more than I already had. Their words and their demeanor and their expressions have me re-thinking many things I thought I knew about people. In a recent opinion piece in the local paper, I wrote that “people understand grief to the degree that they themselves have experienced it.” Today I had the wake-up call that that is true for everything

I’m not going to go so far as to say that I thought I knew what these men would be like, but I worried about what they would be like and not a single moment beforehand did I think of them as people like you and me. I never thought they could be insightful before listening to me. I had a lot to teach them, a lot to get them to think about, hopefully our story could help to convince them to change their ways. And they might think I’m weak and Dustin foolish (so why bother even talking to them?). That’s what I thought.

Who would have imagined that an intimate conversation with a bunch of convicted felons would leave me wondering how I can be more loving, more understanding, more compassionate? Who could have thought that these imprisoned men who have lost so many freedoms and have hurt people, taught me about life and people today?
I am able to appreciate this whenever I want!


  1. Wow...all I can say is , well done! Keep up the great work Sweetheart!

  2. Yay, Kristi!! I'm so glad for you that what at first seemed fearful to do, turned out to be quite an uplifting blessing in disguise. This was such an organized approach to being able to tell your stories, share your feelings, and hear their compassionate feedback. I'm impressed with the whole scenario on how this was orchestrated. And I love that you were touched by this event in a positive way. You must have left with wings on....

  3. That's great, Mom! Now I want to do it... you'll have to tell me more about what was said about Ashawntae and his request to drive again. You said there was a "different perspective."

  4. And we loved having you come and share, Kristi!!! The guys were very moved and inspired by this experience with you as well.

    Tracy ;)