Minn. inmates pen apology letters to their victims

Apology letters
Lydia Newlin, center, director of victim assistance/restorative justice at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, speaks to a group of inmates about writing apology letters to their victims Monday, April 23, 2012 at the Lino Lakes prison.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Crowded in a small room in the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Lino Lakes, about 40 men in faded blue prison clothes or long, white t-shirts sit quietly at long tables with notebooks and pencils before them.

Each of them is locked in prison because they committed a sex offense.

Each of them is in the classroom voluntarily though, waiting for victim's advocate Lydia Newlin. Her class will teach the men, who will all soon be released, how to write apology letters to their victims.

"I want them to remember that there's somebody else who's also preparing for their release and that's the person that they've injured," said Newlin, director of victim assistance/restorative justice at the Minnesota Department of Corrections. "They've got a responsibility when they've got out to make sure that they don't do anything that can revictimize that victim."

The class is part of National Crime Victims' Rights Week, which ends Saturday. The Minnesota Department of Corrections held special events for inmates throughout the week to help them understand a victim's viewpoint.

Newlin told the men that 11 years ago when she was first approached about speaking to the class, she thought it was a terrible idea.

"There's absolutely nothing I'm going to be able to say to a population of offenders that's going to make any difference for the people that I advocate for. I don't think offenders can change and I think it will just be really a waste of my time," she remembers saying. "I could not have been more wrong."

Apology letters
Lydia Newlin, speaks to a group of inmates about writing apology letters to their victims.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Newlin said over the last decade she's seen some offenders change and that the transformation often happens after inmates overcome their desire to blame the victim and accept responsibility for their crime and its repercussions. She said at that point they're less likely to commit a crime again — which is important, since most Minnesota inmates return to the community.

Newlin said that as each inmates' release date approaches, it's on two peoples' minds: the inmate's and the victim's. For most offenders, that person is a family member.

Newlin turns to the white board behind her and starts making a list.

"What do you think they're thinking about?" she asks the class.

"Fear," an inmate answers. (The Minnesota Department of Corrections asked that MPR News not identify the inmates in this story because of the impact it might have on victims.)

"Fear of what?" Newlin replies.

"Will they hurt me again?" she's answered.

Apology letters
A prison inmate takes notes during a class about writing apology letters.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"Will they hurt me again how? Are they going to hurt somebody else? OK. What else? Will I run into them?" Newlin continues.

Newlin leads them through an exercise meant to get them thinking about what they could write in a letter to reassure victims. She questions them, one by one.

What do you think the one thing the victim of your offense might need to hear that might be helpful for them?

"That I'm sorry," an inmate answers.

But not all victims want an apology. Outside of class, Newlin said for some victims any contact from the person who hurt them can be a trigger for depression and fear.

"One of the biggest challenges that we have is 'how do you let people know about the options that we have for restorative justice?' " Newlin said.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections tried to solve that problem by creating a website called Minnesota Choice, where victims can register for notification of an offender's release. At the same time, they can check a box that says they want to learn about opportunities to talk with the offender. By checking another box, they can say they want to be notified if an offender sends them an apology letter.

Apology letters
Lydia Newlin speaks to a group of inmates about writing apology letters to their victims.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Newlin said victim participation has increased dramatically since the website went up. She leads a victim assistance and restorative justice unit at the Department of Corrections that reviews all the apology letters. The letters then go into a "bank," where victims can pick them up. But officials don't tell offenders if victims read the letters. Newlin said that keeps the process focused on the victim.

"When the sentencing day comes and offenders go to prison, and victims walk out of that courtroom, we forget that the answers aren't there for the victims," Newlin said. "There's still many questions that the victims have — and the one question I hear over and over and over again from the victims I work with is 'how come they never said they're sorry? How come they never took responsibility?' "

For some victims or relatives of victims, just having the answers gives them a kind of freedom.

Mary Johnson's son was murdered in north Minneapolis nearly 20 years ago. She said the feelings she had for her son's killer were like a cancer. It took Johnson seven years to work up the courage to talk to him. Afterward, Johnson said she felt a physical sensation.

"I felt something moving in my feet, and up to my legs, and it just kept moving up and up, and I felt it go," Johnson said. "I instantly knew that all the hatred, and the bitterness, the animosity, all that stuff I had for him, I knew it was gone."

Johnson said she'd never presume to recommend the process to other victims. But she's glad that when she was ready, she had the opportunity to hear her son's killer say he's sorry and answer her questions about why he died.

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