The BERN Project is something that happened by accident, or by fate, destiny, or divine providence. However you choose to look at it, it's something that just...happened. I wasn't expecting it. I wasn't looking for it. I didn't even know it was growing in my brain or in my heart.
I unexpectedly began working with inmates at Alaska's maximum security prison in the spring of 2018. Why? My brother, Bern, was murdered in 1997. Twenty years later, in 2017, I published an autobiography, The Heart of the Runaway (see homepage). The book isn't entirely about my brother's death; it also includes my solo world travels...and other things.
I was invited into the prison in Alaska to give a one-time talk to the inmates about how my brother's murder affected me when it happened, and how it continues to affect my life all these years later.
That one-time talk was so profoundly powerful for me. It changed every aspect of my life. After that, I became a regular volunteer at the prison. And two years later, that prison and those inmates are so intensely special to me that after 10 years of being a nomad, I stayed. I stayed, and put down roots and built a life in one little corner of the world that I had seen so much of. I felt like I was done with traveling anyway, and finally found a place I wanted to call home.
After years of running around the world seeking my place, I finally found where I belong. I finally found my purpose. It's still shocking to me that I found it inside the concrete walls of a prison.
A desire to do more for the inmates was sparked within me, and The BERN Project was born.
What does BERN mean? Bern was my brother's name, but The BERN Project is an acronym for Begin Ending Recidivism Now. The concept behind the project is to utilize the time someone spends incarcerated to better their life, better their circumstances when they're released, and better the people they are within themselves. It's about treating them like the human beings they are, not like monsters. They are people who have made mistakes. We all have made mistakes.
Locking them up and throwing away the key does nothing to rehabilitate a person. Creating angry, feral humans and then releasing them into society at the end of their sentence has been proven ineffective judging by the recidivism (reoffending) rate.
Utilizing the time spent incarcerated to build healthy foundations is vital, not only for the benefit of the inmate and their families, but also for the community.
The BERN Project focuses on guiding inmates on a journey of personal well-being via programs such as writing classes, yoga and meditation, community involvement, accountability and restorative justice.
It has been 22 years since my brother’s murder.
Back then, when I was a 16 year old girl in the thick of it – the trauma and the suffocating grief – I never imagined that one day I would be a 38 year old woman sitting at a table with face-tattooed inmates, eating carrot cake muffins and laughing until I cried as I attempted to explain Instagram to men who have been behind bars since before the internet was even a thing.
But that’s exactly where I was during the summer of 2017, and as is so common in my wild life, I couldn’t be at all surprised that I had found myself within the concrete walls of that maximum security prison in Alaska.
My prison experience began in a way that had nothing to do with my own legal troubles, of which there are none, and everything to do with my past. It was simply one more mind-boggling experience that had landed so unexpectedly into my lap.
I was working as a barista in the Alaskan town where the prison is located. A local pastor came into the café and as I made his coffee, he asked the meaning behind one of my tattoos, a hand reaching up from beneath the waves. I told him it represented a time when I was drowning in life yet was determined to survive. A friendship was sparked, and not quite one year later I told him the story of my brother’s death. He had connections at the prison, and one day an invitation to speak to the inmates about my brother’s murder was presented to me.
The thought filled me with terror, and made my stomach literally hurt at the prospect of parading myself through the confines of an all-male prison. Yet the invitation was delivered with a powerful message from my new friend: here’s your chance to prove beyond a doubt your ability to forgive.
And so, I went. With my heart in my throat and nearly shaking with fear, I walked into that prison and sat down in a plastic chair in a windowless room with some of Alaska’s most dangerous criminals. I drank coffee that was handed to me in a small Styrofoam cup. I shook hands. I listened to stories. I told my story; my brother’s story. And it changed my life.
It changed my life in so many profound ways that I don’t think I’m even aware of all of them. I had been a seasonal worker, a car-living nomad for more than ten years. I spent four months in a town, and then I left. So rarely did I ever return to the same town twice. But I was tired from running around the world searching for my place, my purpose. I wanted to settle somewhere, but didn’t know where, or even how.
My talk at the prison was meant to be a one off. I went in to speak to the Victim Impact group about how my brother’s murder affected my life when it happened, and how it continues to affect my life more than 20 years later. Never before had I sat at the head of a room in front of strangers and divulged the gory details of my brother’s death. To say it was personally challenging is an understatement. It brought up emotions and pain that I thought I had dealt with and moved on from.
Later, as I walked across the prison parking lot and glanced at the snow-capped peaks and hanging glaciers that are visible from its yard, I felt the tears start to claw their way out. The crisp Alaska air bit my cheeks while my throat constricted with emotion. Once I was in my car, I let go. I let go and cried for my brother, for myself, for how overwhelmed with gratitude I was for having just shared a powerful story with people who needed to hear it most. Because my brother’s story is powerful. It’s the story of drug addiction, violence, crime, death by murder, and so many facets of forgiveness.
That one time talk with inmates turned into two years of volunteering inside the prison. It became the reason I stayed; the reason I figured out how to stay somewhere. It was the catalyst for me to build stability in my own life.
Two years later it is now not about my brother, but about the relationship I have built with other human beings who are on the outskirts of society, because I have never felt like I’ve truly belonged wherever I am. I have always felt like I’m hiding something by not talking about my brother with friends. I’ve bonded with the inmates because it feels as if they are the only ones who truly understand what I’m feeling in regard to my brother’s murder. People on the outside can sympathize, but as with anything, until you’ve experienced it, you can never truly and fully understand.
The inmates understand.
They don’t shy away from me or my story, because they are living the same story, just from a very different perspective. Speaking with them and hearing their stories has made me reevaluate my own situation. I see now that the man who killed my brother is just that – a man who made a terribly tragic mistake. I’ve always been an advocate for forgiveness. Working with inmates has allowed me to witness the intense power that those simple words, “I forgive you”, can have on someone’s life.
And in return, saying those words changes your life as well.