UCSB Extension Mediation instructor Laurel Kaufer will continue to teach her Prison of Peace program, an innovative initiative focusing on improving conflict resolution behind prison walls. This June, the project will enter its seventh cycle with its largest enrollment yet of 60 female prisoners.

 The program aims to resolve disagreements and build camaraderie among inmates from the Valley State Prison for Women through an eight-week peacemaker curriculum, including a two-day communication workshop, three follow-up meetings and a full-day workshop on restorative justice. After completing the initial activities, participants may continue in the program for four more weeks to become meditation trainers.

Prison of Peace co-founder and attorney Laurel Kaufer was working for the university’s extension center in 2009 when an inmate sought professional help in mediating the pervasive and violent conflicts she experienced in the prison environment. Together with professional peacemaker Doug Noll, Kaufer established the program in early 2010 with a pilot session of 15 inmate volunteers.

According to Kaufer, the letter she received from the initial inmate introduced an uncommon prospect for helping an often overlooked sect of society.

“I had never actually considered the possibility of [inmate mediation] before,” Kaufer said. “I was completely and utterly intrigued by the letter out of my own unfamiliarity with prison systems.”

Noll said the implication of bringing peace to an imprisoned population was an interesting challenge he was excited to take on.

“The reason I was attracted to it was my restorative justice background,” Noll said. “My reaction was, ‘Wow, this could be interesting. If I can teach murderers to be peacemakers, what do people say when they’re in normal conflicts?’”

The pair had to complete six months of meetings with prison officials to discuss the program and were cleared to begin working after a final meeting with Chief Deputy Warden Velda Dobson-Davis.

The pilot session included Susan Russo, author of the letter that inspired Kaufer and Noll to devise their program. In a video posted on the program’s website, Russo said the difficult process of change brought mutual benefits for guards as well as prisoners of the penitentiary.

“The process was a very, very long and sometimes frustrating process,” Russo said in the testimonial video. “I worked very long and hard on this project because it was something that was very important to me; not only would it benefit me, but it was going to benefit the community.”

Correctional Lieutenant Gregory Bergersen, public information officer for VSPW, said the behavior of prisoners who have completed the program has improved tremendously.

“We think it has made a positive impact; those inmates who tend to participate have shown a reduction in disciplinary action,” Bergersen said. “They take what they learn in workshops and apply them to their housing units and recreation.”

VSPW is scheduled to be merged with an all-male facility later this year, and Noll said they will continue working with the women at VSPW as they move the prison to a new location.

Inmates continuously show an eagerness to learn and even share their extensive training with other members of the imprisoned population, Kaufer said.

“Both Doug and I have found, in almost every situation, that we have never had students as determined to learn and dedicated to mastering the material as the inmates we have taught,” Kaufer said. “Because the women we are teaching in prison have very little opportunity to learn, they do not take it for granted.”