SCI Smithfield held its annual Day of Responsibility on April 26 coordinated by facility staff in conjunction with the institution’s inmate organization, Journey for Change.
This year’s theme was “Elevate, Engage, and Effect Change… Poor Choices and Past Mistakes Are Current Challenges That Inspire Us to Reach Our Future Goals.” The Day of Responsibility event gives inmates an opportunity to hear crime victims explain how deeply crime has impacted each of their lives. They also heard from their fellow inmates as they discussed their crimes and how it has affected not only themselves but also their families. The well-attended program was held in the morning and then again in the afternoon to accommodate all the staff and inmates who wanted to attend.
This year’s featured speaker was from a small town in Pennsylvania and was a survivor of the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting that is the deadliest mass shooting in United States history. In 11 minutes, the gunman, perched in a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, killed 58 people and injured more than 500 others.
The guest speaker survived the massacre, but unfortunately her husband was shot and killed. The couple was visiting Las Vegas to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary at the Harvest Music Festival on the Las Vegas strip. It was their first trip away together in many years because life was busy, and they were focused on raising their two children, ages 11 and 14.
The first two nights of the concert were uneventful; but on Sunday, October 1, 2017, at approximately 10 p.m., our speaker’s life changed “in the blink of an eye.” She was enjoying the concert with her husband when they heard what she described as a cracking noise, like firecrackers. Her husband fell to the ground after being hit by the gunfire.
She bent down to him to feel for a pulse but there was not one. She checked for a pulse several times, then realized he was dead. She laid across his body to make it appear to the shooter that she was also dead because the bullets were raining down all over the crowd. After a few minutes, she realized she needed to escape. She kissed her husband and told him she loved him but she needed to run for their two boys who were at home. She left his side and began to run as her shoes flew off her feet. She ran as fast as she could toward a fence as shattered glass on the ground cut her feet. She climbed over a fence near the stage and made it to a nearby hotel, where she and others took shelter.
She said she was still in shock, but recalls someone cleaning the wounds on her feet as she began making a series of difficult phone calls to her in-laws to tell them of the tragedy. Finally, the last call she made was to her two boys, and in her words “it was the hardest call I have ever had to make.” As her children sobbed in the emotional pain of losing their father, she tried to stay strong for them and told them they would make it through this.
After four days, she was finally able to fly home with her deceased husband. Today she suffers from PTSD and said that not a day goes by she doesn’t think about that day. In less than 11 minutes, her life and the lives of many were forever changed. Hearing her story was surreal as though it was scripted from a movie. But it was a real-life tragic event that happened to a couple from a small Pennsylvania town who were doing nothing more than celebrating their anniversary on a well-deserved vacation.
During her emotional speech, the audience leaned forward in their seats listening intently to her story and how one moment in time can permanently affect so many. The story was impactful to inmates and staff alike. At the conclusion of her presentation, one inmate said, “We may never get to talk to our victims but always keep them (their own victims) in mind. Allow this story to motivate you to change.”
The Journey for Change inmate organization presented a check for $500 to the Public Education Foundation who fund the college scholarships of the victims’ children through an organization called “Children of the 58.”
Among other outside speakers at the event were Ms. N. Evans from the Office of Victim Advocate who educated the inmates on what that office does. Ms. Stone and Ms. Pannebaker, Reentry Service Office parole agents, encouraged the inmates to take advantage of all the services that they can help them prepare for successful reentry. Mr. J Thomas spoke to inmates about keeping in contact with their children and the importance of being a part of their lives. He encouraged them to rise higher than the negative words that people have spoken about them and over them and rise above their negative thinking. If not, they will always be dictated by the past and crimes committed. They will be stuck in that mindset. He encouraged them to keep a positive attitude and move forward. Life hits hard, he said, when you go outside of the prison walls and preparation now mentally, physically, and spiritually is important.
At the conclusion of the day’s program, inmates and staff alike were moved by the personal stories of many who explained how crime has affected them. Crime has a ripple effect on victims, victims’ families, inmates and their families, and communities where crime is committed. There is no crime that is victimless, and one singular moment in time can forever negatively altered the lives of many.