Story by Ike Dodson
Office of Public and Employee Communications
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) acknowledges and honors victims and survivors of crime each day, and especially during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week (NCVRW), April 19-25.
This year’s NCVRW theme—Seek Justice | Ensure Victims’ Rights | Inspire Hope—commemorates the individuals and groups whose advocacy has propelled the victims’ rights movement forward for the past half century, inspiring in victims and their loved ones a feeling of hope for progress, justice, and healing.
This theme is championed by CDCR’s Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services (OVSRS), a dedicated team of hard-working professionals who provide comprehensive post-conviction resources to victims and survivors who register with OVSRS.
This story will explore ways that OVSRS partners with other divisions, agencies, advocacy groups, program providers, Governor Newsom and especially victims and survivors to Seek Justice after conviction has taken place.
‘Tear down this wall!’
Victims and survivors of crime inspire us all.
In California, the strength of this community enables Restorative Justice practices to thrive, by sharing a common goal of giving victims the opportunity for their voices to be heard and for incarcerated men and women to fully understand the consequences of their actions.
The inspiration for one of CDCR’s most gripping examples of this was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the late 1980s.
It was then that Jacobus Verduin of Holland returned to a village in Germany, 400 miles from the Dutch border, to confront the former German officers who held him captive during World War II.
When the Russians invaded Germany in the 1940s, Verduin knew just enough Russian to convince invading soldiers of his Netherlands heritage and escape to return home. Around 50 years later, he returned, not to seek vengeance, but peace.
“Apologies were made, forgiveness was expressed, and he came back a different human being,” his son, Jacques Verduin, said during a recent interview.
Jacques said his father’s journey inspired his own career path, which included a Masters in psychology at Antioch University and 24 years of providing program services to California’s incarcerated population.
Guiding Rage Into Power
It was Jacobus’ reconciliation with his German captors that inspired Jacques’ belief in the merits of restorative justice, which became a foundation for the GRIP (Guiding Rage Into Power) Training Institute he founded. The program operates victim impact classes and coursework for CDCR’s Division of Rehabilitative Programs (DRP), funded by its Innovative Programming Grants (IPG).
GRIP teaches CDCR students to stop and transform their violence, develop emotional intelligence, cultivate mindfulness and understand victim impact. The program welcomes victims and survivors of crime to visit the class, tell their story and answer questions from participants.
In Avenal State Prison (ASP), a group of mothers who lost their sons in gang-related crime (Mothers with a Message) share the impact of crime on their families in powerful group dialogues. It’s one of the more moving moments you will find in rehabilitation-enabled curriculum.
“I thought I was going there to see what I could give them, but they actually did something for me because my heart was in a lot of pain, and they offered me a little bit of a peace,” Bevelynn Bravo of Mothers with a Message told KPBS in 2019. “And it just heals your heart.”
“Victims have a need to be in a dialogue,” Jacques explained. “It’s not to find closure, and it’s not for everyone, but for a certain amount of people, it engages a bond between victims and offenders that allows for healing to take place.”
Dee Lovette, ASP’s Community Resources Manager, knows the impact is shared.
“The GRIP program takes a shell of a man and transforms him into a person who is now able to acknowledge fault, forgiveness, and remorse,” Lovette said.
Normally, during NCVRW, ASP and other prisons throughout the state welcome visitors for special victim impact gatherings and fundraisers that honor and support the victim and survivor community.
This year, as CDCR combats the spread of COVID-19 with limited movement and guests, this cohesive effort will lack much of its luster. However, a few programs (like GRIP) have found a way to continue their good work.
The 220-page GRIP curriculum book, now considered a workbook, provides the main resource for learning. It allows 470 students from five different state prisons use the text to complete assignments and mail their work to the GRIP central office, where it is distributed to one of 23 staffers, who attach notes and questions and mail the course work back.
It’s something incarcerated people are poised to achieve.
“A lot of our participants are lifers, people who have done maybe 20, 30 years, so yeah, they have some experience in (sending mail),” Jacques said. “There is a ripe tradition of correspondence in English literature, so it’s like we are practicing a forgotten art.”
Thanks to mail-in assignments, students can still complete the program Jacques says has graduated 913 students, 301 of whom have been released from prison in the last eight years.
“What this has done for me in here this past year, it’s giving me back, once again, my humanity,” recent ASP GRIP graduate Harold Miller told Huffpost last year. “I gained my empathy back towards people. And my emotional intelligence is right now over-the-top for me.”
GRIP has a presence at ASP, San Quentin State Prison, Mule Creek State Prison and Deuel Vocational Institution. The program was funded by round No. 5 of DRP’s IPG in 2019.
DRP completed $2 million in grant agreements for round No. 6 March 1 of this year. This round, specifically designated for victim impact programs, represents monumental opportunity for restorative justice practices in CDCR’s immediate future.
“These programs provide a lens for incarcerated people to see the impact of crime from the perspective of a victim,” OVSRS Chief Nolice Edwards said. “It’s incredibly helpful as those individuals work toward achieving amends and rehabilitation through the programs offered in our facilities.”
With the addition of $2 million this round, CDCR will award a total of $14 million in grants during all six cycles over the course of five years. This grant funding comes directly from the Inmate Welfare Fund, a trust where all proceeds from institutional canteen and hobby shop sales are deposited and spent for the benefit of inmates, including on education and welfare.
These valuable programs enjoy support across the board, including among CDCR professionals, program providers, partnering agencies, advocacy groups, and the victim and survivor community.
Even within walls, they help tear some down.