by Jeremiah Gilbert
I am writing this letter in a moment of hope. It is the first time I have felt such in 19 years. I am a Juvenile Lifer. What does that mean? It means that as a juvenile I committed a crime and was sentenced to life in prison without release.
I took the lives of two innocent men when I was 15 years old. In a drunken, panic-ridden afternoon; I made some terrible choices. Resulting in two men being removed from this earth; and myself from society. I was told that from then on I was forever unredeemable.
Tragically I took that to heart; my first decade of incarceration was rather destructive. I awoke to the mindset of death is only a release date: do whatever, however, and damn those in my way. As spirit crippling as that is to hear; it is even more so to believe. So I existed beyond society’s grasp, beyond redemption.
I was then blessed. Upon reflection a series of random encounters and carefully chosen words are what it seems to have made the difference. A Nez Perce Tribal Elder teaching me the meaning of a being warrior, "One who sacrifices for the betterment of their people, no more no less." My own sister telling me, "just because you are doing life, doesn't mean you can't have one.” How sobering is that coming from a now grown woman who you last saw free as a little girl in pig-tails. Three beautiful little babies, my nieces. The love in their eyes as they run into the visit room to give "Uncle Bear" a big 0l’ hug. As I write this the words needed to express how truly healing those little hugs and kisses are escapes me.
So I risked believing something different. I risked believing that even if I was beyond redemption, never again to be free, maybe I could help other prisoners who might have a second chance. I began to involve myself in others people’s problems. Naive enough to believe I could help others without ever truly working on myself.
Blind luck led me to a few successes. Then the reality of unresolved anger issues led me to a circumstance beyond my ability to resolve. I assaulted an officer and wound up back on square one.
Sitting in a moment of reflection, searching answers, I found them all lacking. I was myself the puzzle and the pieces did not fit. I realized then I needed new answers. I needed new questions. Not, ”Why is this always happening to me," but rather, "Why am I always making this happen?"
I took the step; I humbled myself and asked for help. I was accepted into an intense program called Step-Down. (Now called I.T.P.) I took multiple classes, spent hours with Mental Health Providers. Searching for new questions, I discovered new answers.
I continue to work on myself daily. I continue to seek out new questions. Now I help others find their own answers. With other concerned Lifers I helped develop and now teach in a program called Step-Up. We teach a class titled Release Readiness. We teach those with that blessing of a second chance how to live successfully in society. How to conduct themselves in job interviews, fill out resumes, work on their family issues, as well as any dependencies they have.
I feel good, alive even as I watch these men "get it” as they work their way through the class. And for the past six classes I've been content in my vicarious freedom of watching these men work their way home.
Suddenly, a star in the midnight canvas of my hopelessness. A tiny light shining in my tunnel. Legislation that would remand me back to redemption. The proposed bill has a way to go yet before it is voted into law and thus this letter. I am writing not only for myself, but for the 27 other Juvenile Lifers here in Washington State. Some of you reading this will find us defined by our mistakes. For those of you who believe we are redeemable, we ask only that you e-mail, call, or write your local Senators and Representatives and tell them you support HB1063.(2011).
This bill would hold us for a minimum of 15 years. After that we could become parole eligible based upon our behavior while incarcerated. Essentially, if we continue to live our mistakes, we remain in prison. Should we decide we are worthy, within ourselves, and work for a second chance it may then be granted.