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San Quentin Radio Project: When victims and offenders talk

Flickr user John Weiss

KALW has partnered with radio producers inside California's oldest prison to bring you the San Quentin Prison Report, a series of stories focusing on the experiences of these men, written and produced by those living inside the prison's walls.

When an offender commits a crime, its repercussions impact not only the victim and the perpetrator, but families, friends, and whole communities.

Restorative justice is an approach that seeks to heal the many dimensions of harm that a crime creates. One way of achieving this is through a practice known as victim-offender dialogue.

Recently, a prisoner named Kairi met with the sister of a man he murdered 23 years ago. Moments before the two met for their dialogue, Kairi admitted to feeling his share of doubt. “I just really didn't know what it was going to look like,” he said. “It was a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, uncertainty.”

Victim/offender dialogue is a process that brings the victim and the offender together to talk about the crime.

Kairi was looking forward to the meeting, though he also knew that it might have its pitfalls. “One of the most profound thing[s] that I was really feeling was that I didn’t want to go in and re-injure her,” he says.

In 1990, Kairi was arrested. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 26 years to life. While at San Quentin State Prison, he involved himself in a restorative justice program: the Victim Offender Education Group. He says this program helped him to prepare for the dialogue with the victim’s sister.

Before the dialogue, Kairi wasn’t aware of the effect his actions had had on the victim’s sister, her family, or the community at large. He says that when he met with her, they both initially wept. “When you sit across from someone that you've harmed," he said, "you’re going to hear from them personally what that effect was, and how that affected their lives.”

Kairi also learned more about the murder victim -- things that he hadn't known prior to the dialogue. He was 42 years old at the time. He flew airplanes. His father had died just a week and a half before his own murder.

Victim-offender dialogue emphasizes accountability, empathy, and making amends. It places the people impacted by the crime at the center. For the victim’s sister, she wanted to know why Kairi had killed her brother. She wanted answers. 

“She wanted to know who was I before I murdered her brother,” Kairi says. “What my life was like.” She asked Kairi what had happened the day that he murdered her brother. “She went on for the third question … Who am I today?”

Kairi told the victim that he had been an addict who spent ten years chasing drugs. He’d built up a lot of anger, despair, and rage because of his addiction. He told her more about the gruesome details of the murder. And at the end of their meeting, Kairi began to explain where he is today. “The programs and everything that I've been involved in since I've been here at San Quentin has given me an opportunity to really take a look at my life,” he told her.

Today, Kairi is a certified drug counselor. He’s been a participant and facilitator in a number of self-help and rehabilitative groups that focus on addiction recovery counseling and restorative justice themes. 

In order for restorative justice to work properly, the offender and the victim must both be a part of the process. This way, both parties can bridge gaps, repair injuries, and come to a mutual understanding.

The amends process starts by asking how, if possible, the victim can be made whole again. Shortly after the dialogue, Kairi wrote the victim's sister a letter, to thank her for having the courage to come and meet with him. She wrote back: “When I received your letter of thanks I was very moved by your honesty and by learning that our meeting has helped you in your healing process.”

“I will tell you that our meeting was one of the most profound encounters of my life,” she wrote. “Why? Because both of us were speaking from a very vulnerable place in ourselves -- a place at the essence of whom we each are.”

Kairi says that being able to be a part of her healing process was extremely gratifying. “I broke down in tears, because when I wrote my letter of thank you for her being a part of this dialogue, I wasn't really sure in my mind how she had felt,” he says. “Knowing that I was able to give her what she needed from me, that really, really made a big difference.”

For Kairi, he’s always wondered what forgiveness would look like. He struggled with shame and self-directed anger after the murder, and he knew asking for forgiveness would be a difficult thing. After their dialogue, he was lucky enough to hear these healing words: “Kairi, I forgive you.”

This is the latest installment of the San Quentin Prison Reportradio project – a new series that brings you stories produced by men currently serving time in California’s oldest prison. You can listen to more stories from this series at www.kalw.org.

This story originally aired on May 22, 2013