Paulettra’s Story: A Wife’s Fight for Freedom – FAMM

Paulettra’s Story: A Wife’s Fight for Freedom

I met and married my husband while he was incarcerated.  Let me tell you the story.

 

Jerry had already served 16 years when I came along between July and August of 2016. We met through my son, who was incarcerated at Augusta Correctional. Our relationship started off as friends but soon blossomed into more. In the beginning of our relationship, we used pet names for each other. He would call me his “Butterscotch” because of the color of my skin and how he said it glowed in the pictures I’d send him. He was my “Chocolate Bunny” since he was darker than me but today, he’s my Honey Bear.

I fell in love with Jerry because he is like this big teddy bear. He plays tough around the guys but really, he is kind, loving and genuinely sweet. Even though he was not physically with me, he always finds a way to make holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and my birthday very special. He would have guys in his pod that were artistic make me handkerchief paintings or cards out of file folders shaped into beautiful roses or images. I have so many artifacts around my office that he has given me over the years. He always writes the cutest poems inside the cards that he sent—like once he wrote, “When you love someone so much, you never want to let them go.” This was the quote around a picture someone drew of him and I together inside a heart surrounded with roses.

When I first met my husband, I made it my business to learn everything I could about his case and the laws in Virginia. I thought his sentence of 38 years was so excessive — and I soon found out that there are many, many people in prison serving very long sentences that absolutely do not “fit the crime.”

It was these factors that motivated me to fight for his release and to become an advocate for criminal justice reform. I began to learn all I could by attending town hall events with lawmakers, watching sessions of the general assembly, and speaking with other loved ones about prison reform. I was able to connect with other advocates on the state and national level.

If I had a word of advice for other women in my position, I would simply say never give up. No matter how hard things get, you have to keep fighting.

Jerry has spent his time taking programs and gaining his GED, and currently is in college to receive his associates degree for Biblical studies. He keeps himself busy inside working out and working on the janitorial team in the front offices. He has also gotten certifications in carpet cleaning as well as window cleaning. He loves to keep busy with his hands and would like to have his own janitorial service business aside from owning and operating a dump truck business.

In high school Jerry played sports such as football and basketball but he doesn’t do that much now. He would rather be busy helping move desks, cabinets, and old refrigerators. I tell him often that he going to look like the hulk if he keeps lifting those heavy items.

We spend a lot of time reading the bible and doing bible studies. Our connection remains strong through our spiritual readings. When you are married to someone in prison, it can be a very stressful and challenging life, so we keep rooted by keeping God first. That was the basis of our relationship in the beginning, and it is something that remains constant even today.

Staying grounded in God’s word is also what helps me during my advocacy for his freedom.  While advocating for Jerry, I connected with two other ladies who like myself were fighting for their loved ones. The one thing we had in common was the fact that lawmakers seemed to exclude individuals with “violent” offenses. It was this division that drove us to start our advocacy group, Sistas in Prison Reform. We want to change the stigma that individuals with harsher offenses are incapable of being rehabilitated and worthy of a second chance. We immediately got to work on brainstorming the best way to help our loved ones—hence how the bill for Second Look was birthed. Jerry became the motivation behind my every thought into the legislation.

I found myself being launched into the world of advocacy to change the criminal justice system in Virginia. It was FAMM that allowed my group its first virtual event to kick-off second look legislation. I began to work tirelessly to build relationships with lawmakers over the next few months. My life that was once quiet and sheltered, has now become public and in the limelight. Even today, I still take every opportunity to humanize Jerry — sharing his story to bring attention to mental illness and literacy as it relates to crime. Jerry’s story is not uncommon. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, about 35% of individuals receive their GED after becoming incarcerated.

This journey has not come short of failures — we submitted a pardon in 2020 for Jerry which was denied. We discovered in 2022 he would be eligible for enhanced earned sentence credits from a bill that was passed in 2020 and went into effect on July 1, 2022. However, as fate would have it, the governor passed a budget amendment that excluded individuals with mixed offenses from receiving the extra credits. That meant that Jerry would not be released before 2033! My hope balloon was deflated once again.

But I refuse to give up because Jerry has worked so hard to rehabilitate himself and has earned his second chance. I will continue to fight for him to receive it! If I had a word of advice for other women in my position, I would simply say never give up. No matter how hard things get, you have to keep fighting. You do not have to be an advocate or even start an advocacy group, but you do need to connect with a local or national organization in your area to help support you. Because trust me, you will need all the support you can get when in this fight. You get knocked down but keep getting back up!

Paulettra’s husband is incarcerated in a Virginia state prison. If you’d like to learn more about FAMM’s work in that state and how you can help, please go here.

Paulettra (left) and Jerry James.

State: Virginia
Issue: Sentencing