One Woman’s Fight for a Second Chance for Her Best Friend - FAMM

One Woman’s Fight for a Second Chance for Her Best Friend

Too many people are serving long prison terms that don’t make us safer, and our laws don’t give them a second chance. Most governors have the authority to shorten excessive prison terms but often fail to use their clemency power to its fullest extent. The Commonwealth of Virginia’s Gov. Northam, for example, should expand the use of executive clemency in his state. The story below is about one man and the friend who’s fighting as hard as she can for his freedom.

 

Juanita Belton wants you to know that her best friend, Sincere Allah, doesn’t seek sympathy or forgiveness. “More than anything, it’s a second chance. Sincere has earned a second chance.”

Sincere has been in a Virginia state prison since he was 18. Now 41, more than halfway through a 45-year sentence, he and Juanita are driven to show society that he should get that second chance at life on the outside. That relief requires reform: In Virginia, where Sincere is incarcerated, parole is not available to him. The other option would be clemency from the governor.

The story of their friendship goes way back to when they were teenagers. In 1995, sitting on a crosstown bus in Roxbury, Massachusetts, they casually exchanged names. Their ensuing three-day romance ended; instead, they became best friends.

Born to an 18-year-old mother and a 14-year-old father, Sincere was passed back and forth from Virginia with his mother, to Boston with his father. He lived on couches, in group homes, and on the street when his mother was physically and verbally abusive. Most of his teen years were spent in Boston. When life at home with his father became toxic, he spent more and more time at his grandmother’s house and Juanita’s house. Her family became his surrogate, until one day, Sincere stopped coming by.

Juanita’s mother had formed a close bond with Sincere. Concerned about his whereabouts, she inquired around. Her discovery that he had been forced to move back to Virginia to live with his mother was upsetting. Soon, he fell into trouble with drugs, alcohol, and selling guns for quick money. Upon returning to Boston, he set up a firearms deal with a gang. The exchange went awry and his associate was killed. Sincere was later arrested, charged with murder, arson, and use of a firearm.

After some time, I realized the best thing I could do is change and grow, and that started with changing my mindset.

Though Sincere wholeheartedly knew he was innocent of the murder charge, his alibi proved unreliable at the last minute and, fearing the death penalty after initially being charged with capital murder, Sincere pled guilty to arson and signed an Alford plea for first-degree murder and use of a firearm.

Meanwhile, Juanita was building her own life. First, college in Atlanta, then a boyfriend who became her husband. After receiving two master’s degrees, Juanita began her career as a physician assistant while raising two children.

In prison, after trial and error, Sincere became focused and productive. “When I came in, terms like manhood, responsibility, discipline, and respect were only words to me that at best I could crudely define. After some time, I realized the best thing I could do is change and grow, and that started with changing my mindset. My goal is to be a tool of prevention for youth that find themselves heading down a path of death and destruction.”

He’s had steady employment inside, earned his GED and college certificates in English, math, and computer literacy, and became a college tutor for fellow inmates. He earned straight A’s in a college socioeconomic course through Washington and Lee University in the prison, and was editor-in-chief of the prison newsletter. He is heavily involved with peer support, as a therapeutic and substance abuse treatment aide. Hoping to be a peer support recovery specialist and set up a treatment facility when he’s released, Sincere has taken business courses in data entry and financial literacy.

Juanita and Sincere communicated the first eight years of his incarceration through letter mail and collect calls. He spoke often to Juanita’s mother. They lost connection for a few years. But he missed his best friend and wanted to tell her how he lived, how he’d changed, and how much he wanted to help young men like himself avoid his fate. In 2016 they reconnected by email. In 2019 their emails turned into daily phone calls. They fell back into their friendship as if no time had passed. “That’s the one thing about us,” Juanita says. “He probably knows things about me that nobody else knows.” They’ve been talking nonstop now for two years.

The further Juanita got into Sincere’s life and work in prison, the more deeply she was moved by what might be possible — what her friend could do for society if he were free. “I wish people could see and know what I see and know.” She was also becoming aware that money spent on him as a person in prison would be better invested in efforts around crime prevention and rehabilitation. She made it her mission to get smart about Virginia’s criminal justice system, and how to make reform happen. And she started focusing on the idea of second chances — and how important they are to true justice.

Juanita joined Twitter when she learned that legislators use the platform. She’s highly active on all social media, spreading the word about Sincere and the power of second chances. With two women she met on social media who are in similar situations, Santia Nance and Paulettra James, she founded the group Sistas in Prison Reform. On their website they describe themselves like this: “We are 3 women who have a vision to change the perception of those sentenced to prison beyond 10 years and have been forgotten by lawmakers and society.”

Sincere accepts full responsibility for his crimes. “There is no apology that will ever be good enough,” he says, “nor any grouping of words that would be suitable to articulate the depth of regret and remorse for the pain and heartache my actions caused.”

The Redemption Project has helped him apply for a conditional pardon, which currently sits in the office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Juanita believes Sincere is a paradigm for second chance considerations. She’s saying to anyone who will listen: “Look his way. Let him tell you who he was, who he’s been, who he is now. Let him save a life. Let him make a difference.”

Let Virginia know that you think Sincere deserves a second chance. FAMM and Juanita need your help!

Sincere Allah

State: Virginia
Issue: Clemency

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