Dionne Wilson's husband, a San Leandro police officer, was killed in the line of duty seven years ago, but she says it took her a long time to find a way to really heal.
“For many years, I carried around so much vengeance and hate. I realized at a certain point I had nothing left. I had no more tools. I engaged in a lot of self-destructive behavior. I tried to buy my way out of my grief; I tried to drink my way out for a short period. Thankfully, I didn’t take that too far. And I just didn’t have a way to move past being embroiled in the moment,” says Wilson.
Wilson initially thought the trial and conviction of her husband’s murderer would bring her some sort of comfort or closure.
“I had this little light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “I kept thinking, it’s almost over, he’s gonna get convicted. He’s gonna be on death row. I’m gonna feel better. I’m gonna feel better. And then when it happened, and he did get put on death row, I waited, and I waited, and I waited. And I thought, Huh, well, it really didn’t work. I don’t feel better, I feel worse. Because now I’m let down. Now this promise of making it right within our current system, it completely let me down. And so I realized that the only way out of it was a different route. I didn’t know exactly what that was, but that’s kind of a long story.”
Wilson decided to try restorative justice, and specifically a practice called "victim offender dialogue".
She got counseling to prepare her to meet a murderer, someone like the man who killed her husband. In Wilson’s case, she couldn’t actually confront the true offender, because he is on death row and appealing his conviction. So instead, she met with what’s called a surrogate. She says that helped her to begin her healing process. After meeting several surrogates face-to-face, talking about redemption, justice, and the searing pain of loss, Wilson finally felt ready to send a letter to the man who killed her husband.
“I started realizing the value of redemption and forgiveness,” she says. “It took me nine months to get it to him. It took a lot of work, a lot of searching, a lot of phone calls, a lot of begging and pleading. I finally was put in contact with his attorney, who was a wonderful woman, and it actually took me a couple of phone conversations to convince her that I didn’t have any ulterior motives, that I wasn’t trying to cause further harm.
“Knowing that he heard my words, that was really enough to give me so much healing. It was amazing the effect that it had on me and my life. What I really want to say to him is to not give up on the life that he has right now. Because I know that when you’re sitting in a cage and you know you’re going to die there - there’s just no question, you’re going to die there one way or another - that it’s really easy to lose hope and think that there’s no possible way that you can have a positive effect on the world, but I don’t believe that. I believe that he can.”
Sonya Shah is the advocacy director of the Insight Prison Project, which facilitates restorative justice meetings like the ones Wilson says changed her life. She says restorative justice invites a fundamental shift in how we do and think about justice. "We know that our current criminal justice system is based on retribution. Retribution meaning punishment, and 'eye for an eye'. If I commit a crime, lock me up, throw away the key, take away all my resources. And expect that somehow I’m going to change, to figure out what I’ve done.
“In that process, what’s missing is nobody actually asks me as a person who’s committed a crime what I’ve done. And nobody actually gives me an opportunity to take accountability. And on the side of a survivor, the victim of the crime, nobody asks that victim what they need. What the impact of the harm was. And what does the victim think the obligation is on the side of the person who’s committed the harm. Victims are just used often to convict.
“Restorative justice invites a very different process of repairing harm. It takes into account crime survivor’s needs, community safety, public safety, accountability, and really actually getting to the root causes of harm."
The Insight Prison Project works with two restorative practices: victim offender dialogue and restorative group conferencing. The victim offender dialogue is where, after working with separate facilitators, victims and offenders will come together and talk about what happened. Sometimes the victim is actually talking to the perpetrator of the crime, and sometimes they speak to a surrogate, offenders who have committed similar crimes. That was the case for Dionne Wilson, who now goes to different prisons to facilitate victim offender dialogue.
“I had the opportunity to go to the women’s prison at Chowchilla and speak with a couple of different groups of women who were in there for murder,” says Wilson. “The level of accountability that I saw those ladies taking for what they had done was amazing to me, because there are things in my life that I know are wrong, but I didn’t even begin to take that kind of accountability.
“They were honest, it was heartfelt. They wanted so desperately to be able to sit across from the people that they hurt and acknowledge them. And what the amazing thing that IPP does, is that it allows the connection of the crime and the humanity. The humanity of the person that they’ve hurt. That is the key to actually having people transform their lives.”
But before an offender can participate in the restorative justice process, they have to accept accountability for their crime.
According to Sonya Shah, “There’s a basic connection between violence and trauma. So if your trauma goes unprocessed, there’s a tendency to either act inward and hurt yourself - so, that’s the substance abuse, cutting, suicide, depression - and the other is the acting outwards and hurting other people. So, when the men inside start to look at their past hurts and go, Oh, this is what happened to me and this is how I felt, and this is how I acted as a result. And you start to see this ricochet effect. They start to connect the dots of their lives that led to the crime. And it’s like a picture that gets painted.”
Researchers are beginning to study the impact restorative justice programs are having on recidivism rates. Shah says that this alternative approach to justice can lead to positive results outside prison walls.
“The effect on public safety is much, much lower recidivism. Much lower crime as well. The outcomes are much higher if you have people who are going through a process where they’re actually repairing the harm. And that’s actually happening now in Oakland as well. They’re doing that same model in Oakland, and they’re doing it in San Francisco.”
Today, Dionne Wilson works as the Survivor Outreach Coordinator for Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit that reaches out to communities and survivors of crime who want to address its root causes.
“I just wanted to say that in case people have the impression that this movement is happening in a vacuum, it absolutely is not,” says Wilson. “Californians for Safety and Justice put out the first ever crime victim survey asking crime victims what they want, what they prefer. One of the questions was: Do you think that California should invest more in health services like mental health and drug and alcohol treatment, or invest more in jails and prisons? And 74% of people responded that they want health services, drug treatment. These are actual victims of violent crimes.”