The year was 2009. Susan Russo was an inmate serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. For two years, Susan had personally sent over 50 handwritten letters to professional mediators all across the state, requesting their services at Valley State Prison for Women. “This is an environment filled with conflict and violence,” said Susan. “There is a dire need and want for change.”

Susan’s words went largely unheeded… until August of 2009, when professional mediator,  peacemaker, and founder of the post-Katrina Mississippi Mediation Project, Laurel Kaufer, received one of those handwritten letters.

“As soon as I read the letter, I was hooked, but also knew I couldn’t do [this] alone,” said Laurel. “Still standing at the mailbox, I called my friend and colleague Doug Noll. I read the letter to him. He was silent for a moment before he said, ‘I’m in. What’s our next step?’”

Thus began the Prison of Peace program, now in its seventh year. Since 2010, Prison of Peace has been working with incarcerated women and men across California to support opportunities for rehabilitation through peaceful conflict resolution. As of December of 2016, Prison of Peace has successfully launched in five facilities across the state: Valley State Prison for Women; Valley State Prison; the Central California Women’s Facility; the California Institute for Women; and the Century Regional Detention Facility.

Initial program participants in each facility are serving long-term or life sentences, in order to create a sustainable program of mediation in each location. Doing so ensures each location maintains a cadre of educated peacemakers who can pass the skills they’ve learned onto others. Participants are led through intensive workshops to master the art of communication and conflict resolution, beginning with a 12-18 week Peacemaker program. From there, participants learn about mediation, become mentors, and finally, are certified trainers for the next group of program participants.

Peacemakers, Mediators, and Mentors at Valley State Prison in 2014. These individuals were among some of the first male inmates to be certified through Prison of Peace. Photo Credit: Prison of Peace.

The results of the program have been nothing short of astounding. Participants of Prison of Peace have reported better communication skills and an enhanced ability to manage strong emotions. Since 2010, Peacemakers and Mediators have engaged over 15,000 fellow inmates and over 500 Peacemakers and/or Mediators have graduated from the program. Over 125 of those graduates were released from incarceration and were able to take the skills they learned in Prison of Peace back to their communities, with the recidivism rate for program alumni at 0%.

The effects of the program have been felt on much more personal, individual scales, as well. Prison of Peace reports there have been dramatic personal transformations of program participants and in the way in which they interact with their fellow inmates. Participants are given the opportunity to re-discover their humanity, become aware of their emotions, and understand how to relate to and respect the emotions of those around them. As a result, personal arguments have decreased in number and intensity, and Peacemakers and Mediators have been able to deescalate situations among inmates and prison staff alike, all with peaceful resolutions.

In this photo, Susan Russo accepts the 2010 Cloke-Millen Peacemaker of the Year Award on behalf of the first group of Peacemakers. Susan was among the first Prison of Peace program alumni of 15 women, and is largely responsible for why the program exists in the first place. Photo Credit: Prison of Peace.

It all began with a letter. Seven years later, Prison of Peace is still going strong and is looking to expand its programs to six new facilities across California, including in Corcoran, Pleasant Valley, and Wasco. Prison of Peace hopes to continue its work to bring people together through peaceful resolution rather than push them apart through violent conflict, and demonstrate how the smallest of gestures – such as sending a letter – can have a huge impact on thousands of lives.

For more information on Prison of Peace, please visit their website and check out the 10-minute documentary below.