What do survivors of violent crime need to heal?

These survivors say: it’s not prisons.

Advocates for victims have long assumed that after violent crime, survivors can find closure in an arrest and heavy sentence to the person who caused them harm. Movita Johnson-Harrell, who lost her son to gun violence, explains ”It feels like, if the person who caused the harm is going to be arrested, you’ll feel better. Then if you have an arrest you go through a trial, and you feel like—once this person is convicted, I’ll get justice and I’ll feel better”

But, “it doesn’t work like that,” she says. “That loss is a loss, and it’s never coming back, and there’s nothing that’s going to fill that void. Throwing someone into jail for the rest of their life does not fill that void.

What do survivors say they need instead to heal? We talked to three women—Movita Johnson-Harrell, Antoinette Kreiselmeier and Jean Mayes— who all have lost someone to violent crime. Here’s what they said.

1. The chance to communicate with the people who harmed them

Kreiselmeier: It’s very good for the victim and the defendant to try to get together, because the victims do want to talk to the defender.

Johnson-Harrell: [In my role at Victim’s Services] we wanted to connect the person who was incarcerated with the family, because in many instances the family wanted to talk to that person. But there was this whole red tape process in between the offender and the family. 

Mayes: I don’t know why we had it so easy and nobody else does. So that needs to be fixed immediately, because that was more–I don’t like to use the word “closure”—but my heart never felt so good as after I met him. He calls me. We’re like a big family now. I talk to his mother. We go to his cousins’ house. It was so healing to meet him, it was unbelievable.

2. The right to a say in the sentence + reviews 

Mayes: The most shocking thing that happened was the merit review [for the man who harmed my family]… Me and three of my sisters went to the prison and visited Gary. We wrote letters on his behalf. Gary has sent everything that he has accomplished in prison to this merit review… he went in for the last merit review and they all voted no. What do you have to do, to prove yourself to society?

Johnson-Harrell: The judge was shocked when I asked for mercy for the two boys who murdered my son. Because I realized that the system is designed against them…They don’t choose to listen to what the victims want. They want to pursue to the maximum extent of the law if it’s a Black or Brown person, but if the victim was to ask for leniency they’ll tell you ‘That’s not my job. My job is to give them the maximum amount of time.’

Kreiselmeier: At first I didn’t want to forgive—I wanted the same thing to happen to him. Now, I would try to encourage people to forgive, because it could be them. Forgiveness, compassion and understanding.

3. Spaces to heal, not relive tragedy

Kreiselmeier: I shut down because I couldn’t talk about it. [I needed] a safe place for people to talk and heal together. That’s how survivors get through this, by talking and telling our story to people we trust. Empathy is the main thing that a survivor needs, to listen and understand. We need a strong support system.

Johnson-Harrell: After a couple of groups, I ended up telling my husband “I’m never going back there again.” I would sit in those meetings and relive my son’s homicide every time I was in those meetings. I needed to create and provide to others a space where healing could occur. Not being retraumatized, not reliving the tragedy, but where healing could literally occur.

4. Mental health services, for everyone

Johnson-Harrell:  If we make everything that we do in our communities trauma informed, that means trauma informed in the school. That means maybe some type of healing can go into the local high school. Do yoga therapy with young people who are at risk. Do movement therapy with people at risk. 

Here’s the thing: they’re all traumatized. All these young people have PTSD because they live in active war zones, and then they all have trigger fingers. And even the kids who don’t want to carry guns, carry guns. Because everybody got guns. But they’re all terrified.

We need to start investing in mental health, which has been taboo in communities of color for many years to talk about mental illness in our communities. We need to make sure we are talking about our children’s mental health to stop the next one from going into the cemetery, and the next one from going into the penitentiary.

5. Investment in Black, Brown and impoverished communities

Mayes: I come from a very poor area in Pittsburgh…I know how the poor kids stay poor and the rich kids stay rich, and that’s how it starts. The kids in my area have no outside activities, not one. We have no parks in this area. We have five projects in this area and we live next to one of the richest areas ever that has archery and a swimming pool and hockey and golf and you name it, they’ve got it. 

Johnson-Harrell: When we disinvest in communities of color, we have what we have today—when we disinvest in education, when we don’t address the social causes that lead to community violence. When we don’t provide opportunities while people are living with housing scarcity and in food deserts, there’s lack of jobs, lack of resources, lack of food — then we’re going to see the situations we have now.

While survivors’ paths to healing vary, all three women agree that we need political change. They support both bills currently introduced in the Senate to end the practice of death by incarceration, or life in prison—SB135 and SB835.  Mandatory death by incarceration keeps people imprisoned long past the point where they have aged, changed, and could rejoin their families. It gives survivors no say in sentencing or release. Death by incarceration is an obstacle to what survivors ask for most: divestment from prisons that punish after-the-fact, and investment in communities to prevent harm in the first place.

Are you a survivor and want to connect with other survivors to advocate for change? Reach out to Terri Minor-Spencer at terri@straight-ahead.org

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