A program called Impact of Crime on Victims brings together people in prison who have committed a crime and victims of similar crimes so that both can learn, grow, and heal. Prior to their meeting together, the incarcerated people attend a class for several weeks in which they learn about the effects of various crimes on others. R. C. has found this program beneficial and has become a facilitator, meeting first with the people in prison and then with incarcerated people and survivors together. What follows is his journal of the first series of Impact of Crime on Victims classes he attended.
After a brief introduction from the facilitators, the session begins with property crime and a hypothetical situation involving “Joe” and the theft of his car. This hypothetical situation illustrates the concentric circles/domino effect of property crime. Most of Joe’s history is vague and unspecific, and so what we are mostly here to study are the effects of property crime. There is some light bantering, including another hypothetical situation involving one of the instructors possessing five pounds of chronic and having it robbed. Needless to say, the robbed in this case can’t really go to the police, but the thought of the instructor having even so much as pot seed, let alone five pounds, was a surreal and humorous thought.
Dinner is brought to us in styrofoam boxes—cold spaghetti, corn, pinto beans, brown-ass lettuce leafs, a deuce ball of milk and some Keebler cookies. The dinner time chat is light-hearted and mostly centers on hockey and recently read books (Brotherhood of the Rose for one dude, A Perfect Storm for another, and Edward Bunker’s Education of a Felon for myself). The culmination of the evening came when we watched the videotape featuring a man who had his car stolen and a woman whose house was robbed at gun point. At first the man said he wasn’t too mad because he felt that maybe the guys who stole his car needed it more than him. But in the face of mounting personal and financial troubles, this man’s sentiments took on a harder edge. He blamed the break up of his marriage in part on the theft of his car, and he ended up saying things wouldn’t get any better until tougher laws were established.
The woman, on the other hand, was a mother with two small sons. While preparing dinner one evening, one of her sons ran up and told her there were robbers in the house. Thinking that he was playing, she disbelieved him until one of the men stepped out from the hallway, grabbed her, and threatened the life of her six-year-old son.She told him there was no money, but the stereo was brand new. When the man bent to take a look at the stereo, she decided to make a move, but was faced with a unique dilemma: the baby sitter was present, but only her youngest son was visible. She decided to push the sitter and her youngest son into the bathroom where she locked the door and began to pray for the safety of her eldest boy. Keep in mind, these are young children, younger than seven in both cases probably. This was a traumatic experience from her retelling (both sons turned out physically unharmed), considering also that the men wore no disguises, leading her to one inevitable conclusion. This along the same lines as the earlier discussion, re-raised questions about the domino effect such crimes have,including the psychological effects on the two young boys (she mentioned subsequent counseling). Someone would have to have a pretty hard heart indeed not to feel empathy for these people, especially the woman and her traumatized sons. The finale was open discussion, question and answer period, and the facilitators preparing us to meet the victims in two weeks.
After a 20-minute delay, the class begins with a discussion on drug and alcohol abuse. Another hypothetical—this one dealing with a dope slinger named Bobby. He’s slingin’ cash around and acting the big shot for a younger nephew. His Dad wants him to get a legitimate job and so on, but who wants to hear that when they’re strapped for cash and have no responsibilities? He makes the rounds to the local crack house where, among the heads, there is a young pregnant woman. Within this scene, the discussion turns to “Who are the victims here?” (pretty much everyone involved), and we cover topics that include drinking on campus and its social acceptability, the various influences of the media if any, censorship, rural meth labs, urban poverty, and the prevalence of alcohol in our culture versus other cultures. Almost everyone (three-fourths plus) in the class had some form of drug involvement in their case or their past. My friends and I discuss some of our drinking histories over dinner (meatloaf), and I realize from some of my misadventures just how lucky I am to still be alive and in relatively good health.
A discussion on drinking follows, which takes on somewhat of a jocular, Foster Brooks tone, until the point is raised concerning the social acceptability of drinking, drinking as comedy routine and so on, as opposed to other forms of less socially acceptable drug abuse. The tone is made even more somber when we are shown a video produced by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. What we see, I assume, is the original program, on which the one I’m sitting in now is based—victim impact and awareness of the victims. I consider this the essence of the program—putting a human face on everyone involved, including the perpetrators, but most importantly the victims and their families. When confronted by this human face, the perpetrator has to look directly into his or her actions. The video has real impact—a mother recounts the death of her son by a drunk driver, and there is a photograph of her son next to her (very young,very boyish, a tousle-headed school photo which compounds the pain of her loss)—but I know the actual face-to-face meeting with families of victims will be way more powerful,and with each subsequent night, I can feel my emotions run closer to the surface.
After two evenings of having the chairs laid out in rows, traditional classroom style, the chairs are laid out in a semi-circle. The agenda is domestic violence and child maltreatment. Ground rules are established this evening: some of the topics we are preparing to cover are potential volatile, i.e. child abuse, and confidentiality is called for. Simply put, some of the members of the group may be offended by past actions of others in the room, especially since pedophiles are traditionally the most despised of all convicted people. But the point is understood with speaking it outright: we’ve all committed horrible acts, and this is not the venue for finger pointing. Before we start, a friend of mine reads aloud a published letter from Yoko Ono to the parole board concerning the latest hearing on Mark David Chapman, an appropriate and timely way to open discussion given the nature of this program. The talk begins with domestic violence and the lack of police protection given to the abused. Most of the comments here come from the facilitators, although my friend with the Ono letter expounds quite a bit on his own experience with domestic violence. I offer up a brief comment but, although coming from a dysfunctional family and having experienced child abuse (more mental and neglectful then physical), my recollection comes across as sort of surreal (to my ears anyway) and seems to lack real impact.
We watch two videos—Lola’s story and Lisa’s story. Lisa, a six-year-old girl, made a 911 call while her parents were fighting in a back room. Although the audio quality of the call is poor, it’s the emotional state (hysterics) of this little girl that shines through. The operator keeps Lisa on the line for further information, but (this was later clarified by one of the instructors due again to poor audio quality) nothing prevents the father from killing everyone in the house except Lisa. Lola’s story was a bit different. Apparently abused by her husband/boyfriend, she notified the police, and they photographed her injuries for evidence and arrested him. What we hear is a taped conversation, complete with subtitles due again to poor audio, in which the man terrorized and browbeat Lola for being a “sniveling ho,” and blames her for all of the family problems. The guy sounds a lot like these so-called “playas” around here who can only use a woman instead of love one. While Lola has low self-esteem, her man seems to have a big ego with a little man complex.
A funny thing happens this evening: I stop seeing the facilitators as staff and police and instead see them as other participants in the program. I hope they see us the same way, at least during the program.
We start child maltreatment. A lot of what we discuss falls into a gray area between right and wrong, in terms of corporal punishment. Although this aspect of child rearing is disappearing in certain circles, ninety percent of the class (more like ninety-five or better) can relate to getting swats or testified that they had a grandma, grandpa, mother, or father with a tree full of angry switches out back. We agree unanimously on the evil of beating a child, but we differ on spanking. Speaking for myself, I couldn’t spank my children, but does a quick, light open hand to the flanks qualify as abuse? Food for thought.
The rest of the evening concerns incest and sexual abuse. Here forgiveness really becomes a test, because the entire room feels the same lack of sympathy for predators of children. We watch video testimonials of incest victims in a small town, and this is a very graphic, unflinching look at victims of all ages and genders. Once again class runs late, and I express my gratitude to the facilitators for staying later than scheduled.
Tonight’s lesson is on assault. Our class has shrunk by one, unfortunately. Assault, according to the lesson packet includes (in prison terminology) “mugging” someone—looking hard, glaring at another person. After discussing the true story of a man who had his throat slit twice and lived to tell about it, we discuss just how common assault really is. It’s one of the most common crimes, and the majority of tonight’s discussion is devoted to it.
We watch a video of one son’s search for why his mother was raped and killed. While the perpetrator did 13 years, the son dwelt on his mother’s horrible death. He finally came to the conclusion that the only way to deal with this loss was to confront his mother’s killer. Although much of the intensity of this confrontation was lost in the transfer to film, the young man’s pain was obvious. He had built up anger and frustration and expected the perpetrator to supply some answers or accountability for his actions. The perpetrator, for his part, claimed to remember nothing of the crimes. He had a real bland demeanor, an attitude of inconvenience, as if this guy who had lost so much had no right to bother him with such trivialities. We definitely felt for the son, although about half the class felt like it was time for him to let this go and get on with living. But who are we to say what an appropriate mourning period is?
The second half of the class dealt with sexual assault. For the most part there was total agreement on what constitutes the crime of rape or sexual assault (no means no, etc.), but there were a couple of times when opinions differed. In one case, a woman was raped prior to her marriage, and her fiancé left her due to his inability to deal with what he thought was her involvement (possibly a question of her being tainted in his eyes). Some felt that the woman’s fiancé was also a victim—basically a small man suffering from his own lack of security and his low self-esteem.
Another controversy came over a situation with a truck driver who went to a hotel with a woman who was a stranger. The man woke up tied to the bed, blindfolded, and forced at knife point to perform sexually for four women. I think some of these hypothetical situations are designed to spark discussion and have no basis in reality. Some just seem to have a mythological air about them. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe truth is really stranger than fiction. While some of the guys in the class dug the idea of an all-woman square dance, their opinions changed quickly when they learned that the man’s scrotum was the target of the knife point threat.
Another video, this time of rape/sexual abuse victims’ testimonials. Again, the faces are of different races and genders, from a boy no older than eight or nine, to an elderly woman of indeterminate age. But the thing that most impressed me was the courage it took for these people to share their horrible experiences. The main thing was for them to show, and rightly so, that because horrible things had been done to them, they were not horrible people for it, nor was it their fault.
It seems to me as if the group has come together in some way during the last four days, and I wonder if that is part of the program’s design. When we meet with the families in four days, our familiarity with each other will make true feelings easier to emerge.
Tonight starts off with gang violence. Surprisingly in this age of gang proliferation, it turns out no one in the room has had any real experience with it (or experience that they admit to). Most of this part of the evening goes by quickly without much comment, other than sympathy for the families of the slain gangbangers. The most poignant moments came during a video tape of a gangbanger’s funeral. Within the open casket, along with a bible, were gang photographs and gang rags. The victim’s mother was powerless to do little else but mourn. At the cemetery, the gang gathered on one side of the grave, while the family gathered on the other.
The night’s second lesson focused on robbery. The dialogue opened up a bit more, including what would we do if ordered by an armed robber to lie face down (about half the class said they would refuse). Another video was shown, and this one included surveillance footage. Four men enter the office of a hotel, pistolwhip, and rob the clerk. After they leave, the clerk stands to leave, and one of the men returns to shoot him in the side with a handgun. Eleven years pass, and the clerk, Gary Geiger, after recovering from his injury and readjusting to life post-victim, sets up a meeting with the man who shot him, Wayne Blanchard. It’s important that I include the names of these men because of the impact this video has on me. They meet in a prison visiting room—seclusion style, like an attorney room. Gary questions Wayne. Immediately I notice how Wayne maintains eye contact and acknowledges Gary’s word. Much of what Gary came for is supplied by Wayne, including what appear to be sincere sentiments of regret on Wayne’s part. The meeting ends with a handshake and tears, and at this point I feel my own tears well up at the intense power of this man’s forgiveness. What an elegant gesture the simple handshake is. I am once again confronted by the awful truth of my own past, how I can never shake S.N.’s hand and ask, or even expect, forgiveness. I know through maturity and my growth through vipassana and Buddhism that I am not my past, but sometimes the weight of what I have done seem so hard to bear.
Tonight is the final class before the final day of the program—the day the families come up, and there should be some heightened emotions since tonight’s lessons are on Violent Crime and Homicide. We start with violent crime, and the discussion turns philosophic (age for accountability, duration of punishment, effects of stimulation and environment, and redemption—is it only possible for some?) since this is mostly a recap of areas covered. On a videotape, a mother confronts the man who confessed to the rape and murder of her daughter. The thing that strikes me most is the light, almost conversational tone of this confrontation—greetings are exchanged, small observations are noted concerning personal appearance, age and so on—tones spoken between two old acquaintances. Of course the meeting reaches an emotional peak, and the perpetrator, a man who turned himself in voluntarily, shows emotional response to this mother who still hurts over the loss of her child. I see this encounter resembling closest to what Saturday will be like.
Over the course of this program, a few things have been emphasized: for one, take responsibility for your own actions, although this comes secondary to recognizing human beings and respecting them, especially these victims and their families. During the subsequent discussion on homicide, the topic heats up when talking about responsibility, especially variables surrounding an instance in time and people involved (make sense?). Afterwards, the facilitators discuss what to expect on Saturday, but no amount of preparation seems like it will be adequate.
I find that despite having slept well, I am nervous. Not to the point yet of hands shaking, but I experience something earlier that seems portentous in a way. I decide to shave my goatee along with the rest of my face and, while shaving my mustache, I nick the tip of my upper lip. The cut bleeds profusely, to the point that I have a mouthful of blood and blood running down my chin and neck by the time I get finished enough to tend to the wound. The taste leaves me feeling somewhat woozy and nauseous. I decide, once I’ve cleaned up and gotten dressed for the day, to call my Mom to ease my nerves a bit. It works: God bless you, Mom. I love you.
The prevailing mood is definitely one of nervousness. Once again the room is freezing, although I’m not sure if the temperature was the only reason for my shaking. The families speak one at a time, starting first with an elderly couple whose son was murdered on an open highway. Next, a survivor of rape, then a survivor of gang rape and incest, followed by two women whose sister was murdered, and finally a woman whose daughter was murdered 18 years ago. It’s like a switch gets turned on when these people tell their stories, and there is no way of not feeling empathy and sympathy for these grieving families.
Prior to this meeting, some of the families were described to me by past participants in the program. One was the woman whose daughter was murdered 18 years ago. She had been described to me as a “professional victim,” but I didn’t see her as such. She seemed more like a woman trying to do what she could to make a difference, and I think that some were intimidated by her relentless attitude. Another woman, the victim of gang rape and incest, described herself not as a victim but as a survivor. I really respect this woman’s strength and indomitable spirit. During my own discourses, I comment twice on the awesome courage of these people to do what it is they do. Crime is usually a cowardly act, whether out of envy or for whatever other selfish reasons, but these people showed such strength and courage by saying, “You will not take my life from me,” or, “I will continue to live my own life by my own rules and values despite your hatred.” What an awesome privilege it was to experience this program. Now maybe I can allow myself a little catharsis.
Read R. C.’s account of his experience meeting victims in person as part of the Impact of Crime on Victims program.