So writes Sunny Schwartz in her book, Dreams from the Monster Factory. An administrator with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, Schwartz is director of the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP), at County Jail #7, in San Bruno, near San Francisco, California, USA. Using the principles of restorative practices, RSVP has transformed the culture of a prison dorm for violent offenders, along with the inmates’ entrenched violent behavior, by increasing feelings of empathy and providing practical skills. It is also affording a chance for these inmates to return to society as emotionally healthy, productive individuals.
The RSVP program, a partnership of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and nonprofit Community Works West, involves group discussion, academic classes (plus art and creative writing) through the Five Keys Charter Schools (www.5keyscharter.org), theatrical enactments, role-playing, counseling sessions and discussions with victims/survivors of violence (Gilligan & Lee, 2000, p. 1).
Schwartz was hired as director of programs by pioneering San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey and Assistant Sheriff Michael Marcum, director of San Bruno County Jail #7. A former convicted felon himself, Marcum dreamed of a prison that would be a “respectful, dignified community, so people are more prepared to go back to society” (Schwartz, 2009, p. 76).
The first programs implemented by the Sheriff’s Department staff were related to education and addiction treatment and helped many inmates return to society as productive individuals. But something was missing, said Schwartz: “Our jails were full of violent men and none of our programs confronted their violence head on” (Schwartz, 2009, p.124).
Then, at a conference for prison education providers, Schwartz learned about restorative justice, which “puts a premium on getting prisoners to confront the harm they’ve caused and underscores both their accountability and their potential” (Schwartz, p. 127). She immediately decided to bring restorative justice to County Jail #7, envisioning a dorm of violent offenders committed to stopping their violent behavior. Her colleagues feared chaos and riots, but Schwartz promised to plan the RSVP project “within an inch of its life” (Schwartz, 2009, p. 128).
A community antiviolence coalition met to plan the RSVP curriculum for more than a year: ex-offenders who had turned their lives around; members of the group Survivors of Murder Victims; clergy; Latino, African-American and gay rights activists; police; deputy sheriffs; probation officers and social workers from battered women’s shelters
The RSVP dorm opened in 1997 with “62 of the most violent prisoners in the San Francisco County jail system: gangbangers, wife beaters, pimps and murderers” (Schwartz, p.145). Half had chosen to be there; half had been assigned. Many scorned the program as “touchy-feely” or objected to being classified as “violent offenders” (Schwartz, 2009, p. 147).
But the system “depended on peer support, meaning that the inmates who’d been here the longest would help guide the new inmates” (Schwartz, 2009, p. 148).
A chief way this support system was established and has been maintained is the MANALIVE Violence Intervention Program (Hamish Sinclair, founder and executive director). MANALIVE aims to “eradicate men’s violent behavior through rigorous self-examination and peer education” (Schwartz, p. 146). Inmates participate in group discussion several times daily, exploring and rebuilding their assumptions about what it means to be a male in our society — assumptions that led to these inmates’ destructive, violent behavior and caused them to commit crimes and end up in jail” (Gilligan & Lee, 2000, p. 3).
Another major RSVP component is the victim-impact program, which creates “an environment that requires men to confront the results of their violence through victim impact classes” (Schwartz, 2009, p. 146).
When founder and president of Survivors of Murder Victims, grandmother Jean O’Hara, gave the first victim-impact statement to the inmates during RSVP’s first month, the “defiance and anxiety” in the group was palpable, and five extra deputy sheriffs were on hand (Schwartz, 2009, p. 148). O’Hara handed around photos of her beautiful daughter and toddler grandson taken just before they were murdered, then told the story of her experience of the crime in detail, until she and most of the men were weeping.
The murderer, a homeless man called Richard, had been convicted and sentenced, said O’Hara, but this hadn’t brought her or her husband any peace. She then asked the men to find the courage to change and give up their violence, to prevent another family from going through the torment she and her family had suffered (Schwartz, 2009, p. 153).
The men were quiet, careful and respectful of each other after O’Hara left. That day they found the ability to share their anger and sadness. So began the RSVP culture of peer support. In the next six months, there were no fights in the RSVP dorm, a huge accomplishment, considering that everyone had expected riots (Schwartz, 2009, p. 154).
In fact, it turned out that the men liked the process of self-examination; that their intelligence was respected; that they had a way to describe their feelings of rage, anger, fear and shame; that they had tools to control their violence and options when they were threatened. And they liked being peer educators. “In most jails, there is no way for men to gain respect except by becoming bigger thugs. RSVP turned that reality on its head. The more inmates gave up their violent ways, the more respect and authority they received as senior inmate advocates” (Schwartz, 2009, p. 157 & 158).
The following story epitomizes the transformations facilitated by RSVP. Ben, 19, a methamphetamine and heroin addict covered with swastika tattoos, imprisoned for badly beating a homosexual, insisted he wasn’t violent and didn’t belong in RSVP “with the niggers, homos and kikes” (Schwartz, 2009, p. 156). The staff asked Ben to agree to try out the dorm for three weeks (the typical RSVP initiation period) and to control his language. Ben grudgingly agreed.
At three weeks, Ben was still so intractable that the staff almost expelled him. Schwartz suggested a meeting between Ben and Damon, an African-American counselor, and a white inmate peer advisor. Just being in the same room with Damon sent Ben into a screaming fit.
Finally, exhausted by the energy it took to maintain his hatred, and because there weren’t any other Aryan Brotherhood members around to link up with (which he would have found in any other prison dorm), Ben finally “got it.”
In a group meeting, when confronted by a new Latino inmate over something trivial, Ben, instead of fighting, asked the new inmate if he could give him some feedback. Then he told him how his outburst made him feel. Despite himself, Ben had learned to do this by watching the other inmates. The group congratulated Ben for his good work.
Ben did a lot more hard work, with help from fellow inmates and staff, “deconstructing” the violent act that had put him in prison. Ultimately, he became a different person — a leader and a group facilitator in the dorm, his best friend an African-American inmate.
Eager to give back to the community, Ben addressed a group of Jews, including elderly Holocaust survivors, at a Passover Seder in a synagogue. He spoke of his journey — from racist skinhead who beat up blacks, Jews and homosexuals and trashed synagogues — to senior inmate advocate in the RSVP dorm. He ended his talk with a tearful apology. At that, an elderly gentleman with a concentration camp tattoo on his arm took Ben’s hand and said, “I never thought I’d ever see the day when someone who identified with Nazis would say I’m sorry” (Schwartz, 2009, p. 188).
Research has confirmed RSVP’s success. According to a controlled study, the program decreased violence in the dorm nearly 100%. Also, post-release recidivism for violent offenses by inmates who participated in RSVP and were discharged from the prison was reduced by a minimum of 46.3 percent (for those in the program for at least 8 weeks) by up to 82.6 percent (for those in the program for at least 16 weeks). Based on these results, the study’s authors calculated that RSVP saved both the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and the taxpayers “a net amount of about $4 for every $1 spent on the program” (Gilligan and Lee, 2000, p. 8).
A new prison program, also in San Bruno Jail #7, is employing some of RSVP’s strategies in a dorm for inmates who are war veterans (discussed in an article on the IIRP’s 2010 Summer Training Institute, attended by that program’s director, Aida McCray). The RSVP program, said Schwartz in a recent telephone interview, has been successfully replicated at Valhalla County Jail, in White Plains, New York, USA. She hopes that the program, which has been proven to save money and decrease violent recidivism, can be duplicated in prisons everywhere, concluding, “How can we not do something like this?”
Gilligan, J. & Bandy, L. (2000). The Resolve to Stop the Violence Project: Reducing Violence through a Jail-Based Initiative. Commissioned report. Retrieved October 1, 2010 from www.resolvetostoptheviolencesf.org/RSVPevaluation.doc
Schwartz, S. (2009). Dreams from the Monster Factory. New York, N.Y.: Scribner.