Why should I participate in the VOD preparation and dialogue process?
First of all, you should only do this if you feel truly willing to participate. It’s not going to change anything about your sentence, and it’s not, on its own, going to change anything about your classification. What it can change is your understanding — of what, exactly, you did to the victims and survivors, and how deeply that has affected them. You might prefer to avoid knowing any of this, but virtually every offender who participates in the Victim-Centered VOD process finds it powerful and transforming. The most important way is that these offenders finally feel as if they have faced the one true “authority” in their case: Not the Prosecutor, not the Judge, not the Prison, but the victim/survivor. And many offenders feel, for the very first time, that they may now begin to do something to try to make some meaning from what they have done. If you don’t have any interest in doing something — anything — to try and make some sort of “amends” for the loss and devastation you caused, you probably should not participate.
What I did was so horrible and so permanent, there is nothing I can say or do that will change anything. No matter how sorry I am for what I did, these words are meaningless.
These words don’t have to be meaningless at all — as long as the victim/survivor(s) believes you understand clearly what you’re sorry for. But think about it: most offenders convicted of a violent crime know that they did something horrible — for example, a murder. They might even recall the detailed and gruesome facts of the case. What they do not know about are the many terrible ways the murder affected the loved ones of the victim — those who were left deeply grieving in the aftermath. What offenders usually don’t know is how many lives were devastated by the murder, and how hard it is for those wounded loved ones to move on from the horror of it all. Because of this, most victims/survivors want to tell the offender in their case about these impacts and effects. They need him or her to understand what he did. It is absolutely true that neither you nor anyone else can change what happened. Nor can the survivors forget what happened, and neither can you — though everyone may try hard. But what you can change is what you do — how you act and behave, how you treat others, what you teach, how you make a difference in the world — even the world of the prison — from this day forward. This is what it means to be accountable to the victims/survivors: to own what you did, and to do whatever else you can to make the death of their loved one something more than a total and complete waste of an innocent life taken. But it takes a lot of courage — to face the victim/survivor(s), to hear and receive the painful effects of what you did — effects they continue to live with every day — and to step into the world of personal accountability. Not every offender has the courage to do this. But those who do are often transformed by the experience. In fact, most offenders find that listening to, and talking with the victim/survivor turns out to be exactly what they have wanted all along, without knowing it.
The last time I saw the victims in my case was in the courtroom, and they said some things in there that made me look like a monster. I don’t need anyone coming in here and telling me what a piece of scum I am.
We understand. But keep in mind that, when survivors are allowed to make a victim impact statement at the sentencing, it is generally the very first time they have ever been allowed to speak up and speak out about the profound pain of what the offender took from them. They had a right to their grief and anger then, and they have a right to it now. This was probably the first time for them to begin to feel that the justice system was working. Typically, they have been waiting for this moment for a year or more, and sometimes two or three years. They had a very few minutes to give voice to some of the many powerful emotions they had felt since the time of the crime. In their eyes, this was the one and only time they would ever get to tell you what they really felt. And most of them can’t even find words for what they really feel. To most survivors, most offenders are monsters. They have no way of knowing anything about the offenders, except what the prosecutors and the defense attorneys are saying — and that often tells them only what the offenders did, not who they are. The VOD process allows survivors to go beyond those razor-sharp words, into the realm of their fullest feelings. And because, usually, many years have passed since the sentencing, the survivors’ anger and grief has taken a different shape, and they usually have different things to express, now. If all they wanted to do was tell you what a piece of scum you are, there would be little need for VOD. The truth is, they want to say much more, and they’ve moved way beyond the need to call you names. That’s not what VOD is for.
Doesn’t restorative justice have to do with forgiveness and reconciliation?
This is Victim-Centered VOD, which we consider only loosely connected to certain restorative justice practices, but not all of them. Victim-Centered VOD is designed to provide victims/survivors with a chance to be fully and directly heard by the offenders, and to provide the offenders with the help they need to be able to listen with a degree of sensitivity and understanding, and respond with substance and consideration. It is intended to provide survivors an opportunity to have more choices and more control of what they say and how they say it. On the other hand, there are victims/survivors who do fully and sincerely wish to forgive the offenders, and if this is the case, facilitators will help them to do that. But Victim-Centered VOD facilitators never initiate or impose any sort of expectations about forgiveness or reconciliation. Survivors must always be allowed and enabled to simply say what they need to say to the offender, in a way that the offender can fully listen and hear them. Sometimes, victims/survivors who never intended to forgive the offenders in their case find themselves feeling something like forgiveness, and find themselves even saying those words they never intended to say. But most of the time it never comes up. The most important thing is for the victims/survivors to feel heard and understood.
I feel like the victim in my case put me here. I think she owes me an apology!
If that’s how you feel, then VOD is not for you. VOD is only possible when the offender takes full responsibility for his or her role in the crime. Except in tragic mistakes in identification, or miscarriages of justice, victims don’t put the offenders in prison. The offenders do.
I was in a drunk-driving accident, and the person driving the other car was killed. I’m convicted of vehicular homicide, but I’m not a rapist or a murderer. Do people do VOD in cases like this?
Yes. And it’s true that almost no one drinks with the deliberate intention of getting behind the wheel and killing someone. But the fact is that it’s a choice to drink and drive; a choice that can often be a lethal one, resulting in the senseless loss, or the partial or complete disabling, of a thoroughly innocent and undeserving person. This is why victims/survivors in cases like these hate the word “accident.” It may have been “unintentional” homicide, but drinking and driving is a choice, not an accident. The person driving the other car was killed because of the choices you made. Survivors rarely see this as an “accident,” and what they need from offenders in situations like this is to know that the offenders understand the utterly devastating consequences of the choices they made. So, in these cases, the job of the VOD facilitator is to help prepare the offender to receive this understanding from the survivor. And, if possible, to help the offender find ways to express accountability to the survivor – whatever that may mean for the survivor and the offender.
I’m doing time for rape. I’m sorry for what I did to her, but I don’t see how talking about it can do any good at all. What is there to say to a victim?
It could be that there is absolutely nothing for you to say. She may wish to meet and talk with you because of what she needs to say. There are many reasons certain sexual assault survivors decide to pursue VOD with the offenders in their cases. Many times, it has to do with their particular ways of healing themselves from the terrible devastation of sexual assault. And even though devastation may be the closest word to describe what she has lived with in the aftermath of the assault, the word doesn’t begin to capture it. This is one of the places where the power of VOD can be the greatest — where survivors find the strength to face the offenders and tell them about the terrible effects. Most rapists have no idea of the damage and devastation they cause and create. For many offenders — because they have done the invading and violating, rather than being the victims of the violation, rape can seem to them like “no big deal.” So when a survivor is able to tell the offender about the depth of the devastation, it is actually, often, the first time he has ever listened to a survivor describe the ordeal and its impacts and effects. Sexual violence is a tragedy and a scourge, and any way we can help survivors of such violence and violation feel heard, we are helping survivors everywhere. If we can simultaneously help offenders understand even a tiny bit of what the survivor is saying, we are making a small but powerful difference. Listening to survivors is the right thing to do.
I hear the VOD preparation can take months and months. Why does it take so long? I’m ready to do it now.
Most offenders are not used to talking about the deep and complex feelings that come with committing crimes of severe violence and violation. Many offenders wonder if they even have feelings, because they’re so accustomed to keeping them away, and acting on their impulses. But understanding the impacts and effects of victimizing others can sometimes be as complicated as understanding the effects of being victimized, and the preparation process provides the chance to do this carefully. In most cases, offenders want to recall and talk about these sometimes overwhelming and devastating feelings as much as victims/survivors want to talk about their feelings, as a way of dealing with them. But it’s a delicate and deeply personal process, and it can’t be rushed. Each person must be able to take enough time to find words for the many feelings, so that enough can be expressed during this one-time-only meeting. When the preparation process works well, and offenders are honest and thorough in the VOD, they usually feel that they have been held to account by the real authority, after the VOD, and that feels good to them. And although VOD preparation is not therapy, and facilitators are not therapists, the process of understanding and talking about what happened is a slow process, because powerful feelings can come up and get expressed. Some offenders have counselors in their facility with whom they can talk if they wish to during the preparation process, but they often do not. In any case, it’s very important to allow the VOD preparation process to take the time it needs, which is usually many months.
Does participating in the VOD process get me any Good Time, or affect my classification?
No. There is no change in your good time, classification, or release date in return for participating in the VOD preparation and dialogue process. It is not a legal proceeding, but a very personal process. When the VOD process works well, it always increases an offender’s understanding of the impacts of his or her past actions and behaviors, and this tends to affect his or her thinking and attitudes. And because thinking and attitude affect behavior, offenders who participate in VOD sometimes find themselves behaving differently. Sooner or later, consistently improved behaviors affect an offender’s classification status. But there’s no “formal” benefit to you for participating in the VOD preparation and dialogue process.
I’m in here for attempted murder, but I have a history of mental health problems, and I’m taking medications for them. How does VOD work in my case?
When a victim/survivor wishes to explore the possibility of preparation and dialogue with an offender, one of the first steps taken by the facility is to see if the offender is appropriately suited to the work of the preparation and dialogue process. In some cases, the offender may have a history of behavioral issues, disciplinary infractions, or illegal actions that render him or her completely inappropriate. By the same token, some offenders with serious mental health issues may be unsuited for the process because of recurring behaviors that present risk to self or others. But the victim-centered VOD process is anchored in the notion of personal accountability – which includes the choices and responsibilities of the offender to take prescribed medications. If what you’re asking is, “Does VOD work differently if I was supposed to be taking medications for a mental health condition when I committed my crime?” the answer is no. For a victim/survivor, your choice to not take prescribed medications, for example, is very similar to a driver’s choice to drink too much and then get behind the wheel of a car. If someone was wounded or killed because of a choice that you made, for whatever reason you made it, one of the most important things the survivor may want to talk about is why you made that choice. Persons with mental health issues have the same responsibility to keep themselves and others safe that we all have. Mental illness does not excuse behaviors any more than failing to attend to one’s own disease of alcoholism does. These choices can lead to devastating consequences for victims and survivors.
I think I’d need to have some sort of support person with me during the preparation and dialogue. Is that possible?
While it is very important for you to have a reliable network of support from inside or outside the prison as you prepare for the VOD — and especially following the VOD — it is also very important that you be able to fully and completely address the issues and details that arise in preparation. Experience suggests that the presence of a prison staff support person like a caseworker or chaplain in the room during the preparation process can inhibit an offender’s ability to be as completely truthful or candid as he or she might be when only the facilitator is in the room. This is usually because the facilitator will be talking in detail about the victim/survivor’s experience of the crimes and/or violations, and most offenders do not want any prison or DOC staff members to be aware of such details. If there is absolutely no other way you could feel comfortable or safe enough going through the preparation process with the facilitator, it is always possible to discuss the option of including a staff support person such as a caseworker or chaplain. But the VOD preparation process requires that you work to be completely candid with the facilitator. This can be challenging when the victim/survivor wants explanations of details from the crime that you do not want others at the prison to be aware of. In addition, even within the framework of the Victim-Centered VOD approach, it is always the facilitator’s objective to remain as sensitive as possible to the needs of the offender, and to make it as easy as possible for him or her to tell the hard and almost unspeakable truths about the crime.
My victim’s family says they just want me to rot in here, but I feel sorry for them because I know they’re stuck in those feelings of hatred and revenge and negativity. Does VOD work in cases like this?
Victims/survivors have a right to their own feelings, and their own ways of healing — including even staying “stuck,” if that’s what they need. It is their painful journey. What you took from them is really indescribable, and you can’t imagine the loss they live with every day — or all the things they have to do in order to live with this loss. It may be true that they cannot easily break free from their feelings of hatred and revenge, but there are many understandable reasons for this, and that is their right. Many survivors find themselves in this exact place, and we can’t possibly know what is “right” for someone else at any given time. Your question, in effect, blames them for being stuck, which they do not deserve. They did nothing to put themselves there. But VOD definitely does work in cases like this when the offender is willing to receive even those hateful and vengeful feelings the survivor wants to be able to express. And you might be surprised how good it can feel to receive these kinds of feelings, along with the other feelings expressed. It’s not that it’s a “pleasant” experience, but it is an experience that provides an offender the sense that he or she has done at least “one right thing” for the victims/survivors, at last. That’s a powerful feeling in itself.
Will VOD cure me of my problem with violence, or my anger issues?
No. Only you can cure yourself of this problem. What VOD may do is help you more thoroughly understand the impacts and effects of your actions and behaviors upon the victims/survivors in this case. That’s one of its primary objectives, and it’s a valuable thing to understand. For those offenders who do, the VOD experience can help them commit to changing their thinking completely, and to changing their lives for the better, even though they will continue to remain incarcerated. But there are also offenders who have seemed to learn very little from the VOD experience, and who have returned to their previous ways of thinking and being — including violent ways — even after being very moved by the VOD experience itself. It’s disappointing when this happens, but the fact is that no one but you is responsible for the thinking you do and the choices you make. You may find that the opportunity offered you through VOD is not one you are ready to fully appreciate. On the other hand, if you are ready to appreciate this new understanding, you may find yourself able to think and act in new and different ways, and this can change the way you look at doing your time. For some offenders, the VOD experience can help them encourage other interested (and ready) offenders to think about their crimes — and their victims/survivors — differently, as well. For such offenders, VOD is a very gratifying and inspiring experience.
I haven’t forgiven myself for what I did, but I wonder if the victim will be able to forgive me?
Sometimes, victims/survivors come to the conclusion of a VOD and decide to forgive the offender, but most of the time forgiveness never gets mentioned at all. Occasionally, survivors with no intention of forgiving the offender find themselves feeling somewhat forgiving, while others with every intention to forgive the offender find themselves not forgiving, in the end. Compassion and forgiveness are very complex feelings for all survivors in the aftermath of trauma and loss, and they feel that offenders have no right whatsoever to expect anything like forgiveness. But what is even more important for offenders to understand is that the very act of asking for forgiveness can be deeply wounding, for survivors. Why, after all, should a survivor be expected to wrestle, even for a moment, with this question of whether she “should” be able to forgive? Or whether an offender, who may have taken the precious life of a loved one, is “deserving” of forgiveness for that — or for any act of violence or violation? This is why, during the preparation process, many offenders need help in understanding how outrageous it can feel to a victim/survivor to be asked to forgive.
I have some very specific ideas about the way this VOD needs to happen. How can I be sure that it will happen this way?
You cannot. The VOD process is a privilege for offenders, not a right, and VOD – especially Victim-Centered VOD – falls under the responsibility of the facility and your state’s DOC-based office of Victim Services. There are rigorous policies and protocols in place that are designed to protect the safety and security of inmates, staff, victims/survivors, and other visitors, and VOD facilitators, even independent facilitators, are strictly required to work within each state’s policies and protocols. There are also a number of general guidelines regarding the VOD preparation and dialogue process, and facilitators have a responsibility to ensure that offenders understand and accept these guidelines before proceeding very far into the process. In any case, it is always the victim/survivor who initiates and “drives” the pace of the preparation process with the facilitator, and aspects of the VOD itself. That being said, it’s important for you to know the facilitator always remains sensitive to, and respectful of, the real and reasonable needs of the offender, as well.
Where does the VOD take place, and who’s there?
The final decision about the VOD location is always made by the Warden or Superintendent of the facility. The VOD usually takes place in a room at the prison that is private and quiet. Typically, it is a room that is away from inmate traffic of any kind, so that the survivor and the offender have absolute privacy from the scrutiny of other inmates. Administrative offices, conference or meeting rooms, and chapel offices have often been utilized for VOD. In any case, the preeminent need for Security is such that a Correctional Officer must be able to see into the room at any time, but not hear what is being said, in order to preserve the privacy and confidentiality of the conversation. The only persons in the room itself are the victim/survivor, the offender, and the facilitator. Survivors and/or offenders have sometimes requested that a support person be in the room for the VOD. But the VOD is really between the offender and the survivor. Experience has shown that both survivors and offenders can become distracted by support persons, and they can also be vulnerable to censoring some of their feelings and words in a way that can dilute the purpose of the VOD. So unless there is a critical need to have a support person in the room, no one else is there.
What happens after the VOD?
Typically, offenders come away from the VOD with a completely new understanding of the devastating impacts of what they have done, an understanding that would have been impossible to fully grasp and absorb at the time of the trial and/or sentencing. (This is one of the reasons VOD is much more effective when it’s initiated several years after sentencing, rather than sooner.) Survivors often feel they have finally been able to “leave some of the pain and grief at the prison, with the offender, where it belongs.” Ironically, many offenders truly appreciate this, as painful as it might seem, because they finally feel they have been held to account by the “true” authority, and done the “right thing,” at last. And because they have been held to more personal account and usually seen as a “human being” by the survivor, they begin to feel that maybe they can do some good, now, and make some kind of “meaning” from the pain and devastation they caused. Unfortunately, there is usually no ongoing programmatic follow-up with offenders who have participated in VOD, and it is not always easy for them to sustain the unique insights and awareness they gained from the VOD preparation and dialogue experience. This is one of the hard tests of personal accountability, and of what it means to continue to be accountable to victims/survivors — even when they’re not watching. Most offenders feel that they understand much more about how they came to do what they did, and some of them choose to try and help other offenders think about their own behaviors. But it’s not easy in prison, and you may have to work twice as hard to maintain your new goals. Obviously, the choice is yours alone.
Do these things ever go wrong?
In the almost twenty years of VOD in crimes of severe violence in this country, there has never been an incident reported of something going “wrong.” That is, there has never been an incidence of violence, escalated yelling or screaming, or anything that required the intervention of Security staff. On the other hand, there have been situations in which the victim/survivor has felt that the offender was not taking sufficient responsibility for the crime, and decided to stop the conversation altogether. In such cases, the facilitator always honors the survivor’s right to do this, and the VOD is concluded. But when the preparation process is thorough, and handled with skill and experience by the facilitator, the risk of this kind of thing happening is small. After all, it is the job of the facilitator to understand clearly what the offender is willing to acknowledge and admit to, and to make the survivor fully aware of these things in advance of the VOD itself. Although there should be no big surprises in the VOD, there may be things that come out that no one — even the person telling — could have predicted would be said. But the degree of an offender’s willingness to fully acknowledge his or her role in the crime, and the grim details of the crime itself, are things the facilitator is expected to know thoroughly, and to have prepared the survivor to hear directly, if that is what is wanted.
What do I have to do to make this happen?
The primary and basic requirement is that you be willing to acknowledge your role and responsibility in this crime, and that you make no “excuses” for any of your behaviors. During the preparation process, the facilitator will help you to remember, acknowledge, and understand what you did, and, to the extent possible, help you find your own words to explain to the survivor how you came to the point where you could do these things. Some offenders feel at first that explanations are no better than excuses, but explanations — especially honest explanations — can help the offender understand the choices he or she made, and also why those choices were made. This is part of what personal accountability is about, and it can be a powerful thing for offenders to finally express this directly to the victim/survivor.