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Laurel Kaufer: Peacemaker promotes nonviolence behind bars

Editor’s note: Many California attorneys make a difference in their communities by representing individual vulnerable clients, for free, on critical legal problems. Some, however, have found other unique ways to fulfill their obligation to public service. The California Bar Journal is highlighting some of those "just pursuits" in this occasional series. To nominate an attorney, email

For more on peacemakers, please see State Bar President Patrick Kelly’s column.Los Angeles lawyer-mediator Laurel Kaufer said she was intrigued by a desperate plea for free help from a woman housed at the maximum-security Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, but she knew she couldn’t do it alone. The woman had written to mediators throughout the state explaining that she was part of a group of inmates who wanted to learn ways to diffuse conflicts before they erupted into violence. In all Kaufer’s years of teaching mediation, she said no one had ever requested training for the sole purpose of making a community a better place. But for this woman, there was no other possible benefit because she was serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Just PursuitsKaufer immediately called fellow mediator Douglas Noll, who lives near Fresno, and read him the letter. He agreed to join her, and over the next six months, the pair devised a curriculum in peacemaking, communication and mediation. In 2010, they launched Prison of Peace. Since then, more than 150 inmates have taken the training, including 12 who’ve completed an intensive two-year certification course to train other inmates.

Tell me about your first weekend at Valley State Prison. What did you expect during those first two days of training in 2010?

I had no idea what to expect. I had only been inside the prison once before when we had a tour, and it really scared me. But I was ready. I was eager to begin. We had brought a team of Doug, myself and two others to do the initial training.

When we got there, [the women] were waiting outside the room. I was immediately stunned because they didn’t look like what I thought inmates would look like. So many of them looked like I could be having coffee with them at Starbucks, rather than a group serving life and long-term prison sentences. They were very eager to learn and did very nicely. After the first day I thought, “OK, this is a piece of cake.”

Laurel Kaufer
Laurel Kaufer said Prison of Peace has changed her outlook on life and made it hard to go back to commercial legal work.

Then I went back to the hotel where I was staying that night. The only [inmate] I knew something about was Susan Russo, who had written the letter that started the program. So I started googling them to see if I could find any information online. As I read the court transcripts … about what they were incarcerated for, it really scared me. I knew they were serving life and long-term sentences and you don’t get that for nothing, but it hadn’t sunk in that these women were serving sentences for violent crimes. I didn’t sleep that night at all. I thought about how I could be so lackadaisical about this. This is serious stuff. I told myself, “Finish this out. You don’t have to do it again. But you made a commitment, so finish it out.”

The next day, the women were lined up outside the door with their books and materials and nametags on, ready to learn. I was overwhelmed. I spent the whole day searching their faces for the criminals, and I couldn’t find any. All I could see were women who wanted to learn and wanted information so they could share it with their peers. I was completely incapable of being judgmental. All I wanted to do was to bring them the information they wanted because they wanted to grow. And for me, that was the very best reason to be there.

Describe the training.

The first eight weeks focus on peacemaking, communication, understanding emotions, restorative justice and learning how to conduct peace circles. After that, there’s another four weeks of teaching mediation skills. We trained 70 women ourselves, and then we began a train-the-trainer program. That took two years. During that time, the women were also training their own students in peacemaking and communication. They trained 100 students, and they did beautifully. In fact, their evaluations as trainers were equal to if not better than ours―and we’re the professionals. They can relate to their peers in ways that we can’t.

In January, the women were moved to Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and California Institution for Women (CIW) as part of a prison restructuring effort. How will that affect the program?

CCWF now has 10 trainers. There are two at CIW and two others there who haven’t yet completed the training program but want to. So we’re now beginning the program at both these prisons, and the trainers are doing the training. Doug and I are going to be supporting them. That’s always been the goal of the program ― to make it sustainable without us by training the women to be the trainers.

Will you still be making the 500-mile roundtrip commute to Chowchilla?

We will not go up there every week because now this is their program. We will go up every month or as they need us, to work with the trainers, and I am in contact with the prison staff sponsor after every meeting, so I’ll know what happened and can give feedback. We will be acting in a support/mentoring role now, rather than running this program.

What about at California Institution for Women at Corona?

Because there are only two trainers there, it will be too much for them to do alone, so at least I am going to do it with them if Doug can’t get down because he lives much farther away.  

In its short existence, the program seems to have been hugely successful in helping inmates―and prison staff―resolve problems and quell violence under situations where physical fights, fierce arguments and lockdowns are common. Give me an example of how the program has  transformed someone.

There are so many. Everyone in their own personal way has grown and changed. One woman in her early 30s came into the program as a self-professed bad girl. She was a troublemaker. She was tough, difficult to teach, resistant. She wouldn’t show up, and I would chase her down. I remember three occasions where I left the classroom and went to her yard, and I got her. She would say, “I got to do something first.” I would say, “No, no, you’re coming with me now.”

She kept saying, “I want to be better. Please don’t give up on me.” So I promised her I wouldn’t give up on her if she wouldn’t give up on herself. She kept showing up and went through the mediation program. Then, she signed up for the trainer program. We started seeing her blossom, to distill these lessons in ways we would never have thought to do and in ways that reached some of the women we could never have reached. She’s become one of our most passionate and dedicated trainers.

Now we laugh. When we came back to do a day of training, she came up to me and said, “Oh my god, you’re not going to believe this. Last Saturday, I became you. I had some students who didn’t show up for class, and I chased around this whole prison, and I found them and brought them to class. I realized in that moment that’s what you did for me, and I realized that in each of those times I was planning to get into trouble, and you saved my life.” She’s said that frequently to me since and cries every time.

There must have been some sad cases, too?

One of our trainers who showed a great deal of promise was also a bad actor, and she wanted to learn desperately. She carried around a dictionary and a thesaurus because she wanted to learn new words. She was growing and learning. But I knew she still had her problems.

She got into trouble and got sent to AdSeg, which is administrative segregation. She’s not in the general population anymore. They call it going to jail. It’s the prison within the prison. The warden told me she had gotten into a fight. But the warden also told me she’d accepted responsibility for it. She said she was fully accountable and would accept whatever punishment because of that.

So even though she slipped, accountability was never in her past. Before that, everything she did she blamed on other people. Suddenly, she was accountable. It’s a sad story, but it’s not a story of failure. She’s still there 15 months later. She writes to me regularly and tells me she’s taught Prison of Peace to the woman she shares her cell with. She made her read the book, taught her the lessons, and she can’t wait to come back when she’s released. So even the failures are not failures because there’s something we see in each one of these.

Who came up with the name "Prison of Peace?"

Doug. Our standard place to meet when devising the program was at an Olive Garden restaurant. We were sitting there one day working on the program that we were going to propose to the prison. We were brainstorming, and I would swear it was Doug who came up with the name.

We knew immediately that was what we wanted it to be called because it just seemed like such an oxymoron. What we wanted was something that seemed impossible. We now know because of what happened at Valley State Prison that a “prison of peace” is possible.

This isn’t your first experience starting a nonprofit. You founded the Mississippi Project in 2005 to provide community conflict resolution programs to Hurricane Katrina victims. How does Prison of Peace compare?

Well, this isn’t actually a nonprofit. This is a pro bono project under the aegis of the Fresno Regional Foundation, a nonprofit that is our fiscal sponsor so that we can receive tax-deductable donations and grants.

I love to create projects. But I also know that if something depends on me for its sustainability it will fail. The way that I have built everything is to show it, do it, teach others to do it, and then remove myself. I never leave a project. I’m always in the background, but I like to see it succeed without me and nurse it into being and step back into a support role.

You seem to be getting to that point with the women in Prison of Peace.

We seem to be, but there’s a lot more to do. It will take another year or two.

You also mentioned expanding into the men’s prisons.

We have requests specifically from two men’s prisons. They very much want it, and we want to do it. But we need funding. This is a full-time job, and it’s become my career, and I can’t do it for free anymore. In the meantime, we’ll keep working with the women because we promised.

You began the program with no funding and the inmates passed the hat to keep you coming back. Since then, the JAMS Foundation and others have contributed to help with basic expenses, but it’s still a pro bono effort. Why is it so difficult to get donors?

So many people feel there’s no point in funding something with lifers because they’re never coming out of prison. What society fails to realize is that it’s the lifers who are the greatest influence on the 97 percent of inmates who are coming out. So if the lifers have a sense of value about themselves and a positive purpose, they can be one of the strongest rehabilitative influences on the general population. We don’t want short-termers coming in and out. We want them going out and staying out. If all they learn in prison is to be better criminals, what on earth are they going to do when they get out?

How has this project changed your philosophy of life in general?

I now believe everybody is entitled to an opportunity for redemption, and it’s up to them whether they want to take advantage of it.  

It’s also made it almost impossible for me to go back to commercial legal work. This work is so humanistic and transformative that it’s hard for me to be a lawyer in situations that are focused on commercial transactions. Those are critical things, and we need to do that. I need to do that. But I’m having a hard time doing that at the moment.

What reaction do you get from others when you tell them what you’re doing?

A lot of my friends look at me in utter disbelief and confusion. One colleague said to me after I explained my experience of the first day at the prison and how I couldn’t be judgmental, “Oh, don’t tell me they’ve convinced you they’re all innocent already.”  

I was offended. But I know where she was coming from because prior to being there and having that experience, I also could probably not fathom having compassion for these people unless I thought they were innocent. Instead, I said, “No, none of them have tried to convince me they’re innocent, and I just presume they’re guilty. It doesn’t matter.”

I think my family is proud of me. Certainly, my parents were proud when Doug and I won the California Lawyer Attorney of the Year award last year.

You began your career as a litigator. How did you get into mediation?

I had a friend who was also an attorney with young children, and she came to me one day and said, “Guess what? I found a class where we can get all our MCLE in one week.”

I said, “When is it?” I didn’t even say, “What is it?” because to a mother with small children all that mattered was whether I could be available. It was mediation, and I was hooked. That was over 20 years ago. And that’s what pulled me into where I am now.

Susan McRae, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, interviewed Kaufer. This is an edited version of their conversation.