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by Phyllis Pollack
October 2010

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack

Each year, the Southern California Mediation Association (SCMA) presents its Cloke-Millen Award also known as Peacemaker of the year award to a member of the dispute resolution community who has honored and inspired us through his/her passion and dedication to “peacemaking.”

This year, SCMA truly went “outside the box” in determining who should be the honorees. They are 15 women, each of whom are responsible for the death of at least one person, many of whom are serving life sentences for their crime, at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, CA. (Seventy percent of them committed these homicides as a result of being in an abusive/domestic violence relationship.) They are “peacemakers” in the truest sense of the word.

How does this story begin? Beginning in 2007, one of them, Susan Russo, wrote over 50 letters to various mediators throughout California requesting training for inmates. One of these letters landed in Laurel Kaufer’s mailbox in August 2009. The instant she read it, she was hooked. Knowing that she could not do this project alone, Ms. Kaufer called her colleague, Doug Noll, an expert in Restorative Justice, and read the letter to him. He, too, was hooked, and for the next six months, they tried to convince authorities to allow them to conduct this pro bono project. They finally obtained permission and started in April 2010 with the first group of 15 women. Twelve weeks later, these 15 women were fully trained and through mediations and peace circles, they have begun to reduce conflict and violence within the prison, slowly replacing the conflict and violence with “peace.”

Laurel Kaufer, an SCMA member, knew of our Peacemaker award and called me (since I am the president) to nominate this first group. Once the SCMA board and I understood what was what, without hesitation, we agreed and voted to present the award to these ladies.

Saturday, October 2, 2010 was Peace-Day – a fitting day on which to present the award. So I (with my husband playing chauffeur) went to the prison to make the presentation.

It was a privilege and honor to make this presentation. It was also a deeply moving and profound experience. At times, in talking with these ladies, I was left speechless (which is rare for me!) These women are phenomenal. Through this program, these ladies have turned their lives around.

Laurel Kaufer and Doug Noll taught these ladies survival skills through teaching them simple communication skills – how to listen, really listen, reframe and to communicate. By learning how to listen – and I mean truly listen to what another is saying – and then acknowledging what the speaker said by repeating it back, they are showing the speaker that she is being heard. As a consequence of learning and using this simple skill, these ladies are slowly reducing the conflict and violence within the prison. Rather than using pepper spray (which costs the state $1,000 in time and paperwork) to break up a potentially violent situation, the prison guards will call in these ladies to mediate it. . . and, at times, it works. They are slowing bringing “peace” to the prison; less conflict and violence and more listening and reframing.

More importantly, the outlook on life of these honorees has changed. They are no longer shut down emotionally, defensive, afraid and seeing violence as the only way to resolve things. They have a reason to greet each new day; they have hope. Through learning and employing these simple communication skills – how to listen and reframe – they have begun to trust not only each other but themselves, to open up and share their emotions and feelings. They provide each other with self-esteem and confidence by acknowledging that they are, through listening and reframing, indeed, listening to the speaker and paying attention. For the first time in their lives, these ladies feel important; someone cares about them. Their words, thoughts and feelings do matter to someone.

It is sad that first, the social services programs let these ladies down by not rescuing them from their domestic violence situations; that the judicial and corrections systems have let them down and that it took Laurel Kaufer and Doug Noll to come to their aid: to go outside the box, beneath the line, figure out what the needs and interests of these ladies are and to help them not only meet them but rise well above the challenge!

After the presentation was over, I walked away from the prison deep in thought, a changed person. For most of the 275 mile drive home, I could not get what I witnessed out of my mind (and I still can’t). How could something so simple – communication skills – have such a profound and lasting impact on a prison population to the point of slowly bringing a little bit of “peace’ within its barbed wired concrete walls?

It is oxymoronic that SCMA awards its “Peacemaker” award to 15 “murderers” serving life sentences, but, after being with these ladies, it makes perfect sense to me. I salute them: Barbara Chavez, Breanne Eldridge, Penny Greer, Shelbi Harris, Anna Humiston, Sara Jackson-Reynolds, Christine Loyd, Candace MacDonald, Mianta McKnight, Suzy Mellen, Betty Mills, Jan Ritchey, Susan Russo, Robyn Sotelo, and Marta Ulen. Congratulations!

On November 6, 2010 at its annual conference, SCMA will formally announce this award, using video and pictures to share my profound experience with everyone. Come Join Us!

. . .Just something to think about.!


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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