Moving from a Life Sentence to a Life of Service

   By Doug Noll

How is it that women, with dark pasts, serving life sentences for murder, could possibly become honored peacemakers?

Their story is one of personal commitment to themselves and the community in which most are destined to live out their lives. “This is an environment filled with conflict and violence. There is a dire need and want for change,” says Susan Russo, one of the fifteen initial peacemakers, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the largest prison for women in the world, Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, CA. “Mediation interests all of us because we are lifers and long-termers hoping to make a difference in teaching our peers that there is a better way.”

Beginning her quest in 2007, Sue Russo wrote over 50 handwritten letters from prison to mediators all over California. Her letters went unanswered until August of 2009 when one of her letters made it to my friend and colleague, Laurel Kaufer, Esq., a Southern California mediator and peacemaker and founder of the post-Katrina Mississippi Mediation Project.

As soon as Laurel read the letter, she was hooked, but also knew that she couldn’t do it alone. Still standing at the mailbox, she called. She read the letter to me. I was silent for about a nano-second before I said, “I’m in. What’s our next step?”

We spent six months working our way up the chain of command to convince the prison authorities to let us run a pilot project. When we got the final approval, we selected our first fifteen women, all long term and life inmates, and the training began less than a month later.

Ten weeks later, the first 15 women were fully trained mediators and within two weeks of completing their training had conducted over 25 mediations and dozens of peace circles within the prison.

“I can already see the difference in the Prison community,” says participant Betty Mills, “as other inmates now strive to model their lives after the Peacemakers currently in Prison of Peace. I feel more empowered than I have felt in forty-four years.”

“The whole package has changed not only my way of thinking but also my feelings.  I truly believe this will have a lasting effect on this whole institution,” says Russo.

Our secret is to build skills slowly with continued accountability throughout the process. The training, which takes ten consecutive weeks, consists of a two day intensive listening workshop, three weeks of follow-up, a day-long class in peace circles and restorative justice, three more weeks of follow-up, and a 3 day intensive mediation training workshop followed by two more weeks of follow-up. Every Wednesday for 10 weeks, I drove the 500 mile round-trip drive, between my home in Woodland Hills, California to the prison in Chowchilla. Doug, living somewhat closer to the prison in the foothills to the north of Clovis, California, provides our base of operations.

Over the course of the training, we saw amazing transformations in these women. They started out emotionally shut down and skeptical and ended up empowered and dedicated to making peace within the prison. It has been one of the most satisfying projects of our careers. This is the first time either of us have felt that a conflict resolution training might make a real, systemic difference within a community.

“Instead of running from conflict, I now run to conflict, with hopes of bringing resolution. Not only has this program taught me not to be scared of conflict, it has also taught me how to communicate at a higher standard and with more ease and grace,” says peacemaker, Anna Humiston.

Because of their ground-breaking work, the first 15 women were awarded the 2010 Cloke-Millen Peacemaker of the Year award by the prestigious Southern California Mediation Association.

We are committed to making this project internally self-sustaining by training the life and long-term inmates to be trainers within the prison. At present, we have a waiting list of inmates seeking to participate in the program that will take us through 2010 and beyond. We expect to have 75 peacemakers fully trained by the end of the year. Our focus in 2011 will be to create trainers from our current peacemakers who will train the rest of the inmate population. This project is pro bono. We pay all costs out of our own pockets and do not charge for any of our time.

So the next time you find yourself in conflict with a spouse, child, co-worker, boss, or partner, think about the inmates at Valley State Prison for Women. If they, as convicted murderers, can be peacemakers, why can’t you?

More about our project can be found at

Doug’s personal journey from an aggressive trial lawyer to peacemaker challenges people to follow their hearts and dreams to make a difference in the world. His stories of transformation show how you can be effective no matter what you do. Doug gives tips on negotiation, peacemaking, and conflict transformation along the way.

Dynamic Living Magazine Issue Vol. 1  Jan/Feb 2011