Graduates from a domestic violence prevention program cheer their fellow students at Valley State Prison.

(Editor’s note: The following is a first-person account of starting the first batterers’ treatment program in a prison. With support from the warden and community resources manager, Valley State Prison launched the pilot program to help stop the cycle of domestic violence.)

By Tina Rodriguez, Integral Community Solutions Institute (ICSI)
Where Numbers Meet Names program, Valley State Prison

When partners engage in an intimate relationship, the assumption is they are united by love and trust. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that one in every three women and one in every four men in the U.S. have experienced some form of domestic violence such as verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse and emotional abuse.

In October 2015, President Obama announced his support of the largest increase in funds allocated to the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) ever in U.S. history. In the fiscal year 2015, California received $232 million compared to $51 million in the 2014 fiscal year.

This significantly increased support services for domestic violence victims including shelters, restraining orders, crisis lines, victim advocates, and resources for domestic violence victims throughout California. Despite the increase of VOCA funds and support for domestic violence victims, the prevalence of domestic violence in California has not decreased. Why?

More than labels

Access to support services is based on labeling – the primary aggressor is the batterer and the other party is the victim. Those identified as victims of domestic violence are offered support services and resources.

Batterers are not offered support services such as counseling, anger management, batterer’s treatment or alternative housing unless they have been arrested and court ordered to attend classes or treatment.

The services approved by major funding sources for domestic violence restrict the use of funds, prohibiting them to be used to serve incarcerated victims, offenders of domestic violence and domestic violence prevention activities.

This is a reactive approach. Incarcerated victims encounter significant discrimination because they are labeled as inmates. Few people understand how the labeling of “primary aggressor,” “offender” and “batterer” is assigned.

It has become increasingly common for two people to get arrested when law enforcement responds to a call for domestic violence. Law enforcement can label two people as the primary aggressor if they identify mutual combat.

It is also common for victims to identify with the aggressor and switch roles, thus becoming the primary aggressor. The Free Battered Women movement started as an outcry over women who could no longer take the daily beatings, insults and commands.

The women fought for themselves and entered the criminal justice system labeled as inmates, aggressors, batterers and offenders. This method of labeling creates a platform for one versus the other.

The services supported by major funding sources allow activities such as crisis intervention, counseling, emergency shelter, restraining orders and court accompaniment. Though these activities offer immediate safety and protection, they do no justice to the victims that return to the batterer on average seven times before leaving for good, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Funding is prohibited for couples counseling, marriage counseling and limited to the person labeled as the victim or the victim’s children.

Rather than solely focus on the victim, we can predict the cycle of domestic violence will continue with his/her new partner unless the batterer also received help. I wanted to try something different to reduce the prevalence of domestic violence.

I wanted to reach out and offer the first court approved 52-week batterers’ treatment program in a prison institution.

Focusing on the offender

I knew that this was risky due to my nearly 20 years of experience primarily in the field of victim services. I did not want to be perceived as trading my “pro-victim card” for a “pro-offender card.”

However, I knew that by providing services to those labeled as batterers, I could be proactive. Valley State Prison is a Level 2 male institution located in Madera County. Warden Fisher and Community Resource Manager Carmen Maroney support the concept of rehabilitation.

In addition, to hoping that this decision would not be career suicide, I needed to develop a strategic method for recruiting inmates willing to participate. Like me, they too were taking a risk.

It is dangerous to be known as a “woman beater” in a male institution. To avoid discouraging any inmates from signing up for the program we collectively agreed on calling the program, “Where Numbers Meet Names.”

I wanted to look beyond prison identification numbers and allow each one to be referred to by their name. Behind every name is a story and I wanted to hear their stories.

In September 2015, we held the orientation for sign-ups and 70 potential participants expressed an interest. As a safety precaution, Warden Fisher and Carmen Maroney limited the maximum amount of participants to 30.

The commitment entailed remaining in the program for the entire 52 weeks with no more than two absences. They also had to sign confidentiality agreements, complete weekly assignments, exams, participate in group discussion, and conduct evaluations.

With the help of UC Merced student Jaqueline Giron and Group Sponsor Yolanda Dale we launched Where Numbers Meet Names in October 2015.

At first it was a little intimidating to be in a room with 30 men, each accused of crimes ranging from domestic violence to murder. To my surprise, they were extremely respectful and helpful at all times.

I was never seeking to justify their crimes; I simply wanted to understand what could be done to break the cycle of violence with their future partners.

From the batterers’ perspective, the core of the cycle of domestic violence is power and control. The core of the cycle of domestic violence for victims is co-dependency and shame. Knowing both concepts, I was able to educate them on how the cycle operates in phases from the tension building phase to the assault phase to the honeymoon phase.

During the first three months of the program, we collectively defined domestic violence by acknowledging that it’s not just physical assaults such as punching or slapping. We went into depth about that harsh impact of verbal abuse.

We also covered examples of batterers exercising control of their victims by isolating them from family, preventing them from seeking employment, and controlling where they went. This was definitely the most intense phase of the program.

I could see the program participants’ cringe when I presented demonstrations of verbal/emotional abuse via videos and with survivors that who shared their stories in-person at Valley State Prison.

During one of our weekly meetings, I watched some of them shed tears as they listened to a 911 call placed by a little girl begging for someone to come and help her mom who was being attacked by her partner. I watched them gasp during a presentation by a survivor of domestic violence who shared her story about her partner attacking her and her baby boy in the middle of a city street.

The most challenging part of the program was assigning them to identify how they were able to relate to domestic violence. Perhaps this was because the definition of domestic violence covered in this program included verbal/emotional abuse. Thus, they could not hide behind the “I never actually hit her” excuse.

During the latter part of the program, we took everything that we learned and worked on effectively managing anger by identifying the triggers that contribute to anger escalating into rage.

After anger, we discussed jealousy and healthy ways to express it. This required them to be vulnerable because they had to be open about their fears of losing their partner to someone else.

It was during this part of the program that I discovered other factors that contributed to how they function in relationships. They shared personal experiences of substance abuse, unresolved childhood issues, untreated mental health conditions, early exposure to violence, issues with boundaries, sexual aggression and personality disorders.

Reaching out for help

Four of the participants in the program had been convicted of murdering their partners. All four of them had two things in common. First, it was clear they struggled with narcissistic personality disorders. Secondly, they stalked their victims.

They spoke openly about being unable to process rejection to a point where they preferred to see their partners deceased if they were not going to be in a relationship with them. During this discussion I asked would it have helped if there was a “cooling off place?”

We have emergency shelters for victims but I wondered if batterers would benefit from a walk in place or a crisis hotline that they can call when they feel that intensified rage. All four said yes. They all described how they felt alone at the time that they were in the cycle of domestic violence.

The final part of the program required acknowledgement and acceptance of the entire impact of their actions. One program participant shared his victim’s final words during an emotional class activity.

His empathy for her and her children was sincere and his guilt and regret for his actions echoed throughout the institution. Not a single person spoke as he sobbed while stating that he accepts every punishment handed to him for what he did.

He is being recruited as a mentor for the program to work with early release inmates in encouraging them to learn about domestic violence and how they can avoid hurting someone they love.

We also spoke about love and I discovered instantly that for some of them this was the first time hearing the word, understanding it as an emotion, and discovering how to express it. A total of 23 program participants successfully completed the program.

Two of them had been released prior to the 52 weeks but chose to continue the program voluntarily. One could not complete the program due to health matters and six transferred to other institutions or were granted parole.

According to Lt. Ronald Ladd at Valley State Prison, whom previously served as a parole agent, the most common parole violation for parolees with a “no-contact” special condition for parole as a result of domestic violence was their failure to adhere to the special condition.

The “no contact” could be removed once the parolee completed a certified 52-week batterers’ treatment program. The graduates of the first 52-week certified domestic violence program at Valley State Prison who are granted parole will have the advantage of complying with this special condition prior to release from the institution.

I have recruited three mentors to continue serving as volunteers for the next class which has 300 inmates on a waiting list. By shifting my view of domestic violence to seeing it as an issue with many potential intervention strategies versus who should get help based on labeling, I find myself truly making a difference.

Warden Fisher said one day these men are going to be somebody’s neighbor and we have to keep that in mind when determining what they do with their time while they are incarcerated.