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Difference Maker

Jon Wilson helps victims talk with perpetrators - and find closure

When victims go behind bars to talk with those who did them harm, they receive something the legal system doesn't provide: a chance to find real closure, maybe even forgiveness.

By Josh AllenCorrespondent / April 9, 2012



Brooklin, Maine

On the night of Jan. 31, 2001, a 19-year-old named Joel Turner was in an apartment in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood when three young men broke in. One of them carried an unusual knife, a foot-and-a-half long. A driver waited in a van outside.

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In moments, the lives of these young men were viciously broken. Mr. Turner had been stabbed to death. Three of the men would go to prison for their roles in what happened that night. The crime left Turner's family in confusion and pain.

The thought of being able to face in person someone who has committed a horrible crime against you or a loved one can stir dark instincts. But it also can be a path toward resolution, healing, and, for some, even forgiveness.

Janet Connors, Turner's mother, has met behind bars with two of the men involved in her son's death. It is not the sort of meeting a grieving parent is likely to want to experience alone.

That's where Jon Wilson steps in.

Mr. Wilson owns a business dedicated to boats and boat building, a craft as artful and precise as the taking of a human life is violent and horrid. Wilson was there with Ms. Connors, as he's been with dozens of victims of violent crimes, because he believes such meetings are crucial to the healing process.

This concept, called Victim Offender Dialogue (VOD), lets agonized victims or their surviving loved ones do something the justice system rarely lets them do: talk with the wrongdoer.

"I believe that the process of giving voice is therapeutic," says Wilson, who is not a professional therapist. "When a survivor is able to give full voice to their feelings, they suddenly feel heard in a way they never could have in any other context."

VOD brings together victims, or their surviving loved ones, and their imprisoned offenders to discuss the acts that bind them: domestic violence, rapes, and killings.

The dialogue happens in a secure setting at the inmate's prison. It's the survivor's day, Wilson says, their time to ask, to describe their loss, to speak with measured anger – whatever they want. Convicts listen, answer, sometimes try to explain.

At her first meeting, Connors brought pictures of her son, full of life. "I think for every one of us, when something horrible happens to us and so devastates our worldview, we want an explanation," Wilson says. "Almost every survivor wants to know why: 'I need to know why this violence happened, and why it happened to me.'

"Everything I do is about enabling the survivor to be heard and preparing the offender to respond in a way that's more substantial than 'I can't explain it.' "

Through his nonprofit group, JUST Alternatives, Wilson has worked with clients in Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Texas, Virginia, and Vermont. He does the work pro bono.

In many ways the VOD work is sustained by his other occupation. Along the west side of Brooklin, Maine, a tree-edged field slopes to the cold sea. Overlooking the view is an early 20th-century house, its rooms decorated with images of sailing vessels; everywhere is the grace of moving water and curved wood.

This is the home of WoodenBoat Publi­cations, which publishes magazines and runs a boat building and seamanship school, boat shows, and a mail-order store. Wilson, the owner and chairman, launched WoodenBoat magazine in the mid-1970s out of a cabin with no electricity and no running water. It now has a circulation of about 80,000.

His life in Maine provides ballast for his work traversing the emotional storms of VOD.

"If I couldn't come back to this home, and this work, and boats, and art, and love, I couldn't do the facilitation," he says.

Wilson first grew intrigued with VOD when he was researching an article for Hope, a human interest magazine he published until 2003. In 2000, he attended training led by a pastor named David Doerfler, then with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Victim Services Division. From the first day he was hooked.

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