Deanna Van Buren, Making @#%! Happen

Updated: May 14


When I worked at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, CA, there were a lot of things happening. It was an exciting time. In 2011, Assembly Bill 109 (AB109) had been passed to address 'over-crowding' in California prisons. (Can you OVER crowd? Very gentle language for the sardine cannery it had become). The point being that things were beginning to be examined. I'm not saying that the world suddenly grew a conscience, but I will suggest that, politically speaking, the incarceration rate was beginning to 'look bad' for the right people. So change began.

AB109 was followed by a series of other measures that have, in my observation, both helped and hindered public safety, the rate of recidivism, people's capacity to get back on their feet post-release, etc. Let's remember that men and women returning from jails and prisons are not the only ones affected by the rate of incarceration or the strict sentencing laws previously imposed upon non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offender charges. The whole community is affected. The innocent children who lose a parent, the spouses that lose support, the community that loses a potential coach, teacher, mentor... When we continue to remove a person who has behaved badly rather than tend to the root causes of the behavior, we solve nothing and destroy everything.

Now. Big words, Jen. Murderers? Robberies? Car Jackings? Stabbings? Really? Ask them why they had a bad day instead of lock them up!? Come on.

Root Causes. Initial Harms. Trauma. Poverty. Racism. Addiction. Abandonment. Poor Attachment... all of the things that make some people squirm in discomfort - are real. If it were your father who were pulled from your family, your daddy, wouldn't you want to a system that takes the time to ask what he and his family needs? Have you ever gotten into a fight with someone you love and there not be an underlying need? One that perhaps is not mentioned initially in the screaming? The door slamming?

There is always an unmet need. When crime/harm happens, more needs are created. I digress.

below: CLICK on a slide to make it stop for longer viewing.

(all students featured in the above slide show publication signed a release to be featured in the publication. Several men opted NOT to sign and they are NOT featured, as their wishes were respected).

I was approached in 2014 and asked if Deanna Van Buren and Barb Toews (Barb was already someone I respected from afar as I was using her text book in my Restorative Justice Class). They were interested in bringing a restorative workshop to my class for a week, would I be willing to provide students and time for this to happen? I didn't hesitate. They were brought to me by Fred Rutledge (my principal) and Marty Neideffer (at the time an LT) with DSAL. We were all three about finding creative ways to empower people impacted by incarceration. We were and still are folks who believe in and work toward a need for change in the system.

So they came. It was an amazing week. The men might have been wearing their own clothing and sleeping in their own beds and coming to work that week rather than confined to concrete slabs and wearing scrubs with the county ID across the back. For the three hours that they were in my class that week, the men were more free than they had been in that place. Deanna and Barb and all of the other community and justice stakeholders who came through to see what was happening became a family. There was laughter and support among races, inmates and outmates... My students were telling architects and officers what they need in order to succeed! Community members and badged officials sat and listened to presentations that Deanna helped the men design. It was magical.

It was jail, but it was about as magical as I imagine jail could ever be. What culminated was a lot of inspiration, discussion, empowerment, excitement. Buzz was generated. The men felt heard, respected, ready.

A NOTE: Up until I left Santa Rita jail in November of 2017 (so from January 2015 to November 2017) TO MY KNOWLEDGE, nobody who was in that cohort of designers has returned to jail. That is virtually unheard of.

Look at Deanna now. YOU. GO. Note her mention of DOUG in this video - he was in our cohort.

To learn more about this amazing woman and the work she is doing:




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