Life is so unpredictable. You never know what will happen from one day to the next. You wake up each day, sometimes performing the same routines of life when in a blink of an eye—you’re thrust into a world that you’ve only seen and heard about on television. That’s the story of how I met and fell in love with my husband of 5 years Jerry James or as he’s known inside as “JJ”.
Our story is an unusual one to say the least but one that is filled with mystery, comedy, and action. I met Jerry James through the happenstance of my son who was sentenced in 2014 and sent to a facility near Harrisonburg, VA called Augusta Correctional Center in 2016. While at Augusta, he was welcomed and taken in by a group of Christian brothers—one of them he called “JJ.” During our conversations he would often mention JJ and shared how him, and the other brothers treated him like a son. Making sure he didn’t fall prey to the wrong crowd while serving his time. The more we spoke of JJ, the more I wanted to know about this person. As I mentioned, the only vision of prison I had was what I saw on television. And not all those images were good! So as a mother I was skeptical and concerned. During a call once, JJ was walking past the phone, and I was like ask JJ can I speak to him for a moment. JJ was headed to the showers; he’d stop by on his way out. The calls are only 20 minutes so I was like if the phone hangs up, will you be able to call back. He did and I spoke to JJ for the first time. Asking a million questions, he said it reminded him of his interrogation. But I had to know all that I could about the company my son was keeping. But after that call, it was something in his voice that stuck with me. In the coming days, we’d pass a simple hello or have a good day message through my son. Then one day, I can’t recall how much time had passed but I asked him to get JJ state number and I’d be happy to be his pen pal. We communicated via Jpay—the electronic emailing system used by corrections—for a while then transitioned to phone calls. It was during these calls that I truly fell in love with a person I’d never seen but could tell has a heart of gold.
We finally decided it was time to meet in person and I visited him for the first time on December 18, 2016. It wouldn’t be long after that I became Mrs. James on May 10, 2017. Our love story had suddenly happened. I began to deep dive into his case because I found it most unusual that a person who had never committed a crime before could receive such a harsh sentence. I was baffled that they would sentence him so excessively when no one was hurt or killed. Of course, he deserved to be punished for his crimes, but I didn’t feel the punishment fit the crime. During the months and years to come, I would find myself once again thrust into a world I knew absolutely nothing about but was determined to see Jerry gain his freedom. I continued doing research, following groups on Facebook, observing what other groups in advocacy were doing and reading material from national organizations like FAMM.
You don’t expect to become an advocate, but when it happens you give it your all. That’s exactly what I did when I teamed up with two other ladies in 2020 to form Sistas in Prison Reform. An advocacy group of women who shared the same common goal of fighting for individuals like Jerry who had been sentenced to decades in prison excessively. Jerry’s incarceration has shown me just how strong I can be. Some days are tough and lots of lonely nights but when I talk to him or I see him—it’s like a spark of fireworks goes off and I am overwhelmed with so much love, joy, peace, and happiness. He’s like my knight in shining armor that came along and rescued me. Fighting to bring him home has been one of the most rewarding things to happen in my life. I have met some of the most amazing people during this journey. I have learned how unjust our criminal justice system in the state and across the country has been for decades. There’s nothing I would change about our story—other than his freedom; and you can believe that I plan to fight until it happens.
By Paula James