The Love Story that Happened Suddenly by Paulettra James

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

Sincere is Home!

Happy to share that one of our own, Sincere B Allah, is home after being granted clemency by former Governor Ralph Northam.

We’re excited that he will be able to speak out as a returning citizen, as we continue to fight for so many others who are behind bars.

Next, we’re working on Second Look, and hoping to bring Quadaire and Jerry home next!

Santia Nance column: Second chances for incarcerated Virginians

Last month, in an interview in Henrico County, Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin addressed his plans for Virginia’s criminal legal system. When discussing instituting new leaders for the Virginia Parole Board, which evaluates parole for eligible incarcerated people, he stated in part: “We make sure that we’ve got folks that are recognizing that, yes, second chances are part of our own philosophy.”

I sincerely hope he means what he’s saying. Virginia has one of the cruelest punishment systems in the country, keeping people behind bars far longer than necessary. People who committed crimes in 1995 or later aren’t eligible for parole or sentencing reduction, no matter how much they have changed for the better.

My fiancé, Quadaire Patterson, is one of these people. He’s my first love and has had a tremendously positive impact on my life since we reconnected a few years ago. He has fundamentally changed and earned a second chance at freedom, along with many other incarcerated people in Virginia. When Youngkin enters office in January, he should stick to his word and allow reformed incarcerated individuals an opportunity to re-enter society.

Quadaire has certainly made his mistakes in life (just like the rest of us) but deserves a chance to live beyond bars. Rewind to his high school years, when he was in the Naval Junior ROTC program. That’s when he and I first crossed paths, attending different schools in the Hampton Roads area. He led multiple drill teams and even graduated from a leadership academy.

Though he was successful, he became a teenage father and had to drop out of high school and get a full-time job to support his child. He then tried to enter the military but was unable to get in. He eventually found himself homeless at just 20 years old.

He turned to crime to survive. He, along with two others, attempted to rob drug dealers and was charged with a slew of additional crimes that he did not commit. While Quadaire did not take anything or have a weapon, he was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years behind bars.

Twenty years. For merely showing up in a group to rob drug dealers. His co-defendants, meanwhile, accepted plea deals and got paltry sentences or no time at all.

For 13 years in prison, Quadaire has prioritized education, meditation and mentorship. He has secured his GED and is studying to get an associate’s degree in social sciences. He counsels and mentors fellow incarcerated men on self-care, mental health and higher education. And he has organized, written and championed a website called, which enables incarcerated people to express themselves through literature and poetry.

When he leaves prison, he plans to become a lawyer and community leader, helping youths and incarcerated individuals overcome legal, social and economic challenges. There is simply no need for Quadaire to be locked up for seven more years.

Quadaire is far from alone in this respect. Many other incarcerated people in Virginia have experienced similar growth and change, but they are staring down years or decades more in prison. Some will be there until they die.

That’s because Virginia’s criminal legal system is cruel and outdated. For more than 200 crimes, judges are required to dole out mandatory minimum sentences, regardless of whether they believe a person should spend that long behind bars. And only people who committed crimes before 1995 have any shot at parole. As a result, more than 4,000 Virginians are serving life sentences — amounting to 1 in 7 incarcerated people.

There’s no reason for Virginia to continue these extreme sentences. Plenty of research shows that people who are released from prison after a long period of time, even those convicted for violent crimes, are incredibly unlikely to reoffend. That’s because people tend to age out of crime.

Virginia’s criminal legal system needs to be brought into the 21st century. Prisons should not be a place for people to simply waste away.

As Youngkin takes office next year, I’m calling on him and state legislators to consider an approach that’s gaining momentum nationwide called “second look sentencing.” Such reforms enable people’s sentences to be reconsidered after they have served a predetermined amount of time in prison. Importantly, this does not mean every person would receive a reduced sentence, or even a hearing. It simply means incarcerated people have the opportunity to show they have transformed their lives and earned their freedom.

Youngkin has the chance to fundamentally reform and humanize Virginia’s legal system. He has served on the vestry of Holy Trinity Church in McLean and has stated his support of second chances, and I am hopeful he believes in forgiveness and redemption as much as I do. Quadaire and so many incarcerated individuals deserve a chance.

Santia Nance, a Richmond-area resident for 15 years, is co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform, which supports second chances for people who have served lengthy sentences. Contact her at:

As seen on Times Dispatch:

Feature: Gin & Justice Podcast with The SIP

On this weeks episode Justine and Amanda chat with Juanita Belton, Santia Nance, & Paulettra James, The founders of SIP.

These three women have a vision to change the perception of those sentenced to prison beyond 10 years and have been forgotten by lawmakers and society. Currently focused in Virginia, they started their efforts with the goal achieving the release of their loved ones, Quadaire Patterson, Jerry James, and Sincere Allah.

To listen, check out their website, or any other major podcast platform:

Opinion: Rehabilitated violent offenders deserve a second chance

As seen in the Virginian Pilot and Daily Press, written by Paulettra James.

For years, I have been separated from the love of my life — my husband, Jerry James. Why? Because of Virginia’s incredibly outdated, harmful, and punishment-focused legal model.

Despite overwhelming evidence that lengthy sentences are unnecessary to protect public safety, Virginia doles out some of the most extreme punishments in the nation — and leaves incarcerated people with virtually no hope of a second chance.

Jerry, who has turned his life around, is just one of thousands of people trapped in this broken system. He has been in the Virginia Department of Corrections for 21 years. And it all started because he wanted to kill himself. Here’s his story.

Jerry was living a relatively ordinary life. But then things turned. He got into a serious romantic relationship, and his partner became relentlessly abusive. Jerry felt like he couldn’t get out. He suffered serious mental anguish and turned to drugs and alcohol. He then attempted to take his own life. He conceived of a plan to rob a bank with the hope that police would kill him when they responded. He wanted to end his life to end his troubles.

In 2000, Jerry was sentenced to serve 38 years behind bars for robbery and use of firearms in commission of a felony. His weapon was an unloaded BB gun; he had no intention of hurting anyone. He just didn’t want to live.

In prison, Jerry transformed. He turned to faith to guide his path forward. He completed his GED and graduated valedictorian. He earned certificates in anger management, janitorial services and more, and is on the path to getting an associate degree. He has also worked for the warden and front offices for the past three years — an incredible mark of trust from prison leadership.

This dedication and commitment are precisely why I fell in love with Jerry and married him four years ago. Upon meeting him, I found his faith and kindness moving, and our shared faith bonded us. His heart suited mine perfectly.

Now a matured 49-year-old, Jerry hopes to live outside prison and build our life together. He wants to use the associate degree he’s getting in biblical studies and ministerial counseling to help other young men who could easily fall prey to the criminal justice system.

But Virginia’s legal system has virtually no way for people who deserve a second chance to get one.

For example, Virginia has strict mandatory minimum policies — meaning people are required to serve often lengthy preset terms, regardless of individual circumstances. A recent bill to end all mandatory minimums gained traction earlier this year, but lawmakers couldn’t get it done.

Other legislation has been introduced to increase time off for good behavior, but lawmakers excluded any individuals with violent offenses. That’s despite plenty of research showing that people who served decades in prison for violent crimes rarely reoffend upon release. People simply age out of crime.

The vast majority of people serving extreme sentences want to spend time with their families, work hard, and contribute to their communities. I’m praying that policymakers will provide people serving extreme sentences with a “second look,” or a chance to have their sentences re-evaluated if they can show they have transformed.

Efforts to give people a second chance don’t amount to a “get out of jail free” card. They simply offer people such as Jerry an opportunity to petition the courts for release. The judge can then evaluate the person as they are today, not as they were in the past.

Warehousing individuals for decades does not ensure public safety, but it does breed hopelessness and heartbreak. We need lawmakers to give people like Jerry a second chance.

Paulettra James of Woodbridge is a co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform, a group that believes people who have served lengthy sentences deserve a second chance.

Opinion: Virginia’s extreme sentences don’t make us safer, and they hurt communities

As seen in the Washington Post:

Opinion by Juanita Belton
August 13, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. EDT

Juanita Belton is a co-founder of Sistas in Prison Reform, a group that believes people who have served lengthy sentences deserve a second chance.

Virginia just hit a major milestone in justice reform: Legislation recently went into effect officially abolishing the death penalty.

But thousands of Virginians are still forced to die or live most of their lives within our criminal justice system. Virginia’s criminal legal system regularly doles out cruel, extreme sentences that last more than 20 years. I am hopeful that state officials will give all extreme sentences a second look.

For me, the issue is deeply personal. For 24 years, my best friend, Sincere Born Allah, has been serving a 45-year sentence in the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Sincere is one of the kindest people I know. But, at 19, he was convicted of murder, arson and use of a firearm. He has maintained his innocence regarding the murder and was pressured into a plea deal for fear of the death penalty. I wholeheartedly believe him.

Prison has taken a brutal toll on Sincere, as it does on so many others. Forced behind bars at such a crucial developmental age, he experienced depression, substance abuse, isolation, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.

Despite his circumstances, he was determined to make his life better, and he got to work. He now mentors fellow incarcerated people and facilitates prison programs, and he has created an initiative to teach interpersonal skills, leadership and goal-setting. He’s also on the path to becoming certified as a peer recovery specialist for people with substance use disorders and mental health issues.

Now 41, Sincere is fundamentally different from the young man I met. He wants to support his community and be of service to others. He also wants to spend time with his family, including the siblings he left behind and the niece and nephew who were born while he was incarcerated.

For Sincere to see the freedom that he desires, and that I believe he has earned, sentencing laws must change. Virginia has taken steps in the right direction. In addition to nixing the death penalty, the state recently legalized marijuana and abolished life without parole for juveniles.

Unfortunately, comprehensive reforms to reduce extreme sentences have largely stalled. For one, there are unfounded fears that people imprisoned for violent crimes will reoffend.

But those fears have been debunked by a mountain of research. State, national and international studies have consistently found that people released from prison after serving many years have extremely low rates of recidivism, including those convicted of violent offenses. Research also shows that people generally age out of crime once they reach adulthood. For some it takes longer, but releasing Sincere — and thousands of other people like him in prison — would not impede public safety.

Other anti-reform advocates argue that victims of crime deserve the peace of mind that comes from knowing that offenders are paying a long sentence for their crimes.

Trust me, I understand these sentiments. I am a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence. But I have found healing from my family, my therapist and my community, not from long sentences.

Fortunately, policymakers nationwide are starting to recognize the need for change and are spearheading “second look” reforms. Such reforms enable courts to reconsider long sentences after people serve a predetermined amount of time and can show that they have transformed their life.

These initiatives are gaining momentum across the country. Legislators in 25 states have recently introduced second-look bills, according to a May report from the Sentencing Project. And more than 60 elected prosecutors and law enforcement leaders have called for second-look legislation. Now, it’s Virginia’s turn to adopt such reforms.

Virginia’s criminal justice system doesn’t follow the science about effective sentencing policy. People like Sincere, and those who love him, suffer the consequences. We need to give people a second look and a second chance.

Still Human

By Paulettra James

My husband and many others who are behind the walls are people, they are HUMAN! It is sad to think that in the 21st century, our society still has the mind set of “out of sight, out of mind.” But it is very true—there are thousands of men and women that sit behind the walls of prison, while society has continued to move forward. They are not animals and do not deserve to be treated as such, but they are every single day.

Some are locked in a cell block no bigger than a closet only being allowed out once a day every 23 hrs. Then there are some who share a cell with others—no privacy to do the basic of things like using the bathroom. The courtesy of respect they give one another goes beyond words, as usually one individual will leave the cell to allow for privacy. The give more respect to one another than they are given by correctional officers. Which is kind of sad because regardless of what they have done to end up where they are, they are still human.

They are and should not be defined by their past. They are deserving of a second chance. Truth be told, a lot of them are not just sitting around behind those walls, they are doing activities and learning skills to help them become a better person. They are taking classes and courses to gain diplomas, certificates, and college degrees. They are being recognized for being trustworthy, hard-working, and respectful by higher officials/administration. They are helping to keep facilities safe by mentoring others to ensure gang activity does not go rampant. They are working jobs that pay them as little as $0.30 an hour to help keep the facilities clean and functioning. They are still functioning as if they were not behind the walls and becoming better individuals, not because they have too but because they are still human.

So, despite the circumstances or reasons they are where they are, they are HUMAN! They are husbands/wives, sons/daughters, brothers/sisters, uncles/aunts, grandfathers/grandmother—and their lives matter to those who are waiting for them to return home. We must learn to forgive, show grace and mercy. We must learn to humanize them because they are not the state number department of corrections assigned to them, they are not prisoners/inmates, they are not yesterday’s trash that you just throw away—they are STILL HUMAN!


I figured I’d just send you some of my thoughts with the hope that at some point they will catch an empathetic ear or eye and be cultivated into more support. If I have no real content out there or any substantial work to represent me outside these walls then I can’t possibly expect to be supported in my objective. I have to be seen and heard in order to be humanized after almost a quarter century of dehumanization. So here it goes:

23 years, I’ve been in here and in that time I’ve managed to go thru my last years of teenage adolescence and enter adulthood by making and learning from a whole host of mistakes while successfully navigating this unnatural environment. Terms like manhood, responsibility, discipline, and respect were only words to me that at best I could crudely define. I’ve been in situations that were life threatening as well as situations that were life saving and sometimes they happened at the same time. It took many years to get myself on a path that was conducive to my goals and aspirations mainly because of my real time experience with the Virginia Prison System was that of a strictly punitive nature. The same was true for all of those under the post 1995 so called truth in sentencing/85% no parole law. It was made abundantly clear immediately to us that we were meant to be warehoused and punished at any cost to us physically, mentally and psychologically as well as at a cost to the tax payers that bankroll the system. There is no better evidence of this strictly punitive mindset than the choice made by the state to build and open 4 multi million dollar supermax prisons in 1998 to house this large influx of allegedly dangerous incoming prison population (that never came by the way) and they ended up renting empty space to other states (Connecticut, Washington D.C., Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and The Virgin Islands to name a few). During the first decade of this “new law”, access to much needed education and programming was prohibited for those of us coming into the system… mostly young black high school dropouts with exorbitant sentences. I myself received 45 years. The public claims of rehabilitation, restorative justice and evidence based practices was and still is NOT how this system is structured.

We are treated in a way that teaches us that we are not worthy of investing in as a viable future resource (even though its continuously stated that over 90% of us will be back in society at some point) instead we’re told and treated like we are incapable of atonement or redemption. This ideology is systemic and begins in the sentencing phase and is reinforced upon arrival into any one of the dozens of prison complexes across the state.
I spent over a year in a jail cellblock meant to hold 12 people (there were only 12 beds) with over 30 people in it then entered an over crowded prison reception center both of which were already in such poor conditions they were shut down and condemned shortly after I left them. I watched young men die over simple disagreements and others get old bald and gray (myself included). Self medicating, thoughts of suicide, and figuring out how to cope with hopelessness and helplessness in an environment masterfully designed to break me down has been my reality for 23 straight years. Yet somehow thru this perfect storm I’ve managed to put myself in positions that would help me help myself.

I’ve never been one to say that I should have never been in here although I do disagree with the amount of time. I as well as the victim in my case were involved with criminal elements, activities and circumstances that regretfully cost him his life and me the past 23 years of mine. I will live everyday with the nightmare of that tragic day and know that there is nothing I nor anyone else can do to bring him back or bring peace to a grieving mother and father that lost their son, and a sister that lost her brother.
After some time I realized that the best thing I can do is change, beginning with my mindset and position myself to be a tool of prevention for the countless youth that find themselves heading down a path of death and destruction as a result of poverty, lack of access to resources, substance abuse, mental health issues, gang involvement and the lack of access to people who truly understand and care. This was my life before incarceration. I’ve taken every single state sponsored program in the VADOC as well as every peer sponsored program I’ve ever had access to and then I parlayed these programs in conjunction with my own life experiences into a job as a Therapeutic Community Coordinator for individuals dealing with mental health and/or substance abuse issues. Through this job I have facilitated my own program that I developed called “Personal Growth”. I’ve gotten trades and taken college courses that are all directly linked to my chosen career path as a Peer Support/Recovery Specialist.

My desire is to make a real difference in society especially the communities I grew up in and help prevent the need for so many prisons packed with limitless potential just wasting away. I’m not just one who says it for effect… I’ve put in the work and earned every bit of the right to say that I’m exactly what’s needed on the other side of these walls after almost a quarter century. Other than the fact that there is still 16 more years left on my sentence, there is no logical reason to keep me in here as human stockpile. There is virtually nothing left in prison for me to do. There are no more programs for me to take. I’ve exhausted my vocational and educational options and now I lend my skills to the institution to help those I can in order to keep my mind sharp . There is no parole and I can’t earn anymore good time than I already have. I have no more time to give.

-Sincere Born Allah

Action: Alert Your Legislators about Ending Mandatory Minimums

The General Assembly is coming up and there’s some bills that could help undo the system that allow people to get over-sentenced, over-charged and end up doing WAY too much time. The bill itself should also allow for people to get reconsidered for shorter sentences – which could help our loved ones come home sooner.

Below is an email you can send to your legislators by the end of the week. Just replace the greeting with the person you’re writing, and change your signature. Feel free to add anything you wish!

If you need to find your legislator’s emails, use this site:

Subject: 2021 GA – End Mandatory Minimums in Virginia
Dear/Hi/Good Morning Delegate/Senator (Insert Your Legislator Here),

Hope you’re well. As a consistent of your district and ahead of the general assembly, I wanted to reach out and inform you about legislation that is important to me for 2021. 

While there has been a lot of great strides in criminal justice in Virginia for the past year, we cannot lose momentum in the fight against mass incarceration. To continue having a more fair and equitable criminal justice system, mandatory minimums in Virginia must end. In addition, the updated policy must allow those already sentenced and serving time behind bars receive reconsideration for excessive sentences. Having mandatory minimums in the Virginia laws do not allow judges or juries to do their jobs by hearing cases and facts, as they do not have the power to go against Virginia laws of time that MUST be served if convicted of specific crimes. 

For more context, mandatory minimums don’t reduce crime rates, they don’t reduce recidivism rates, they don’t make the court process more efficient, they aren’t better for victims, and they don’t manage to hold people accountable for the crimes they actually committed. All they do is coerce defendants to plead guilty—including those who are innocent—and prevent judges from being fair in circumstances when fairness is warranted. This policy update is supported by 40% of the state’s prosecutors, and many justice organizations in Virginia. 

Please support these issues in the General Assembly this month, and allowing those who have been impacted by the unjust systems in place to have a second chance to reconsider unfair sentences in progress.

Thank you, and please feel free to reach out with questions. 

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