Laurel Kaufer was feeling a bit rudderless, after settling her son into his college dorm, when a letter landed in her mailbox offering deliverance. Postmarked from the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, it was a handwritten plea from Susan Russo, who is serving a life sentence there. "We are lifers and long-termers hoping to make a difference in teaching our peers that there is a better way," she wrote in a second letter to Kaufer.
Russo had already contacted more than 50 mediators asking for help. Until she heard back from Kaufer, the sole response had been from a San Diego practitioner inquiring how much the job paid.
"This woman feels that prison is her community - and the only thing she can do is to try to make it a more peaceful place," says Kaufer, a longtime mediator in Calabasas.
She phoned her friend Douglas Noll, a mediator and "peacemaking" expert in Clovis, who agreed at once to help.
The two devised a curriculum to teach peacemaking strategies to inmates, then braved prison bureaucracy to get the project - known as Prison of Peace - approved. Since training began in April 2010, 125 women at Chowchilla have completed peacemaker requirements, and 33 are now qualified mediators. The simple skills taught - listening, avoiding fights, helping others solve problems - take on more poignancy in the prison's cramped confines. Noll says, "If it can work here, it can work anywhere."
Those inside say it's succeeding.
"When I first arrived in prison, there was nothing but fights, feuds, violence, abuse. The negative flow was unbelievable," one Prison of Peace participant, who is eligible for parole in 2032, says in a testimonial video. "Something had to be done - and of course, we need to do it ourselves."
For more information, see prisonofpeace.org