It's been a week since I spoke to a group of men, who are sentenced to life at California State Prison Vacaville. I am still processing the visit and knew that I must get this unexpected visit out of my mind and on to the computer.
A friend of mine works at CSP as a counselor. She asked me if I would be willing to come to the prison and talk to murderers and kidnappers about what happened to my son and how his murder has affected so many lives forever. At first, I was a bit hesitant. I felt afraid, not afraid for myself, more so for them. I thought to myself, What if I just go off in there? What if I freak out on all of them? Will I end up incarcerated too? These are just some of the thoughts that were swirling around in my mind.
When I arrived at the prison at exactly 8:30AM on Thursday July 17th, I was directed by the officer at the entrance gate, to drive forward a ways, and park in the lot on the left. Well, there were two lots to my left and they both said, STAFF PARKING. My anxiety was growing at this point, I am now 5 minutes late to meet with the director of the program I would be speaking in front of.
As I turned the car around twice, trying to figure out where I should park, another correctional officer stopped me and said, "Good morning Ms. Courtemanche. I said hi but I was shocked that this officer knew my name. Did he know I was coming, and that I would be driving a black Cadillac? He then said, that he had worked with Matt at the Lucky's grocery store years earlier. I felt a warm feeling come over me. I knew that God and Matt had sent this particular officer to guide me.
I parked the car and met Kim inside the visitor center. I went through the required steps to enter the prison. They gave me a badge with a whistle attached to it. I was told not to blow the whistle unless I was really in danger! I kind of laughed at the instruction. Do visitors actually blow the whistle just for the fun of it? I guess so, why else would they have to tell me that?
Once we were on the grounds of the prison, we had to go through several locked gates that can only be opened by a guard in one of the towers. The sound of the gates coupled with the wind, felt eerie. I wasn't sure what to do? Do I keep my head down while walking through? Do I look at the inmates? Are they going to start yelling and screaming like they do on Scared Straight? I didn't ask those questions though. I just kept them in my mind and walked on.
As we began to walk through the yard. I was so surprised at how polite everyone was. Almost every inmate we passed said good morning. I certainly did not expect that!
Coming toward us was a correctional officer with a shackled inmate who was dressed in all white prison clothes. As we were approaching them, I witnessed them both smiling. The guard said something to his prisoner like, "Do you want me to carry you there on my back?"They both started laughing. Again, this was not what I had expected.
As we entered the building where I would tell the story of what happened to my boy, I was overwhelmed with the number of people in the room. There were people from Sacramento to represent the different government agencies. There were people from the state. There were also about 50-60 inmates. I immediately felt an overwhelming urge to cry, so I did.
I was introduced to the people in suits. One man told me that his son had went to high school with our youngest daughter. This now makes two connections made at CSP that morning.
As I was led up to the front of the large room, I began to look around at all of these men. They were sitting in their chairs, some chatting together and others just looking around at all the activity. Oh yes, there was also a TV camera in the room, along with a reporter and the camera and microphone crew. It all was a bit overwhelming. Yet again, it was very unexpected.
I remember bits and pieces as I was describing that horrific Sept. 1, 2008. I do know that I cried a lot. I talked about my pain and anger. I talked about forgiveness and compassion. I talked about taking responsibility and hope. I shared how Matt;s killer continues to drag us through this nightmare again and again because he can, those are his rights. I saw many of these men wiping away their tears. Once again UNEXPECTED
After I was done speaking, it was now the inmates turn to tell their stories. They talked about how wonderful the program has been and what they have learned. They shared about the never ending hurt and pain they have caused the victims and their families I was not prepared for the emotion and compassion that I felt. Totally unexpected.
I would say that this has been another turning point in my life. Some of these men shook my hand, with tears in their eyes and they apologized for the pain they have caused. Some of the men knew about Matt and his senseless murder. One man said to me, "You could have looked at us as though we were your son's murderer, but you didn't," I didn't because they are not. My son's murderer refuses to take any responsibility for his actions on that Sept. night when he killed our son, brother, grandson and friend.
I was asked to come and speak again, and I will. I am also not naive. I understand that these men have been locked up for many many years. I understand that after so many years of incarceration and structure, it would be very difficult to return to society and not get caught up in the drugs/alcohol and crime/violence again. But, even if just one man can accept responsibility and begin to live a life totally different from the one he had prior to prison, maybe just maybe...