We met Jeri at a writer’s workshop where we all were students. She had the look of someone who has paid some serious dues. As we listened to her story we were amazed that she looked as youthful and vibrant as she did. It would be a profound understatement to say that Jeri had had a hard life.
When she was in her early twenties, she got involved with a boyfriend who was a drug dealer. She experimented with drugs herself and found herself in way over her head. One afternoon she and her boyfriend went to the home of another dealer to purchase drugs. The two men got into an altercation that resulted in her boyfriend shooting and killing the dealer. Jeri was convicted of 1st degree and sentenced to life in prison. Her boyfriend was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to seventeen years, despite the fact that he was the one who fired the fatal shot.
Jeri: “I was still in shock when I received my life sentence. Over time, the reality of the situation began to hit me: I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison. I couldn’t help but hope that someone would realize that this was terribly wrong, that I didn’t deserve this, that something would happen that would allow me to go back to the life that I had known. But as the days and weeks and months passed, it became increasingly more evident that no rescue was going to happen.”
“I began to accept the fact that I could either continue to dwell on how unjust this whole situation was, or try to understand how to survive this ordeal without going completely insane. I looked around at the other women in the prison with me, and saw how hard, and bitter most of them had become. I vowed then and there that I would not let this experience destroy me as it had them. Still, I wasn’t sure just exactly how I would do that. “
“By what I can only call a miracle, I came to befriend another inmate who helped me to see there were alternatives to being consumed by hatred and self-pity. Nancy had already served several years in prison, but there was something very different about her. Unlike the others, she smiled frequently. She always had a kind word for everyone. She was a loving person.”
“One day she told me that she was grateful for her prison experience because without it, she would either be dead or bitter and miserable. Nancy helped me to see that the power to determine what kind of a person this experience would cause me to become. She helped me to see that the way I used my time, the way I interacted with others, my attitude and thinking were the factors that would determine how my life in prison would be.”
“As I observed Nancy’s encounters with other prisoners and correctional officers, I noticed that her every interaction contributed something positive. She was truly an angel of mercy, the quality that is most lacking in prison. I realized that I would have to become more merciful not only with those around me but also with myself. I would have to forgive myself for the mistakes in my life that I had made that had led to my arrest.”
Jeri became a model prisoner, helping many inmates during the years of her incarceration. Whenever she came up for parole, she got a strong recommendation from the parole board. She even had a letter from the judge who sentenced her, saying that the term was excessive and strongly supported her release. But the governor refused to allow her to be pardoned and in fact swore that he would never pardon anyone who had been convicted of murder. After that governor left office, the new governor honored the recommendation of the parole board. After spending twenty-five years in prison, Jeri was finally released.
Jeri told us that she knew early on that she could resist with anger and self-pity, or she could take a forgiving stance toward herself for getting into such a compromised position, towards her boyfriend, and towards the penal system that dealt her such a stiff sentence, and towards the governor who refused to allow her release. She knew that she didn’t want to do even more harm to herself, so she decided to forgive and to do as much good inside the prison as she possibly could.
Most of us do not have a betrayal or wound that is as long lasting, disruptive, and life changing as Jeri’s. If she can practice forgiveness in such dire circumstances, then surely, the rest of us can make the effort to live with a more open heart.
Linda Bloom L.C.S.W. has served as psychotherapist and seminar leader practicing relationship counseling almost forty years. Check out her OMTimes Bio.
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