Victim-offender dialogues help build empathy in offenders: A snapshot of one visit to San Quentin State Prison

By Melissa Vlach

On a sunny day in April, staff and volunteers with the Archdiocese of San Francisco Restorative Justice Ministry arrived at San Quentin State Prison to take part in a victim-offender dialogue that aims to build empathy among men who have committed violent crimes including homicide.

The reentry program led by the nonprofit California Reentry Institute enlisted volunteers from the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Restorative Justice Ministry to share their stories with the prisoners at the state’s maximum-security prison located in Marin County.

After going through security and being guided across the prison grounds, past the men playing soccer and lifting weights, the group arrived in the portable trailer that would serve as a classroom, taking their places in front of about 30 men.

Volunteers Ramon and Patricia Marquez and Michael Patrick had agreed to share their stories for one of the sessions of this prerelease program, which is designed to help inmates build empathy and understanding of their past actions through in-depth workshops over the course of several years.

“For the prisoners, it gives them an opportunity by listening to what it is when someone is harmed … and what it is that someone has to go through, living with the loss of a human being, especially in a homicide,” explained Julio Escobar, archdiocesan restorative justice coordinator.

He explained that victim-offender dialogues like this offer an opportunity for encounter, which is one of the steps of the restorative justice process. They are also preparation for a direct dialogue between the victim and offender of a specific incident, if such an event is to occur. “I think that both parties are empowered by the encounter that they have and that more healing is provided for them,” Escobar said.

As the session began, the Marquezes told the story of their son Michael, whom Ramon described as “a very gentle person, a very good son.”

Michael was walking home from the park with some friends one night in 2014 when a group of people came up to them and demanded his cell phone and backpack. They ended up shooting and killing him. His parents learned this the next morning after being called to the hospital. They were told that his body had already been removed as part of the investigation.

“We couldn’t see him again until he was in a casket,” Patricia Marquez said emotionally.

“A piece of you has died,” added Ramon Marquez, as men around the room teared up.

The couple spoke about the difficulty not just of facing grief at the loss of their son, but of their interactions with law enforcement officials who often seemed unconcerned.

“Dealing with the justice system, it’s very impersonal,” said Patricia.

The case is still unsolved. Both parents stressed that they don’t feel vengeful, saying that would dishonor their son. However, they would like to know that the responsible party has realized the harm done so that others wouldn’t be affected by such loss.

“Have you changed? Have you made amends?” Ramon imagined saying to the perpetrator. If the person had done so, “that would be a consolation to me.”

Patrick also shared his story as a self-described “old beachnik surf bum.”

His life was changed when he was a young man living in Maui, surfing and working as a bartender. One night he was driving across the island to meet a friend when a drunk driver hit him. He was pinned in the car for three-and-a-half hours before being transferred to the hospital, where he remained for 42 days.

Although he was eventually able to recover and become a chiropractor, the injuries led to many more surgeries and joint replacements over the years.

“I’m pretty much a robot at this point,” he joked.

Despite his lighthearted comments, Patrick acknowledged that the accident affected his life in ways that are emotionally difficult, preventing him from being as active as he would have liked and leading to an early retirement when his body could no longer handle the workload.

“Me and God had a lot of screaming matches down the freeway with the windows rolled down,” he shared.

He said he found it difficult to forgive the drunk driver, who already had multiple DUIs at the time of the accident, but said, “Everyone deserves another chance, even the guy who hit me.”

As part of this program, the guest speakers will be invited back for a follow-up session, where the men will be able to talk with them directly, although this has been delayed by COVID-related quarantines at the prison. Although the inmates did not speak at this first session, they did have the opportunity to submit written questions and comments, some of which were read at the end of the day.

“I want to thank you for Michael. I never knew him, but because of your story I miss him too,” one note said.

“Hearing about him makes me want to be more like him,” said another.

Escobar said past sessions of this type of program have elicited grateful responses as well. “The reaction is very positive, and most, I want to say all, of the prisoners are very thankful for us to bring this opportunity to them because they gain a different perspective of the victim, and this empowers them,” he said.

In the day’s closing prayer, he emphasized, “Whether you’re going to be released or not, know that our Creator has not abandoned you.”

Melissa Vlach is the social justice coordinator for the Office of Human Life & Dignity.