In honor of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, Inside CDCR takes a closer look at the Victim Offender Dialogue program and how it helps Inspire Hope, part of the 2020 theme—Seek Justice | Ensure Victims’ Rights | Inspire Hope.
The theme 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 an innovative way CDCR helps to Inspire Hope for victims and survivors of crime by providing understanding and healing with the Victim Offender Dialogue program.
His voice somehow has texture
“It seems like the worst things in my life turned out to be the best, and getting shot in the neck is probably the greatest thing of all,” Thomas Morgan said. “I would not change one bit of that, to the extent that I could.”
Morgan speaks slowly and deliberately with a distinctive, grating voice that somehow has texture. It’s like each word fights to escape the 20-30 pellets and titanium anchors in his neck.
Before he was an Attorney III with CDCR’s Office of Legal Affairs, Morgan was a 17-year deputy counsel with the Kern County District Attorney’s Office. The 17 years before that were spent as a Kern County Deputy Sheriff.
In 1997, Deputy Sheriff Morgan was shot in the neck with a .410 (shotgun) Derringer. The pellets damaged and paralyzed his vocal cords and flung his life into trauma. He was hospitalized for weeks and his family and friends were crushed, most of all his wife Christy.
The gang member who shot him during a frantic foot pursuit, Jason Samuel, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Twenty years later, Morgan sat inside of a Board of Parole Hearing room inside San Quentin State Prison, poised to see Samuel for the first time since the case was adjudicated in 1998.
Victim Offender Dialogue offers hope for change
Morgan mentally rehearsed his earnest request for Samuel to stay in prison, organizing his notes and props like the seasoned litigator he was.
Then once again. Samuel made Morgan a different man.
“Jason comes shuffling in, head down and shackled, overweight and wearing glasses and he looks kind of meek,” Morgan recalled. “He’s very uncomfortable and he sits there, unable to look at me as the board goes through his crime history, psych history and prison history.
“It was like an emotional autopsy.”
Morgan said the board covered Samuel’s childhood trauma, his positive progress in prison, specifically his group therapy and educational work at San Quentin. When Samuel spoke about his crime, he explained his mindset at the time, how his neighborhood had viewed officers as just another gang, albeit more organized.
“One thing that Jason also said that clicked with me was a story of how he met a retired officer in prison who mentored different inmates,” Morgan said. “Jason said that he told the officer his story, and he couldn’t believe that officer still wanted anything to do with him, and still helped him.
“I just thought that if that cop, who he doesn’t even know, could have such an impact on him, then what if I sat down and talked to him and told him I forgave him? What an easy thing that would be for me, and even if I didn’t think he needed to be forgiven, he would obviously be receptive and encouraged.”
One thing Samuel indirectly taught Morgan was how to be receptive to the emotions of people around him.
Lying motionless and unable to speak in an intensive care unit, Morgan watched in anguish as his wife and other loved ones were torn apart emotionally. When his condition worsened, so did they.
“It was like being in a huge circular aquarium, and the fish are all around suffering, separate from me,” he explained. “I decided that since my attitude could improve their perception, all I had to do was pretend that everything was OK, that life would be wonderful.
“Every time I did this I saw tangible evidence that those around me felt better, and seemed to be dealing with it better.”
Twenty years later, changed by his own positivity and compassion, Morgan watched Samuel weep with remorse inside his initial parole hearing. His instincts to help heal this broken man began to battle his intentions to advocate for more prison time.
Morgan told the board he would respect their decision. They denied parole, but allowed Samuel to return a year and one month later. This time, Morgan shared some of his new impressions of Samuel and even offered to speak with him. The board determined Samuel wasn’t quite ready.
Enter victim services
OVSRS staff were receptive to Morgan’s intentions to speak face-to-face with the man who shot him 21 years earlier.
It is against state law for incarcerated people to contact their victims or survivors, but a forward-thinking program thriving out of OVSRS supports a victim-initiated process which allows the victims of crime or surviving family members and the person who committed the offense to meet in a safe and secure environment inside prison.
It’s called the Victim Offender Dialogue and has been inspiring hope since it started.
It’s not for everyone, but for some victims/survivors of severe violence and violation, the facilitated VOD process can provide a pathway to a sense of further healing and justice.
“A lot of people talk about forgiveness, but some things can’t be forgiven and some things don’t need forgiveness,” Morgan said. “What the VOD program does is provide understanding or at least an opportunity for understanding, where two people can talk, and not through the courts or intermediators.
“Martina Lutz-Snyder was my facilitator. The work that she does, that VOD facilitators do, is simply amazing. She guided myself and my wife through this whole thing, so skillfully and kindly. I will never be able to pay my debt to her.”
Morgan and Samuel participated in a VOD in May of 2018. CDCR went on to host 15 more VODs in 2019, and has enabled 48 since the program’s inception in adult prisons in 2011. It’s potentially the largest program of its kind, anywhere in the world.
Morgan’s VOD was unique, as it was featured in the 2019 CNN original series The Redemption Project with Van Jones. Jones interviewed both Morgan and Samuel in the days leading up to the dialogue and stepped away to observe their VOD in a separate room.
It’s also how Christy was prepared to watch the conversation, until a break in the VOD, when she told her husband that she was ready to speak with Samuel for the first time.
“Christy’s transformation is nothing short of a miracle,” Morgan said. “She came up to him, grabbed his face, hugged him and told him that he hurt her, and she forgave him.
“I will never see a moment of more perfect grace.”
Hope for the future
Christy later shared her experience with the Ear Hustle podcast, which is produced out of San Quentin. Samuel also wrote a story for The Beat Within, a publication that partners with San Quentin and county detention facilities to share the stories of incarcerated people.
“I was nervous and in disbelief to see the man who I tried to kill 21 years ago standing across from me,” Samuel wrote. “I reached over to Tom and gave him a hug and told him how sorry I am for the hurt and pain I’ve caused him and his family.
“With so much guilt and shame, I immediately began to sob. Tom graciously comforted me with his love and understanding…. I wanted Tom and Christy to know that I was not the 17-year-old kid who committed a senseless act against them. Tom looked directly into my eyes and told me that he was proud of the mature and responsible person I have become.”
Morgan acknowledges that not everyone will be receptive to healing in a VOD, but he knows how critical the program was to him and his wife. And not long after Samuel participated, he was found suitable for parole and released from prison.
“I think anger can either destroy people or become a crutch,” Morgan said. “Once you forgive or once you understand why something has happened, that can replace the pain as a form of control over your life.
“I think people who have been traumatized are desperately seeking that control they lost in that moment when their life was damaged.”
You can learn more about CDCR’s Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services and the Offender Dialogue program by visiting www.cdcr.ca.gov/victim-services/. You can email OVSRS professionals at email@example.com.
By Ike Dodson, Public Information Officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications