What’s it like working with women prisoners serving life sentences?

Alcatraz Industrial Building - Camping Trip working
Working with prisoners

What’s it like working with women prisoners serving life sentences?

This is part two of my interview with Doug Noll detailing his work with Prison of Peace and his work with female murderers serving in California prisons. 

Doug Noll and Laurel Kaufer have worked with such women teaching them conflict resolution skills and teaching them how to teach the same skills to other prisoners. 

What was the first session like?

Laurel and I were both very experienced mediation trainers. Both of us had worked both nationally and internationally in a variety of contexts. However, neither one of us had ever worked in a maximum security prison. In fact, our first visit to Valley State Prison for Women was the first time either of us had been in a prison. Both of us had been civil trial lawyers before turning to mediation, with little experience in the criminal system.

Our first group of women, 17 in all, included a variety of ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, educational, and geographical backgrounds. Their ages ranged from late 20s to late 60s. They were all serving life sentences or very long-term sentences. Every one of them had killed another human being.

Being a second degree black belt in a northern Chinese kung fu martial arts style, I was not particularly fearful of my physical safety. I was mostly concerned about whether or not these women were willing to do the hard work it would take to transform into effective peacemakers and mediators. I was not sure it would work. The women were shut down, skeptical, and seemingly distant. They proved me to be very, very wrong. They turned out to be some of the most amazing human beings I have ever worked with.

What did you learn about your self?

I finally learned how to be deeply humble. These women, and all of the subsequent inmates we have trained, have done horrible things. But they have also had horrible things done to them. As a large, dominant, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, lawyer male, I was evil incarnate to these women. I had to learn deep humility to gain their trust and respect. It was and has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life.

How is Prison of Peace set up to replicate itself?

We decided as we designed the curriculum that the project had to be built to become self-sustaining. Thus, we chose to work with lifers, because we knew they would be imprisoned for a long time. The model we have developed takes life inmates, trains them as peacemakers, then as mediators, and then as trainers. To become a trainer requires over 300 hours of classroom training, and countless hours of homework, reading, and clinical practice. Our trainers train the general population in peacemaking skills. Once we have established a training cadre in a prison, we turn the project over to them. We support them with advanced skills training, problem-solving, and support.

It generally takes two years to embed Prison of Peace into a prison. In terms of billable hours, if we were billing at $300 per hour, the cost would be in excess of $750,000 per prison. We pay for all the costs out of our own pockets, including gas, lodging, meals, photocopying, and the like.

Alcatraz Camp Site - Cell Block D.
Alcatraz Camp Site – Cell Block D.

Ken Strongman, MediatorAbout the Author: Ken Strongman (www.kpstrongman.com) has years of experience and a growing national reputation as a mediator and arbitrator.  He has successfully resolved more than a thousand disputes in the fields of construction defects, real estate, intellectual property, and employment.  He is also a Mediator and Arbitrator for FINRA.

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