Laurel Kaufer: Peacemaker promotes nonviolence behind bars
Editor’s note: Many California attorneys make a
difference in their communities by representing individual vulnerable clients,
for free, on critical legal problems. Some, however, have found other unique
ways to fulfill their obligation to public service. The California Bar Journal
is highlighting some of those "just pursuits" in this occasional
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For more on peacemakers, please see State Bar President Patrick Kelly’s column.Los Angeles
lawyer-mediator Laurel Kaufer said she was intrigued by a desperate plea for
free help from a woman housed at the maximum-security Valley State Prison in
Chowchilla, but she knew she couldn’t do it alone. The woman had written to
mediators throughout the state explaining that she was part of a group of
inmates who wanted to learn ways to diffuse conflicts before they erupted into
violence. In all Kaufer’s years of teaching mediation, she said no one had ever
requested training for the sole purpose of making a community a better place.
But for this woman, there was no other possible benefit because she was serving
a life sentence without possibility of parole.
immediately called fellow mediator Douglas Noll, who lives near Fresno, and read him the
letter. He agreed to join her, and over the next six months, the pair devised a
curriculum in peacemaking, communication and mediation. In 2010, they launched
Prison of Peace. Since then, more than 150 inmates have taken the training, including
12 who’ve completed an intensive two-year certification course to train other
me about your first weekend at Valley State Prison. What did you expect during
those first two days of training in 2010?
I had no
idea what to expect. I had only been inside the prison once before when we had
a tour, and it really scared me. But I was ready. I was eager to begin. We had
brought a team of Doug, myself and two others to do the initial training.
When we got
there, [the women] were waiting outside the room. I was immediately stunned
because they didn’t look like what I thought inmates would look like. So many
of them looked like I could be having coffee with them at Starbucks, rather
than a group serving life and long-term prison sentences. They were very eager
to learn and did very nicely. After the first day I thought, “OK, this is a
piece of cake.”
|Laurel Kaufer said Prison of Peace has changed her outlook on life and made it hard to go back to commercial legal work.
Then I went
back to the hotel where I was staying that night. The only [inmate] I knew something
about was Susan Russo, who had written the letter that started the program. So
I started googling them to see if I could find any information online. As I
read the court transcripts … about what they were incarcerated for, it really
scared me. I knew they were serving life and long-term sentences and you don’t
get that for nothing, but it hadn’t sunk in that these women were serving
sentences for violent crimes. I didn’t sleep that night at all. I thought about how
I could be so lackadaisical about this. This is serious stuff. I told myself,
“Finish this out. You don’t have to do it again. But you made a commitment, so
finish it out.”
day, the women were lined up outside the door with their books and materials
and nametags on, ready to learn. I was overwhelmed. I spent the whole day
searching their faces for the criminals, and I couldn’t find any. All I could
see were women who wanted to learn and wanted information so they could share
it with their peers. I was completely incapable of being judgmental. All I
wanted to do was to bring them the information they wanted because they wanted
to grow. And for me, that was the very best reason to be there.
eight weeks focus on peacemaking, communication, understanding emotions,
restorative justice and learning how to conduct peace circles. After that,
there’s another four weeks of teaching mediation skills. We trained 70 women
ourselves, and then we began a train-the-trainer program. That took two years.
During that time, the women were also training their own students in
peacemaking and communication. They trained 100 students, and they did
beautifully. In fact, their evaluations as trainers were equal to if not better
than ours―and we’re the professionals. They can relate to their peers in
ways that we can’t.
January, the women were moved to Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and
California Institution for Women (CIW) as part of a prison restructuring
effort. How will that affect the program?
CCWF now has 10 trainers.
There are two at CIW and two others there who haven’t yet completed the
training program but want to. So we’re now beginning the program at both these
prisons, and the trainers are doing the training. Doug and I are going to be
supporting them. That’s always been the goal of the program ― to make it
sustainable without us by training the women to be the trainers.
you still be making the 500-mile roundtrip commute to Chowchilla?
will not go up there every week because now this is their program. We will go
up every month or as they need us, to work with the trainers, and I am in
contact with the prison staff sponsor after every meeting, so I’ll know what
happened and can give feedback. We will be acting in a support/mentoring role
now, rather than running this program.
about at California Institution for Women at Corona?
there are only two trainers there, it will be too much for them to do alone, so
at least I am going to do it with them if Doug can’t get down because he lives
much farther away.
short existence, the program seems to have been hugely successful in helping
inmates―and prison staff―resolve problems and quell violence under
situations where physical fights, fierce arguments and lockdowns are common.
Give me an example of how the program has transformed someone.
There are so
many. Everyone in their own personal way has grown and changed. One woman in
her early 30s came into the program as a self-professed bad girl. She was a
troublemaker. She was tough, difficult to teach, resistant. She wouldn’t show
up, and I would chase her down. I remember three occasions where I left the
classroom and went to her yard, and I got her. She would say, “I got to do
something first.” I would say, “No, no, you’re coming with me now.”
saying, “I want to be better. Please don’t give up on me.” So I promised her I
wouldn’t give up on her if she wouldn’t give up on herself. She kept showing up
and went through the mediation program. Then, she signed up for the trainer
program. We started seeing her blossom, to distill these lessons in ways we
would never have thought to do and in ways that reached some of the women we
could never have reached. She’s become one of our most passionate and dedicated
laugh. When we came back to do a day of training, she came up to me and said,
“Oh my god, you’re not going to believe this. Last Saturday, I became you. I
had some students who didn’t show up for class, and I chased around this whole
prison, and I found them and brought them to class. I realized in that moment
that’s what you did for me, and I realized that in each of those times I was
planning to get into trouble, and you saved my life.” She’s said that
frequently to me since and cries every time.
must have been some sad cases, too?
One of our trainers
who showed a great deal of promise was also a bad actor, and she wanted to
learn desperately. She carried around a dictionary and a thesaurus because she
wanted to learn new words. She was growing and learning. But I knew she still
had her problems.
She got into
trouble and got sent to AdSeg, which is administrative segregation. She’s not
in the general population anymore. They call it going to jail. It’s the prison
within the prison. The warden told me she had gotten into a fight. But the
warden also told me she’d accepted responsibility for it. She said she was
fully accountable and would accept whatever punishment because of that.
though she slipped, accountability was never in her past. Before that,
everything she did she blamed on other people. Suddenly, she was accountable.
It’s a sad story, but it’s not a story of failure. She’s still there 15 months
later. She writes to me regularly and tells me she’s taught Prison of Peace to
the woman she shares her cell with. She made her read the book, taught her the
lessons, and she can’t wait to come back when she’s released. So even the
failures are not failures because there’s something we see in each one of
came up with the name "Prison of Peace?"
standard place to meet when devising the program was at an Olive Garden
restaurant. We were sitting there one day working on the program that we were
going to propose to the prison. We were brainstorming, and I would swear it was
Doug who came up with the name.
immediately that was what we wanted it to be called because it just seemed like
such an oxymoron. What we wanted was something that seemed impossible. We now
know because of what happened at Valley State Prison that a “prison of peace”
your first experience starting a nonprofit. You founded the Mississippi Project
in 2005 to provide community conflict resolution programs to Hurricane Katrina
victims. How does Prison of Peace compare?
isn’t actually a nonprofit. This is a pro bono project under the aegis of the
Fresno Regional Foundation, a nonprofit that is our fiscal sponsor so that we
can receive tax-deductable donations and grants.
I love to
create projects. But I also know that if something depends on me for its
sustainability it will fail. The way that I have built everything is to show
it, do it, teach others to do it, and then remove myself. I never leave a
project. I’m always in the background, but I like to see it succeed without me
and nurse it into being and step back into a support role.
seem to be getting to that point with the women in Prison of Peace.
We seem to
be, but there’s a lot more to do. It will take another year or two.
mentioned expanding into the men’s prisons.
requests specifically from two men’s prisons. They very much want it, and we
want to do it. But we need funding. This is a full-time job, and it’s become my
career, and I can’t do it for free anymore. In the meantime, we’ll keep working
with the women because we promised.
began the program with no funding and the inmates passed the hat to keep you
coming back. Since then, the JAMS Foundation and others have contributed to
help with basic expenses, but it’s still a pro bono effort. Why is it so
difficult to get donors?
people feel there’s no point in funding something with lifers because they’re
never coming out of prison. What society fails to realize is that it’s the
lifers who are the greatest influence on the 97 percent of inmates who are
coming out. So if the lifers have a sense of value about themselves and a
positive purpose, they can be one of the strongest rehabilitative influences on
the general population. We don’t want short-termers coming in and out. We want
them going out and staying out. If all they learn in prison is to be better
criminals, what on earth are they going to do when they get out?
has this project changed your philosophy of life in general?
believe everybody is entitled to an opportunity for redemption, and it’s up to
them whether they want to take advantage of it.
made it almost impossible for me to go back to commercial legal work. This work
is so humanistic and transformative that it’s hard for me to be a lawyer in
situations that are focused on commercial transactions. Those are critical
things, and we need to do that. I need to do that. But I’m having a hard time
doing that at the moment.
reaction do you get from others when you tell them what you’re doing?
A lot of my
friends look at me in utter disbelief and confusion. One colleague said to me
after I explained my experience of the first day at the prison and how I
couldn’t be judgmental, “Oh, don’t tell me they’ve convinced you they’re all
offended. But I know where she was coming from because prior to being there and
having that experience, I also could probably not fathom having compassion for
these people unless I thought they were innocent. Instead, I said, “No, none of
them have tried to convince me they’re innocent, and I just presume they’re
guilty. It doesn’t matter.”
I think my
family is proud of me. Certainly, my parents were proud when Doug and I won the
California Lawyer Attorney of the Year award last year.
began your career as a litigator. How did you get into mediation?
I had a
friend who was also an attorney with young children, and she came to me one day
and said, “Guess what? I found a class where we can get all our MCLE in one
“When is it?” I didn’t even say, “What is it?” because to a mother with small
children all that mattered was whether I could be available. It was mediation,
and I was hooked. That was over 20 years ago. And that’s what pulled me into
where I am now.
Susan McRae, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, interviewed Kaufer. This is an edited version of their conversation.