The thirteen of us sat on chairs forming a circle. The circle consisted of two women facilitators, two women victims of crime, and nine men serving life sentences. Our circle was assembled on the stage of a Protestant church on the grounds of a notorious United States penitentiary.
Each of us in the circle is from different cultures, races, and religions. During our circle time, one of the men had to leave for prayer. It is Ramadan in the Muslim faith. He returned to the circle when he finished his prayer.
The facilitator started our circle with a grounding exercise. As we sat in our chairs, we closed our eyes and placed both of our feet firmly on the floor. We took deep, healing breaths and when we slowly exhaled, we visualized releasing the tension our bodies were holding. It was a perfect way to begin the dialogue.
One by one, each person stated their name, and if in prison, how long they have been there and finally, with one word, what our intention was for this dialogue. My intention was, is, and will remain, "HOPEFUL".
The beautiful woman to my right shared with all of us the violence that had been perpetrated upon her. She endured three home invasion robberies, and her dear friend was murdered. She also talked about being an Iraqi woman. The violence gripping her motherland is devastating. She shared how she lives, day by day, with the shadow that is placed over her here in America, just because she is an Iraqi woman.
One man in particular related to this woman’s experience. His homeland is Vietnam. His family was persecuted, so he fled to America. Today, he is doing a life sentence for his own crimes against humanity.
It was now my turn to tell the horrific details of what took place on the night of September 1, 2008. It was my turn to share with these men just how difficult our lives have been since our Matt was murdered. I showed the men a picture of Matt and passed around the pamphlet from our foundation. The Matt Garcia Foundation was started soon after Matt’s murder. The pamphlet has a picture of Matt on it.
I was having a hard time getting all of the words out. My emotions and deep grief were taking over my mind. I struggled to pull myself together enough to share with them that Matt was not from an affluent family. He was not a straight A student. He was a regular kid who had a huge heart for people, especially people who needed a little extra help. This is what made Matt unique. He wanted to help make a difference in our community. He wanted kids to have places to go and things to do that would help them stay off the streets.
I shared about how Matt was very familiar with life choices. His own biological father was always in and out of jail and prison. Matt and his little sister had been to prison several times with their grandma, to visit their dad. I had even taken them there when they were babies to visit their uncle.
The men were very kind and compassionate following my share about my boy and the devastation his death has brought upon our family and loved ones. In reality, most in our community have been affected, in one way or another, by the unfathomable violence perpetrated against Matt.
The man to my left was next to share with us his experience with life and what had led him to where he is right now. Mike is a middle-aged African-American man with piercing blue eyes. I was struck by his surprisingly serene demeanor. He was in a gang as a young man. He killed a rival gang member and was caught. The rival gang was unable to get to him because he was in jail awaiting trial. They decided to retaliate by murdering Mike’s mother and brother.
My heart dropped and my eyes filled with tears as Mike spoke, and I wondered to myself, "How does one ever reconcile the gravity of these horrific events?" Mike took responsibility for his family members’ murders. The decisions he had made in his life up to that moment rendered him responsible for the tragic and senseless deaths of his own mother and brother.
Bryan spoke next. He has served thirteen years of his life sentence for murder. Bryan is a young Asian man in his early 30's. He had cried when I shared my story about Matt. Our eyes locked as he began to weep again. Bryan shared about his realization of what he has done to his victim, as well as his victim’s mother, family, and loved ones.
Bryan and several of his friends decided to basically beat up the ex-boyfriend of a girl that Bryan liked. The girl had told Bryan that her ex-boyfriend had done and said some mean things to her. From there, they hatched out a plan to have the ex-boyfriend meet her at a park that night. When the ex-boyfriend pulled up and got out of his car, the other guys (who had been hiding) came out and began to beat him up. At this point, one of the gangs of guys pulled out a gun and shot the ex-boyfriend. He died.
Bryan has had a lot of time to think about his crime. He told us that he realized at the time of his crime that he cared more about what the girl thought of him than of what he thought of himself. He realized that he was jealous of her ex-boyfriend. He hated the fact that the girl had chosen the other guy (the now dead ex-boyfriend) over him. Bryan now has a lifetime behind bars.
Jacob was up next. He is a young African-American Muslim man, probably around the same age as Bryan (very early 30’s). He also has served thirteen years of his life sentence for murder. Jacob shared the details of his crime. He had gone to a friend’s apartment. His friend was a young woman with a young child. Jacob had already been involved in a life of crime and violence, so when his friend suggested that they rob a guy she knew who has money, Jacob agreed. The young woman called the man over to her apartment. Once he arrived, Jacob came out from behind the door and hit the man in the head with a bat, knocking him out. Jacob and the woman then proceeded to tie the man up with telephone cords. They went through all of his pockets and stole his money and car keys. Jacob went outside to find the man’s car and ransacked it, taking anything of value. He then backed the man’s vehicle up to the apartment door, carried the unconscious man and placed him in the backseat of his own vehicle. Jacob buckled the young woman’s child into the front passenger seat of the car. The woman sat in the back with the unconscious man. As Jacob started to drive, the man came to and began to desperately struggle to escape from the phone cords. The young woman fought him while yelling at him to stop. Jacob pulled over and helped subdue the man while the young woman pulled on a cord she had placed around his neck. She pulled harder and harder until the man finally stopped breathing. Once they knew he was dead Jacob found a secluded area where no one would see him dump the man’s body out of his own vehicle, as if he were a pile of trash.
The disregard for human life was astounding and horrifying. I could feel my body tensing up as I listened to this real-life account, which sounded more like a nightmare or a horror film. My heart felt as though it had a cord around it which was being pulled tighter.
Jacob went on to tell how he and that young woman were convicted and given life sentences for murdering that innocent man. He talked about the lifelong pain and suffering he has caused the man’s family and loved ones. He also shared, with deep regret, how that little boy would live his life being raised by family members and the system. The boy’s father was nowhere to be found and his mother will be in prison for life. Jacob understands that he alone is responsible for the ripple effect of negative life consequences he has caused that little boy who is now a teenager. Will this young boy choose the same path of violence that has been shown to him?
Jacob also talked about his nephew whose own father is serving many years in prison. He is being raised without a positive male role model in his life, much like Jacob. Will his nephew turn to gangs to feel acceptance, just as he did? Jacob now mentors him in collect phone calls and shares with him that he can break the cycle of violence and incarceration. He has choices because he is free to make positive life decisions as opposed to the negative ones that many of his family members have made.
Listening to these men and their horrific real-life stories made my mind and body shudder. At the same time, I could also feel and hear their deep regret for all of the harm they have caused so many, FOREVER. The fact that these men were sharing with anyone (especially victims of crime), the atrocities they had perpetrated, moved me in a way I am unable to articulate at this time (and maybe never). The experience of sitting in the circle and being vulnerable was life changing for me.
Each of the men in the circle expressed their respect and admiration for the men who shared their stories of crime and violence. They admired their courage to really look at themselves and become willing to change their thinking and actions. This was also very moving to witness.
Lastly, I want to share about Dan. He is a huge Caucasian man; his appearance is intimidating. Dan is serving a twenty-five to life sentence with five consecutive life sentences. Needless to say, Dan will never get out of prison.
Dan shared with us his life of crime. When he was just eleven years old, he attempted to kill his stepfather as he slept on the couch. His stepfather did not die from his wound, and he was able to chase Dan and drag him back to the house where he beat him until he was nearly dead. His stepfather was a sadist who tortured Dan and his siblings for years. Child Protective Services had come out to check on the kids often. Dan said they would have the children pull up their shirts to check for bruising and open the refrigerator to make sure there was food. They never removed the children from the stepfather and Dan’s young mother, who had had him when she was fifteen years old and married the stepfather when she was twenty. Following the attempted murder, Dan was sent to live with his young aunt. He thought he was in paradise in his aunt’s one-bedroom apartment living with five other people. He told us that by the time he was twelve years old, he was a full-blown drug addict. Robbing places to feed his addiction was the normal life for Dan. At fifteen years of age, Dan’s mom paid for his first apartment where he would live on his own. His aunt and her family had grown fearful of Dan and his violent behavior.
Dan would be in and out of jail over the next several years. In his 20’s, he and a couple of his friends went to another friend's home to visit and apologize to them for missing their friend's son’s birthday party the weekend before. The party had been quite an event. They had secured permits that allowed his friend to block off the cul-de-sac where they lived, and to bring in jump houses and a food truck. His friend had invited all the neighbors to join. One of the neighbors, a middle-aged man, was not happy about the party and did not attend. In fact, he actually called the police several times regarding the noise. Dan’s friend shared this with Dan and his other two friends. Dan decided that this neighbor needed to pay for his actions. Dan and his friends went to the man’s house, tied him up, ransacked his home and loaded up their vehicle with the man’s belongings. Dan noticed a steel walk-in safe and demanded that the man opens it. The man tried to stall, saying he couldn’t remember the combination because it had been years since he opened it. Dan proceeded to cut off the man’s fingers with pruning shears, one finger at a time until after the third finger, the man finally opened the safe. It was filled with firearms.
Dan and his friends took them all. They left the man in his home, tied up and bleeding. They sold most of the firearms they had stolen. Eventually, the man was able to identify Dan and his friends and they were arrested but not before they committed more acts of violence against innocent people.
They made reservations to board a bus chartered to go to a casino. Dan and his co-defendants knew that it cost more to use the ATM at the casino, so people going there mostly carried their cash on them. They boarded the bus and went directly to the back. They waited until the bus was at a location that was the furthest away in each direction from rest stops and gas stations and mostly deserted for miles.
That is when Dan got up and moved to the front of the bus. His pulled out his revolver and put it to the driver's head, ordering the driver to pull over. He let the busload of people know that they were being robbed and that if any of them tried anything, he would begin with killing the driver and move on the bus killing everyone. His friends began tying people up and taking their purses and wallets. They had a getaway driver and car pull up and take Dan and his friends away, but not before telling the bus driver to wait fifteen minutes before he drove away. He said he would be watching and if the driver left before the fifteen minutes he would be sure to kill him. The driver obeyed.
I was unable to even begin to imagine how terrified the bus driver and the others on the bus must have felt. I was surprised that Dan didn’t kill anyone that day. I was equally shocked that he allowed the man, (his friend’s neighbor) to live. Dan and his co-defendants will never live outside of prison walls. They will never again be allowed to torment innocent people. For this fact, I am grateful, but I wanted to know what made it so easy for Dan to inflict these horrific acts upon innocent people.
Dan didn’t feel that the friend’s neighbor was an innocent man. He decided, in his own tormented mind, that the man had inflicted suffering on his friend and his son during what was supposed to be a joyous birthday celebration. It is only now that Dan is able to realize the heinousness of what he and his co-defendants did to that man. He told us that during the trial, the man cried and talked about how he doesn’t know how he will ever be able to sleep again.
At that time, Dan was unable to even comprehend neither what the man was saying nor the extreme violation that the man felt. Dan said to himself, “You put a gun under your pillow and you go to sleep; what’s the big fucking deal? Get over it.”
Dan has been in this victim-offender dialogue group for two and a half years; only recently has he begun to feel remorse. I cried when he shared about his childhood. He said he felt embarrassed that I cried and that he didn’t feel that he deserved my empathy.
Actually, most of the men there said that they didn’t believe they deserved us even being there, talking and sharing with them.
For me, hearing them say this was heartbreaking. I can’t explain the compassion I have in my heart for these men. Knowing that each of them perpetrated horrible crimes and unspeakable violence on fellow human beings should be enough for me to write them off forever, but I can’t!
I can’t stop thinking about how I see each of them now...these men whose hearts have been broken opened. Seeing their anguish and feeling the shame pouring out of each of them, made me feel HOPEFUL that humanity is still alive, HOPEFUL that our society isn’t just SHIT.
Neither they nor I can change what has already happened. The only thing we are able to change is ourselves and how we live now. We each only have this moment. We have to live with the consequences of the decisions we make in our lives. Some of the consequences will be a lifelong sentence in a prison cell.
Some may receive a second chance to live a different life and to make better decisions than the previous ones made. Some will die and never have the opportunity to live differently.
The only thing I know for sure is that I will forever be changed for the better, by the experiences of THE CIRCLE.