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Looking Out for Insiders : Friends Outside volunteers communicate with prisoners such as an O.C. woman on Death Row, offering support and compassion to them and their families.

July 27, 1994|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sandi Burns keeps a wallet-size photo of a young, dark-haired woman holding two children in tattoo-covered arms as a reminder of someone many people want to forget. She is Rosie Alfaro, the first and only woman in Orange County to be sentenced to death, and she is Burns' friend.

Burns befriends people others often shun or despise, people who may have committed heinous crimes. Burns is coordinator of Friends Outside, a program that assists the incarcerated and their families. Offered through the St. Vincent de Paul Center for Community Reconciliation in Orange, the program matches prisoners with people willing to correspond with the incarcerated.

"That's how I came to know Rosie," Burns says.

Establishing a friendship with the incarcerated, especially someone who has committed an especially violent act, requires an understanding of the reasons that led them to commit the crime in the first place, says Gregorio Martinez, chaplain of Orange County jails for the St. Vincent de Paul center.

"You have to really listen to their story to see why the incarcerated did the wrongdoing. You have to see what the situation was," Martinez says.

Understanding what social factors--poverty, drug problems, broken homes--contributed to the prisoner's situation can also foster the "reconciliation."

"I've been involved in the ministry 10 years," Martinez says. "Whatever crime (the prisoners) have committed, we are there to bring compassion. Every time I see some man or woman in jail, I think, 'What would I do if that were my own mother, my own father, my own daughter?' "

Friends Outside was founded in Santa Clara County in 1954 by Rosemary Goodenough, who was encouraged by the county sheriff to discover problems facing the families of inmates. Goodenough found the families were under extreme stress and financial worry.

Friends Outside, which has chapters throughout California, was formed to help the families cope. The Orange County chapter began in 1978 to provide services to ex-offenders and their families, including jail visits and correspondence with prisoners, holiday events for families, job referrals and an upcoming parenting class.

Burns corresponds with Alfaro and three other prisoners through Friends Outside. Additional volunteers correspond with 250 inmates a month, but more volunteers are needed.

"Some of the inmates are just really lonely. They have no one on the outside," Burns says. "We are their source of communication with the outside world."

*

Maria (Rosie) del Rosio Alfaro, 22, was sentenced to death two years ago for fatally stabbing a 9-year-old Anaheim girl, Autumn Wallace. Alfaro has said that she was high on drugs at the time of the murder. After stabbing the girl 57 times and leaving her to bleed to death on her bathroom floor, Alfaro looted the Wallace house of electrical equipment and clothes and sold the goods for about $300. Judge Theodore Millard, who presided over the case, called the murder the most "senseless, brutal, vicious and callous" killing he had ever known.

The mother of four young boys, Alfaro is now living with two other women on California's Death Row, at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.

Many may wonder how Burns can be friends with someone who committed such a terrible act.

"I'm not here to judge. I'm here to be her friend," Burns says. "To people who ask, 'How can you be friends with her?' I say, 'She was a youngster. She's only 22 now. She was in the middle of an addiction, a disease.' "

Burns' first contact with Alfaro occurred shortly before Christmas. Alfaro had heard from chaplain Martinez about a Christmas party offered by Friends Outside for children of the incarcerated. He encouraged Alfaro to fill out a form so her children could attend the party.

"Rosie asked if I could help her family. That was the onset of our friendship," says Burns, who received Alfaro's request.

"I wrote a letter back right away saying, 'Don't worry about anything. Your kids will be provided for.' She wrote back and asked if I would have my picture taken with her mom and kids (at the party). It was real overwhelming when I met her children. I felt so sad. They're beautiful," Burns says.

Soon the two were writing regularly. They've exchanged photographs, and Alfaro occasionally calls Burns collect from the prison.

"Late at night I'll get on my computer and write to her," Burns says. "We share a lot of what's happening in our lives."

*

Burns, 39, can relate to Alfaro in a way that many cannot.

"We already had a common bond. I'm a recovering addict myself," Burns says. "I had a husband, children, a beautiful home in the hills and my own business (a hair salon). I lost all that. It was a very dark time. Today I have a real good relationship with my children and my ex-husband. I have a real inner peace and serenity."

Burns began her recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol more than four years ago, and she can empathize with the withdrawal pains that Alfaro is experiencing.

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