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  • Hilderbrand Pelzer III

A Black Boy's Dreams Mattered Little to an Unyielding Prison Sentence

Despite facing murder charges, 17-year-old Jerline proved to be an outstanding, conscientious student in county jail. He was the living representation of Winston Churchill’s statement, “I am always willing to learn; however, I do not always like to be taught.”

During his trial, however, Jerline began pulling away from the relationships he had developed with the school and his teachers. All the adults and students around him noticed changes in his attitude, behavior, and school performance, but no one attempted to intervene. His favorite teacher informed me that Jerline was acting unusual misbehaving, disrupting classes, and refusing to do his assignments. When I asked the teacher whether he or anyone else had spoken with Jerline to ascertain the cause of his difficulties, he replied, “No.”

I sat down with Jerline to learn what was troubling him and causing him to distance himself from the success he had been achieving in school. Jerline said abruptly, “I don’t care anymore.” I asked him what it was he didn’t care about. He turned to me and shouted, “I don’t care about school; it can’t help me anymore.” Unbeknown to me, Jerline had recently been informed by his lawyer that he was facing twenty to forty years in prison for his crime. I listened to Jerline speak erratically about the impact that this long term behind bars would have on his life. I realized that his irrational behavior was coming from his struggle to make sense of his destiny. Jerline was, perhaps for the first time in his life, finding that he cared deeply about all the things that would have been part of his life, if not for his poor decision to commit a violent crime. He talked about family, fatherhood, marriage, working for a living, homeownership, and growing old. At that moment, Jerline’s entire future was out of reach and unattainable. Our conversation continued over the next several days. It was vital to me that Jerline could talk through and gain insights into his circumstances and come to an understanding of what it would be like living and growing old in prison. In instances like this, many juvenile inmates attempt to mentally jump to the end of the prison sentence, as if it’s just around the corner—but their path is usually a decades-long journey.

Jerline used our conversations to face up to his errors and grasp the fact that he would serve up to forty years in prison. He knew he couldn’t escape the punishment awaiting him. I encouraged him to continue his education as he grew into adulthood in prison. He embraced my message to continue his schooling, learn to be resourceful, and avoid the pitfalls of prison life. Eventually, Jerline received a sentence of seventeen to thirty-four years. His final words to me before being transferred from the Philadelphia prison system to a state correctional institution were, “Thank you. I’ll be fine.”


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