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

July 09, 2011|By James. P. Gray

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.

Daily Pilot Articles Daily Pilot Articles