Insight Prison Project - Harriet Whitman Lee
Harriet began volunteering with Insight Prison Project (IPP) as a way to lighten the grief she carried after the murder of her daughter, who was killed by a stray bullet fired in a daytime gun battle on the streets of Richmond. Since her daughter’s passing, Harriet has become a pioneer of Restorative Justice practices in the Bay Area, working with multiple organizations to help people reintegrate back into their communities and heal from the trauma of crime. Harriet has worked tirelessly and lovingly with incarcerated men, women, and youth, as well as other survivors of violent crimes. This year, like many past years, Harriet has either been facilitating a Victim/Offender Education Group (VOEG) for men at San Quentin, sharing her story on survivor panels at prisons across California, conducting research, helping to craft and improve curricula, facilitating support groups for volunteers, offering kind words, or offering a hug when there are no words. And in this work, there often are no words, so Harriet gives a lot of hugs. Her presence and selflessness have been so appreciated and have had a real and lasting impact on those around her. We are deeply indebted to Harriet.
Illustrate how the nominee made a significant, positive impact on the organization or the community it serves during the past 12 months.
Harriet drives to San Quentin every single week and makes the long walk across the prison yard to do transformative, insight and empathy-building work with the men incarcerated there. Scores of truly transformed men reside inside the walls of San Quentin, and many attribute that transformation to Harriet. There are few inmates or guards who do not recognize her white hair and the slight frame that holds her huge heart, and they all smile and wave at her as she makes her way to the Education Building, deep inside the grounds of the institution. One need only to see the caring and loving way Harriet is warmly greeted at the prison in order to recognize the positive impact she has made.
The IPP programs that Harriet delivers have been proven to reduce recidivism... with prisoners being released in record numbers, this makes Harriet’s contributions of enormous value to public safety.
Harriet is also a beacon of hope for local survivors of violent crime, offering support to the many victims who reach out to IPP for the opportunity to be involved in a restorative and healing process.
Briefly state the organization’s mission and services offered. How long has the nominee volunteered for the organization, including the number of years served and type of service?
IPP’s flagship program is the Victim/Offender Education Group (VOEG) program and it was created by licensed therapists in collaboration with survivors of violent crime and incarcerated men. The one-to-two year course allows prisoner participants a place to unearth and explore root causes of harm so that they can understand the impact of the harm they caused to their victims, the community, and to themselves. The process utilizes a Restorative Justice philosophy and a trauma-healing approach. The curriculum includes homework assignments and a set of exercises that come alive in class, during the group process. The groups are always facilitated by IPP’s highly-trained volunteers. IPP volunteer facilitators are people from the community and VOEG graduates who have completed IPP’s intensive facilitator training, and they are supervised by Insight Prison Project’s program professionals.
VOEG also provides a rare opportunity for survivors of crime to personally participate in the criminal justice system via a transformative Restorative Justice process. Every VOEG group includes a Survivors’ Panel, in which people who have been victims of crimes, similar to those committed by the men in the group, are offered the healing experience of sharing the impact of crime with offenders. This is a unique and critical element to VOEG, as it creates the space for offenders to be accountable directly to a victim of violent crime, and it allows the survivors who work with us an opportunity to see and hear accountability, remorse, and empathy directly from offenders. In our experience, meeting face-to-face with survivors is the single most important factor in changing harmful behavior due to the level of impact victims share, and the subsequent empathy that is developed by sitting with and hearing from the victims of violence.
Often, the survivors are so moved by the work that, like Harriet, they become VOEG facilitators. Harriet began volunteering with IPP as a survivor in 2009, and subsequently completed her VOEG facilitator training later that same year. She quickly became an integral part of the work we do and her contribution cannot be overstated.