Recognized as one of Southern California’s best lawyers in the field of alternate dispute resolution in 2010 and 2011 by U.S. News & World Report, Laurel Kaufer transitioned from litigation to full-time neutral practice in 1995. A mediator and arbitrator with ARC in Los Angeles, Kaufer is the chair of the Standing Committee on Dispute Resolution of the California State Bar Association, a diplomat of both the California and National Academies of Distinguished Neutrals, and a teacher in the Certificate Program for Mediation and Dispute Resolution at UCSB. Kaufer served for years on the boards of the Southern California Mediation Association and Ventura County Dispute Services.
In 2009, Kaufer responded to a desperate letter from a female prison inmate and went on to design a dispute resolution training program inside Valet State Prison for Women called Prison for Peace. The prison warden reports that the training is helping the prison’s population turn a corner. Kaufer recently took a minute to discuss that effort with The Santa Barbara Independent.
Please describe to me how Prison of Peace began and the letter that you received from Susan Rosso.
Susan was a stranger to me. I received a letter from her in 2009. She had looked around on the Internet for mediators because she decided that she wanted to learn how to be a mediator so that she could help to reduce conflict in prison. So she sent me a letter that she also sent to another 50 mediators in the State of California, and I responded and agreed to teach her.
What is the mission of Prison of Peace?
The mission of Prison of Peace is really to teach peacemaking and mediating skills to women in prison in order to help them to lessen conflict and violence in their prison community. And the way it works is that we provide training to them and then we have now trained a number of them to be trainers themselves so that they can — as Susan had originally requested — teach others to bring peace to their community.
Is there anything that you have found to be especially surprising while working with the inmates?
Yes, I have. I was not prepared for the level of dedication and competency these women would show in learning these skills.
What have you found to be the most challenging part of your job?
Working within the bureaucracy and security concerns of the prison environment.
What have been some of your proudest moments on the job?
Wow, that’s a hard one because there are so many. I think my proudest moments are when I hear from new students that are trained by the women who were our students how grateful they are for the opportunity to learn these skills and how wonderful their teachers have been. What that tells me is that what I have done in answering Susan’s letter and in responding to her request to teach her how to teach others has been successful.
What have been some of the most outstanding success stories with the women whom you have worked with?
I think the most outstanding successes are when I see a person who candidly, by her own acknowledgement, never really cared before, and now — because she understands that she can make a difference — she cares, and it gets noticed by others, including her peers and staff around her.
Is there anything that anybody can do to help Prison of Peace in its efforts?
Right now, the thing we are in most desperate need of is funding. Donations to Prison of Peace are the most important thing anybody can do to help these women right now. Because, really and truly, we have no funding. This is a pro bono project that has been going on for three years now, and we spend an inordinate amount of our time and energy on it, but we do need some help because the donations we get — we get small donations — they pay for the materials of these women. So everything helps.
What does everybody need to know about Prison of Peace?
While it’s critically important that it is working and that the mediations being done by the student inmates are actually helping people — and there are many instances of that — I think the most important piece and the most special piece is that by doing this work, some of these women found value in themselves that they didn’t know they had.
For more information about Prison of Peace, visit prisonofpeace.org.