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Jesse's Story

Jesse talks with Lauren about being wrongfully accused and sent to prison. He shares the lessons he learned during that difficult time.

Jesse's Story
00:00 / 04:41

“The toughest thing I went through was, when I was in college, I had a little run in with the law over a marijuana issue. When the whole thing started I was 18 years old. I was in college out in Western Pennsylvania. That particular town was under very, very right winged conservative area. They were down on drugs. I was accused of selling $15 worth of marijuana. And went to trial. It really should never even gone to trial. I mean they had no real evidence. There were four people in the room at the time it was supposed to have happened and three of them said it didn't happen, and one of them said it did. And they decided to believe that one person. I was the only one. I was pretty sure it was because I was Jewish and there a very strong anti-Semitic taint to the whole thing. So I was convicted. The judge said, as far as he’s concerned, selling drugs is as bad as murder. So he gave me the maximum sentence, even though it was my first offense. He gave me 3 years in prison. I didn’t take it seriously, I really didn’t think I was gonna go to prison. It just seemed so outrageous. My lawyer was taking an appeal then I got a call one day from my father and he said, the appeal fell through and you have to go to prison. So, I freaked out, I was 21 years old at the time. Really didn’t know what to expect. My first week there was very very scary. It was overcrowded, so they didn’t have room for me in the part of the prison where they first introduce people. So I was put in solitary confinement for a week, which was really not a lot of fun. I thought my life was over at that point. Prison is like hell. It’s like everybody’s there, it's full of anger and aggression, but I found some friends there, actually. There were several people there, that were there for drug related offenses, you know, marijuana. And we weren’t criminals, you know, we were just kids who got caught up in a system. Because I had friends, I was able to make it through. Could’ve gotten out in one year, but it didn't seem like that was gonna happen. They wanted me to repent and say that what I had done was wrong. I was adamant that I thought the drug laws were wrong. I didn't really repent and they took that as a mark against me. So I didn’t know how long I’d be in there. It was a hard thing.

One of the things that got me through was, I had a girlfriend before I ended up there. She wrote me almost everyday. She would write me a letter like almost everyday, at least 5 or 6 times a week. And that really helped me make it through, getting those letters everyday, really lifted my spirits.

It turned out that my father was really not very good. I went to prison because of him. He told me he had taken the appeals, but didn’t. He told the lawyer not to take the appeals. And that’s why I ended up going to prison, my own father. And I didn't find that out until later. My mother hired a lawyer from the national organization for the reform of marijuan laws and he told me, he says, “they never took the appeals, you had grounds for appeals but they never took it.” He applied for what's called, commutation, which is reeducation of sentence. My mother went to court and testified for me.

One day I was about 8 months into my sentence and they called me up and said, “do you have a job for when you get out of prison?” I said, “what are you talking about? I’m not getting out for another 2 and half years.”And they said, “No, right here it says you’re getting out next month.” I said, “what?!” And sure enough the commutation had gone through and nobody had told me. I was released from prison after about 7 or 8 months. So I was really, really, happy about that. I was so excited. That day I got out I was so happy. I felt so good. It was like, okay, I made it through that. If I can make it through that, I can make it through anything. So I felt really confident, really good, and really proud of myself that I had made it through and I hadn’t turned bitter, and I hadn’t gotten worse. You know, like, I got out and went right back to school, got my degree and went on to graduate school.

In some ways, prison helped me, I mean I would not recommend it to anybody, it wasn’t worth it, but it did help me. It did help me focus my life. I guess the main lesson I learned was that no matter how bad it gets, there is a way forward and there's a way out. Nothing bad lasts forever. I still feel that freedom I felt on the day I got let out, the strength I felt. I can still tap into that today. As bad as things get, they eventually end. Bad things don’t last forever and there’s a way through. That’s what I learned.”

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