Attorney Laurel Kaufer made the transition from litigator to “full-time neutral” in 1995 and has mediated more than 1,000 disputes in the years since. Nothing in her experience, though, prepared her for the letter she received from Susan Russo, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the maximum security Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.
“She was the first person that had ever reached out to me to learn mediation skills for no other possible purpose than to enhance her community,” said Kaufer, who teaches mediation in UCSB Extension’s Mediation and Dispute Resolution Program. “Prison of Peace was inspired by Susan Russo, who, exhausted by the prospect spending her life in a community of violence and misunderstanding, was trying to find a way to improve her situation.”
The letter explained that Russo was looking for an expert mediator on the outside who could come in and show the inmates, all of them “lifers and long-termers,” how to work through the daily anger and violence that are often the bleak hallmarks of a prison environment. In other words, the letter was a plea for mediation training. Russo had sent the letter to more than 50 mediators around California, and no one had replied in the affirmative. Until now.
“I received that letter on Aug. 23, 2009, and from the mailbox I immediately called my colleague Doug Noll to read it to him,” Kaufer said. “I told (Noll) I was intrigued and wanted to do it, but only if he’d do it with me, and that’s how Prison of Peace started.”
Prison of Peace is a mediation training program whose aim is to bring the dispute resolution skill set to the prison population. The goal is to help mitigate the interpersonal and other pressures inherent in long-term incarceration.
“The very notion that someone would view prison as their ‘community’ was something that had never crossed our minds,” Kaufer said. “The personal acceptance of life circumstances … which would have to occur for someone to put their heart and soul into wanting to make it better, that was remarkable to us. It felt to me like the very best reason in the world to want to teach those skills.”
After spending six months convincing skeptical prison officials to let them launch the program on a pro bono basis, in 2010 Kaufer and Noll began the pilot project with high hopes and a uniquely energized population of students. By the end of that year, the two had personally trained 75 women in the prison. Out of that group, 15 women emerged as willing and capable trainers in their own right, and were in turn given additional teacher training by Kaufer and Noll.
To date, that group of prisoner/trainers have themselves trained 100 of their own students. In a classic pay- it-forward model, this largely self-propelled program of peace is making its way through the prison population. By express design, the program has its own momentum. The participants are willing and eager, and dedicated to the cause of peacemaking inside the prison walls.
As warden Walter Miller puts it, “The inmates in the Prison of Peace program display leadership qualities that outweigh their past criminal behavior.”
“What we found were a group of women eager to learn and be better people then society has told them that they are, even if they are destined to spend their lives behind the fences,” Kaufer added. “Now the students have become the teachers, with students of their own. We’re putting together a schedule for another round of training, because we have more students interested in becoming trainers.”
In recognition of their accomplishments, in 2010 Kaufer’s original group of prisoner/mediators received the Cloke-Millen Peacemaker of the Year Award from the Southern California Mediation Association. The award is presented every year to a member of the dispute resolution community who has demonstrated a true passion and dedication to “peacemaking.” This shared 2010 award bears the names of the first group of 15 incarcerated women who took on the extraordinary challenge of long-term mediation within the walls of their prison. In 2012, Kaufer and Noll were honored with the 2012 California Lawyer Attorney of the Year award for their pro bono work with the Prison of Peace project.
Kaufer marvels at the determination of the participating prisoners.
“If these women, in one of the harshest environments we know of, can bring peace through the use of these skills, it would show us that it is possible anywhere,” she said.
Information about UCSB Extension’s programs, including the Mediation and Dispute Resolution Program, is available by telephone at 805.893.4200 or by clicking here. As the continuing education division of UCSB, Extension offers certificate programs, courses, and seminars for personal and professional development on a year-round basis. Courses are open to the general public, including UCSB students. UCSB Extension is supported by student fees and receives no state funds.
— Jeff Wing represents UCSB Extension.