By Jennifer P. Harrison, Lewis & Wilkins LLP
When I was a public defender and had a client that was successful in some kind of programming, whether it be substance abuse, mental health, a combination, or something else entirely, that one success story could keep me going for months. On hard days, I would think about that one person I was able to help. The truth is it's hard working in criminal justice and to feel like our system is making a difference some days. At times, we feel let down by ourselves, opposing counsel, the courts, and correctional facilities. But that one story….that one story can fuel us during those hard times.
Over the weekend I found the story of Michelle Jones, a woman released from Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP) in August 2017 after serving 20 years for the murder of her 4 year-old-son. Yes, it was a gruesome crime. Yes, she was responsible for a child’s – her own child’s – death. But in the 20 years she served at IWP, Ms. Jones started a new story for her life. She repented for her wrongs and she did what so many times I promised judges my clients would do in the Department of Correction: she rehabilitated herself.
During her two decades in prison, Michelle Jones became a published scholar of American history, she led a group of inmates in producing the Indiana Historical Society’s best research project of 2016 and she wrote dance compositions and historical plays. The Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis is workshopping her play The Duchess of Stringtown and plans to produce it in December at Indy Convergence. She is currently a doctoral candidate at NYU. Ms. Jones stated, “I knew that I had come from this very dark place — I was abhorrent to society,” she continued. “But for 20 years, I’ve tried to do right, because I was still interested in the world, and because I didn’t believe my past made me somehow cosmically un-educatable forever.”
I encourage you to read the full New York Times story here. It is an incredible story of how our system can work. It is an incredibly story of how people’s crimes don’t make them who they are and a different path is possible if they can believe in themselves. It is the type of story that can keep you going when this work seems hopeless.
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