Letter of support for the parole hearing of Theresa Holland
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Dear First U Friends,
I am relatively new to Unitarian Universalism, but over the past year, I've been attending services, meetings, and functions at First U and the congregation and its values have come to be a great source of strength and inspiration in my daily life. The seven principles of Unitarianism have empowered me to push myself into new areas of activism and outreach that I would have been too afraid to explore in the past. A naturally introverted person, being a justice advocate does not come easily to me. However, I have long been inspired by my grandmother's volunteer work with people who were incarcerated. After reading "The New Jim Crow", a book that I know is very significant to many at First U, I started seeking out ways to push for political and policy reforms and also to support people affected by mass incarceration. This search quickly lead me to be introduced to Theresa Holland, a woman from the Bronx who has been incarcerated for over 30 years.
It is uncomfortable for me ask others to get involved on my behalf, but at this moment, Theresa needs many people on her side as she is about to go before the NY State Parole Board for the third time. A letter of support from an established religious community, will, we hope, influence the Board that there are people are invested in Theresa's reintegration into the community and her success as she starts her life as a free person at the age of 53.
Over the past 10 months, Theresa has been working diligently with a wonderful organization called Parole Preparation Project of the National Lawyers Guild. Below is a synopsis of Theresa's story that we have put together to help others understand why now is the time that Theresa should be granted her freedom:
"Theresa's story is in many ways an archetypal story of mass incarceration: she grew up in a very violent home, and as a result, was placed in foster care by the time she was 7 yrs old. She eventually dropped out of school following many instances of corporal punishment. Soon after, Theresa and her two friends were manipulated by a group of much older men to help them carry out a kidnapping (for ransom). She was 21 yrs old at the time. It is important to note that Theresa was tricked into participating in this crime, brought in initially on the false pretense that these men wanted to hire her as a model. By the time she figured out what was actually going on, she felt like it was too dangerous to back out. The older men used the young women to lure the man into a scenario where he would be kidnapped. After the kidnapping, the men who masterminded this lost control of the situation and the man who had been kidnapped eventually died. All 8 people involved in the crime, including the 3 young women who played no role in masterminding the crime, were charged with kidnapping and murder and sentenced to 25 yrs - life. Theresa is the only person who remains in prison; all the men died in prison and all the women who participated were released 7 years ago. Theresa has a slight intellectual disability which has made it difficult for her to deliver a strong narrative to the parole board. We believe the nervousness and fluster she exhibited in the last two appearances as a result of her difficulty comprehending the questions in a timely manner has contributed significantly to her parole denials. The volunteers from Parole Prep have done a lot of work with her this year to help her develop the type of narrative we think the Board is looking for and have made tons of progress and are feeling optimistic. We have grown very attached to Theresa and see her as an extraordinarily loving, funny, and devoted woman who has served her time and deserves her freedom."
My personal relationship with Theresa started last year when I asked a formerly incarcerated activist for a way to connect with women who were currently incarcerated and may be seeking friendship. Over the past year, we have exchanged numerous cards and letters. Theresa and I also speak on the phone occasionally. I also send her small packages of allowed items like instant tea, slippers, and her favorite, Peanut M & Ms candy. In return, she likes to send me and my children sweet little bookmarks with Bible quotes that she purchases in the commissary. She has very limited funds because she has almost no family--one biological sister and two foster sisters--and the pay for her housekeeping job in the prison is only about $2/week. It shows how loving she is and how much she values having a friend that she's willing to spend her money to send me gifts.
I also made the trip to Albion Correctional Facility to visit Theresa over the summer. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. The wait was several hours. I was with my mom--who was 65 at the time-- and, in addition to pat downs, they made us both remove our bras to pass through the metal detectors. During our time with Theresa in the visitors' room, there was an inmate count and Theresa and the other women had to stand up while the guards counted the inmates. I found out after the fact, that they rejected the clothing items we had brought for Theresa because they contained low percentages of spandex, which is a banned fabric. Our actual conversation during our visit, however, was lovely. Theresa was warm, pleasant, and upbeat. She was happy to meet me and my mother and have her picture taken with us. She was eager to talk about things she would like to do when she returns to New York City. She was fully accepting of her current environment, not bitter or hardened by her years there, which is one of the things I find most extraordinary about her. She is so "normal" in her interests and her hopes and dreams for her future. She would like to have a job in a store or office. She would like to go shopping for her own clothes, get her hair done, go to church. She would like to hold a puppy.
The truth is, I don't ask Theresa a great deal about her involvement in the event that resulted in her incarceration. I've read about it and discussed it at length with the volunteers at Parole Prep and I truly believe that Theresa has more than served her time. She is not the same person who was manipulated and used in that crime. She is not a danger to society. She exhibits no criminal behavior and no animosity toward anyone. I do not see Theresa as a criminal in any way. I do, however, see Theresa as a vulnerable person. She's vulnerable in a system that focuses so much on punishment and so little on rehabilitation. She's vulnerable when in front of a parole board that is looking for a "gotcha" moment where any word out of place or moment of frustration can be used as an excuse to say denied. And, she will be vulnerable if and when she comes out of prison and has to adjust to living in a world that's vastly different than the one she left over three decades ago. She will need a great deal of support and encouragement from her sisters, her few remaining friends, and her new friends like me and, I hope, all of you. We have lined up housing in with a wonderful reentry program for women called Our Children and we have some job prospects, but what we need most of all is support for her parole hearing and a loving, fortifying community built on a belief in justice, equity and compassion to welcome her and encourage her in her personal growth and rebirth. Please consider supporting Theresa Holland at this critical juncture in her life by signing this letter today.
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