The Root of Healing: An Interview with Rebecca Weiker and Phil Melendez

By Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson

Founded within California’s San Quentin prison, Re:Store Justice is a non-profit, restorative justice organization that facilitates encounters between those who commit violent crimes and those who survive them. The program also develops and advocates for policies to reform the criminal justice system — such as California State Senate Bill 1437, which reduced the sentences of prisoners involved in felony acts resulting in murder when the perpetrator was not directly involved in the killing.

I spoke to Rebecca Weiker, Program Director and Phil Melendez, Program Manager about how the restorative justice model addresses the often neglected needs of crime survivors and perpetrators alike and how the restorative justice perspective can shed light on the greater societal divisions that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Amanda Knox  

Would you mind giving me a brief introduction of yourselves?

Rebecca Weiker 

I’m Rebecca Weiker, and I am the Program Director at Re:Store Justice, which is a nonprofit that works to transform the criminal justice system for both survivors of crime and people who have created harm, or people who are incarcerated, ultimately to create healing and prevent violence. I came to this work, in part through my own experience. My oldest sister was a victim of homicide in 1992 when I was 27, and she was 31.

Phil Melendez  

In October of 1997, I committed two murders and assault with a deadly weapon and was facing the death penalty. Then I was facing life without parole after they chose not to seek the death penalty. I was convicted of second degree murders, and was sentenced to 30 to life plus another 11 years on top of that. You know, I had a lot of traumas growing up that led me down a horrible path. And for the first 15 years of incarceration, I didn’t ever work on them. Then I got to San Quentin, and I saw the possibility of taking rehabilitative classes focused on growth and healing and transformation. So I got into that stuff. I got into anger management, victim awareness classes, and had my eyes opened. Like I said, for the first 15 years, I didn’t do much work on myself. Then a survivor of crime came to one of my classes, and she told her story about losing her mother to homicide, and it messed me up. It was the first time I ever looked at what I had done in a real way, and it changed my life forever. And I knew that I had to do better, dig deeper, try harder. Because up until then, I was just sitting through the classes, going through the motions, and not really even having a real idea when I would come home. I had thirty to life, there was nothing to say. I wasn’t going to the parole board until 2032. And that woman changed my life. Soon after, legislation passed saying that, based on the age at which I committed my crime, my brain wasn’t fully developed and there’s the possibility of time being shaved off my sentence. And I studied hard and dug deep, and really looked at the pain that I’d caused, all the horrible, hard traumas that I dealt with as a kid, and really unpacked them. And when I went to my parole board hearing in 2017, I was found suitable for parole. Along that journey, the co-founders of Re:Store were bringing in legislators, DAs, people with power and decision-making capabilities, to come into the prison, and survivors of crime as well. And the organization just kind of sprung forth from that idea of having a very inclusive talk about crime, violence, healing and what it looks like for all parties involved. A few months after I came home, I get a call from one of the volunteers. She said, “You want a job?” And I was like, “Yes.” You know, because I had deep realizations about my crime and what I needed to do to make amends, which in some cases, it’s impossible to make living amends. And so, I jumped at the opportunity to continue that work. And here I am.

Amanda Knox

In the broader world, a survivor of a crime and a person who committed a violent crime seem like counterintuitive allies. What is it about Re:Store Justice that brought you two together?

Rebecca Weiker 

My experience has been that if we really want to address all of the reasons why there is violence and harm in our communities, we have to involve everybody who is impacted. The labels that we give of who is a survivor and who is a responsible party are very much determined by a lot of the biases that we have in our society. Right now, we’re seeing that in terms of the death of George Floyd. We see that the people who keep us safe versus the people who create harm, those labels did not really tell a very clear story. And so if we want to address the systemic issues and the individual issues that create the opportunity for somebody to harm another person, we really have to connect and understand how people come to be in those situations and also to meet their needs. Survivors of crime and violence have so many needs that are not met by the traditional criminal justice system, and a lot of those needs can be met by the people who’ve created harm, in terms of being able to make amends, to be accountable. Putting somebody in a cell and removing them from society and punishing them does not meet a lot of the needs that survivors have. I would never tell a survivor how they need to heal, but for many people, that connection is transformative and the root of a lot of healing.

Phil Melendez

For me, it’s amazing to be working with Rebecca. It’s an honor, it’s a privilege. People might be thinking that our situations would put us at odds. It’s not so black and white. As far as being survivors of crime, like, just because of the crimes that I committed, I’m no longer a survivor of crime. My brother was murdered. We were living in a gang-infested neighborhood. We were gangsters, but our losses don’t matter. I don’t agree with that at all. And then there’s the systemic stuff. There are injustices that are perpetrated against people in poorer communities. Surviving that state violence and national violence, it’s something to contend with. As far as what brought us together, she was one of the survivors at one of those symposiums that we had at San Quentin. We’ve been connecting through the work through the symposium. When we do the symposiums, the survivors of crime that we bring in, they’re not actual people who lost loved ones to the people that they meet inside who committed homicide. It’s more of a circuit program. And what we’ve been doing lately, before Covid hit, is we were actually taking cases from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, where if a survivor who’d been harmed wants to actually speak to the person who did that to them, they contact CDCR and then they contact us or another handful of organizations that facilitate these dialogues, and it’s been also another blessing to take this work even further and connect with actual survivors, and meet with the people responsible and facilitate healing for survivors on a personal level, and also understanding what’s going on for the folks inside. Seeing the perspectives of both, I feel like it’s my calling. I feel like I’ve found what I need to be doing to make my way in the world that is in line with my views and beliefs. I’m really fortunate in that respect. 

Amanda Knox 

You talked, Phil, about how you spent many years during your imprisonment just going through the motions and not doing the hard work, and I wonder if that’s an interesting parallel for protests against police right now. How can your experience of coming to terms with your own crime provide insight and models for how police can come to terms and find accountability for their own crimes against the communities that they’re supposed to be serving? 

Phil Melendez

That is an amazing question. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that. But I always thought that there are parallels. Very good question. I feel that there are huge parallels to what’s happening now. It’s a reckoning. And it’s hard to reckon with the genocide of the Native Americans, slavery, lynching. For the longest time, I did not want to address what I had done. There were all these traumas that led to my criminal thinking and negative behaviors. My dad, being a gangster, stabbing people in prison, getting stabbed in prison, just living in this neighborhood, normalized crime in a certain way. That led me to commit this horrible crime, but I remember being a good, compassionate kid, and being really sensitive. I have a strange theory about people who commit horrible crimes being the most sensitive people because I feel like it hurt me to not be like my dad, to not live up to his name, to not live up to my gang lifestyle. He was stabbed collecting drugs, and the whole neighborhood was looking at me like, “What are you going to do next?” And so I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I took two lives and it’s hard for the good kid that is still in me to reckon with what I’ve done. And so for the longest time, while inside, people would say, “They stabbed your dad. Something had to happen in that style.” And so I feel like the same thing happens with officers. They’re committing horrible crimes and it’s like, “This is what we’ve been taught. This is what’s normal to us. We’ll put a knee on your neck, we’ll shoot you, we’ll do whatever we want to, because we can.” And that’s just the culture, and there’s also, I’m sure, trauma behind that. But when it comes to actually reckoning with that, it took me so long to want to even go there. When that woman spoke in the class, there was not a dry eye in the house. I bawled my eyes out. I still have problems talking about it to this day. That particular realization, it was so profound and painful and I can only imagine what Chauvin and the rest of the guys that are all involved, it’s like, “This is what we did.” And the other horrible crimes against black and brown communities for years, it’s like, “I’m not gonna deal with that. I’m not gonna deal with what I did.” And I think that’s a natural thing. You know, especially when it’s so contrary to the good-natured human beings that we’re supposed to be. And so I feel like that’s a huge part of what’s happening right now, and hopefully, we are making some breakthroughs. 

Amanda Knox

Rebecca, speaking as someone who has done an incredible amount of work to have empathy for those who have committed harms, what can you speak about how we can restore trust as individuals and as a community? 

Rebecca Weiker  

The key to this is accountability. At a certain point in our victim awareness transformative justice class, [I brought] in a mom whose son was murdered. She said, “That was the best day of my life.” She had a group of 20 accountable men sitting in a circle listening to her in a way she had not been heard about what the loss of her son meant to her. And this was a group who wanted to be accountable, who wanted to heal, who wanted her to heal. I think that’s one of the things that is so frustrating for me to see out in our world right now is how little accountability there is, and how ironic it is that some of the most accountable people I have met, men who have connected with their own emotional selves, who have really thought about what narrative happened that brought them to a moment where they could harm another person, and really understand that and be accountable for that, why did I have to go into a prison to find people who are doing that work? That’s what we need in our world right now, is people who live accountability. And the places we most need it, we least see it. 

Amanda Knox 

I think one of the things that is so difficult for people right now, on both sides, is this feeling of disempowerment due to the fact that there’s no way that you can take back what has been done. And you’re saying, “You’re not powerless. There are things to be done.” What are those kinds of steps that need to be taken?

Phil Melendez 

The needs of survivors need to be addressed better by the system. From what I’ve seen and heard from a bunch of survivors is that they weren’t treated fairly, they were treated as props. If they didn’t want to actually testify or actually forgave the person, then they’re useless to the District Attorney. And that’s pretty foul. And so just really focus on the healing that they need and they deserve. I think that’s one step that needs to happen. And part of it is happening through us. We can take them in and meet some surrogates and they can hear somebody who’s accountable and really get to know their reason for why they did what they did, and hopefully give some understanding, or at least have a different perspective on what happened and why. As far as the other steps for the people responsible, what I’m about to say is good for people who commit crime, and that extends to the police. The steps that need to be taken are to give them everything that I got along the way, whether it’s your understanding of victims and their harm, and the harm that is caused and how that feels, giving them the emotional intelligence that I learned so people can understand if they’re hurting, when and why and how, and how they can work through those traumas. It’s just about connecting with the humanity that is in all of us, highlighting it, amplifying it. That is a big part of restorative justice, the web of relationships. It does start with themselves and having an understanding of what motivates them, what are their needs, and how are they met? What happens when they’re not met? Making sure that they’re able to show up in a positive way and work through negativity without hurting anyone else while they’re hurting. 

Rebecca Weiker 

It’s such a big question. And I think one of the things that I appreciate about transformative justice is that accountability and healing happen on both a systemic level and a personal level. So the first thing is to ask the people who are most impacted what their needs are. People have not really been heard about what safety really means to them, about what they want for their children and in their communities. When people say “defund the police,” I’m interested in what people want. That’s not something that is solved by shifting a little bit of money around in a budget. Phil, you used the word reckoning. And I think, to me, it comes back to this really fundamental reckoning of 400 years. How are our resources really distributed? If we don’t look at the systemic underlying issues, we won’t really address this problem. We ask people who are incarcerated to do that work and they end up being some of the most profound healers in our communities. And yet, people who have the most power and the most privilege I see as being deeply unhealed, and deeply unhealed people create a lot of harm. And that is what we’re all experiencing right now. We are being harmed by people who are gifting us all their trauma and their unhealed harm that is just raining down on all of us right now. 

Amanda Knox 

Do you have hopes that the current movement is leading to significant criminal justice reform? 

Phil Melendez  

I definitely do. One of the most important phrases, when people talk about defunding the police or even reducing incarceration rates, I’ve seen it applied in both spaces, and it’s, “We got us.” We do have each other’s back. In the community that I grew up, I can go back there and tell them my story and show them my mistakes and teach them everything that I learned, and that would be deeply healing for a lot of people and it definitely would reduce crime. When it comes to “us having us” or having each other’s backs, you’re not gonna have some strange person in your neighborhood who doesn’t even understand you and can’t respond in a way other than with fear. And then when you talk about the funding, where do those funds go, there’s a lot of ignorance. There’s a lot of pushback against people getting education for free. That needs to change. With education comes understanding, with understanding comes compassion and empathy. The way we’ve been operating, like Rebecca said, 400 years, it’s been a cycle of violence. And it created hate, it created fear, it created sides. If we invest in communities and we invest in education and empathy and emotional intelligence, I think those things are a necessary part of the movement because it gives people the space to think critically. Like, you have people talking about, “We don’t want the system anymore. We don’t want mass incarceration. We don’t want to rely on cops. We don’t want to rely on the judicial system,” and then they call for the arrest of cops, that’s not, it’s actually counterproductive. If you had just the opportunity to get out of that anger, if you had the education and emotional intelligence to get out of that anger, think critically about what’s happening, how you’re harming people, and how you can make things better, I think that’d be a huge step in the right direction as to where we need to be to not have crime and violence and not have mass incarceration, to not have people persecuted, and not have certain casts of people ruling each other. 

Rebecca Weiker  

The idea that arresting and incarcerating people actually creates safety is a myth. So, to me, the question is: what is it that people need to be safe? And how do we get there? Because our whole system that we have right now is set up in a way that uses a huge amount of resources and has decimated people. How did that happen? It’s overwhelming to think about what it would really take, and we have to start somewhere, and I think really listening to the people whose lives are most impacted is the way to start. I’m optimistic that we can get there. We can’t ignore the larger systemic issues or we will not get there. The reckoning is inextricably tied to the fundamental inequalities in our society. And if we don’t address those, we will never address this problem.