Prison as Exile

Photo by Ye Jinghan on Unsplash

Finding Mercy While Serving Life without Parole

Prison is a place of disconnection: separation from society, family, and everything one loves. This separation makes it hard to fit back into a world that didn’t stop turning when you went away. As people who have been marked by the stain of incarceration, re-entrants struggle to find their new identities. Stigma and shame keep many people caught in a loop of criminalized behavior and incarceration. Transcending these life circumstances takes time and, I would argue, a generous amount of love and mercy from the people around you. I have been the fortunate recipient of both. 

I am one of a community of women at SCI-Muncy, Pennsylvania’s maximum security prison for women, serving Life Without Parole (LWOP). In 2005, I was in a mental health crisis and addicted to crack cocaine. I was in an abusive relationship with a man who was also addicted and mentally ill. My disconnection from life began long before my incarceration. My whole world revolved around drugs, and I surrounded myself with others like me, people who wouldn’t judge me or talk about how far I had fallen. 

My crime was horrific. Even now it’s hard to understand how I allowed myself to be involved in my good friend’s murder. Had it not been for his connection to me, he would be alive today. I don’t know if there are words to describe how difficult it is to live with that fact. 

Even before my arrest, I felt that something inside of me had died, like I no longer had a soul. After my arrest, sick and alone with my thoughts in a North Carolina jail, I felt God’s presence and heard this message: God loves you. A few days later, my mother contacted me, sending a message of unconditional love. None of this made any sense. Why would anyone love me? I truly believed there was no coming back from what I’d done, but at the same time, something sparked inside of me. After years of wanting to die, suddenly I wanted to live.

On the day I was sentenced, my father told me that all I could do now was redeem my life, and that is what I set out to do. First, I had to get sober. I worked the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous with my sponsor through the mail. I came to terms with my childhood, my problems with relationships, and all the terrible things I had done during my addiction. I was confronting my shame, which was essential if I ever wanted to truly live in recovery.

I was doing all this work, but I still couldn’t face the crime that brought me to prison. About four years into my sentence, I had to go back to court. The hearing brought back every horrible detail of the crime. By the time I came back to Muncy, everything I had been attempting to push down into the recesses of my mind was in the forefront. I could no longer run away from it. A psychologist at the prison agreed to meet with me because it was clear that I needed help.

Getting mental health treatment in prison is not easy. The staff psychologists have little time for anything beyond monthly check-ins with women on the mental health roster. Because I was not taking psych meds and had never been diagnosed, I was not considered someone who needed services. Fortunately for me, my unit psychologist had seniority at the prison. She knew I was suffering, and she fought to be able to see me. If this exceptional woman had not been willing to step outside the boundaries, I don’t know where I would be today. It took eight years of one-on-one counseling for me to overcome the trauma of my crime.

I needed to come to prison to stop me from causing harm. A lot of good has come out of this experience, but it came at a steep price, including for my family. I watched my mom age as she struggled to meet my needs, supplementing the 42 cents an hour income I received for my work in the prison. Every time Mom’s change jar filled up, she used that money to pay for gas for the three and a half-hour drive to the prison and our vending-machine lunch. It broke my heart to see what my being here did to my mom.

As people who have been marked by the stain of incarceration, re-entrants struggle to find their new identities. Stigma and shame keep many people caught in a loop of criminalized behavior and incarceration. Transcending these life circumstances takes time and, I would argue, a generous amount of love and mercy from the people around you. I have been the fortunate recipient of both. 

There’s a push-pull to being in prison. You try to stay connected to the outside world, but it hurts. Everything is a reminder of what you’re missing. I couldn’t listen to music for years because it made me homesick. My memories are a blessing, but they can be painful as well. You want to detach from the outside world, but you need to stay connected for your own mental well-being. At the same time, you need to build a life on the inside, no matter how much you want to resist doing so. 

While I was in therapy, I kept myself busy with work, church, and exercise. I joined the inmate organization and volunteered for many community service projects. One of my favorites was the Puppy Program, in which we trained service dogs for people with physical disabilities. I was doing things to help other people, which made me feel good about myself. I was also building my self-worth and confidence, which helped me to repair some of the damaged relationships with my family. I learned that what was lost could be restored. I’ve also learned from the many women I’ve met in prison with whom I’ve formed true friendships based on our shared experiences of joy and pain, loss and forgiveness.

In 2014, I was admitted to Muncy’s inpatient treatment program for people with co-occurring disorders: mental health and addiction. The program did me a world of good, mainly because I was receptive to the process. Most women are not. They enter treatment because it’s a requirement for parole. It takes time to move your thinking process to a place of wanting to recover from addiction, but prison can’t offer that kind of time. Overcrowding leads to women being pushed through the process to get them out of prison, even though most addicts require long-term treatment. Prisons are not designed for this type of intensive treatment, and the recidivism I see every day proves that women are not getting what they need.

Mother Catherine McAuley, founder of the Religious Sisters of Mercy. Daguerrotype,
c. 1840.

I currently work as a Certified Peer Support Specialist (CPS). My CPS training prepared me to support my peers during a mental health crisis. I am not a therapist, but I share something valuable with the peers I support: I’ve been where they are. I work with women who are coming to terms with their pasts and struggling to forgive themselves. I help them develop strategies for maintaining their recovery when they leave the structured environment of the prison.

My work as a CPS mainly involves listening and being present. When I sit with someone in pain, I look in their eyes and connect with them. It’s powerful. And in that moment, I care deeply. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they’ve done; we are two women sharing something intensely personal. And because I’ve been listening to them, I can remind them of who they are: a mother who cares deeply for her children, a woman who has survived so much hardship, someone who is working hard to overcome her past failings. In these moments of shared pain, we both experience mercy. In these moments, we experience God.

Through all this treatment and training, that little spark of the Divine that touched me when I first got arrested has continued to grow in me. It has led me back to the faith of my childhood, only this time I wanted to connect with the God I felt reaching out to me after my arrest. Growing up Catholic, I’d had a rocky relationship with the church. As I was coming to terms with the wreckage of my past, my early prison experience led me to reconcile with the church, and with the church’s history. Over time I came to see the church as I’d come to see myself: flawed and in many ways broken, in need of finding a way to move forward.

I started to recognize the strengths and the beauty in myself and in my faith, and over time I felt a calling to make a deeper commitment to that faith. After a two-year course of study and discernment, I became a Mercy Associate, entering into a covenant promise with the Sisters of Mercy to, among other things, witness to God’s Mercy in the world. This promise connected me to a community of believers through shared prayer. As the first prisoner to ask to become a Mercy Associate, I wasn’t sure it would happen. But God made a way. 

When Pope Francis visited the United States in 2015, he met with prisoners in Philadelphia. He talked about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. He described this action as not only an act of service but one of healing. He talked about how walking on those hot, dusty roads the disciples traveled had left their feet wounded and cracked. Jesus’s foot washing healed them from their journey, just as Jesus heals us from ours. This soothing wash not only heals but prepares us for the journey that lies ahead. Everything that has happened to me over the past 16 years is preparing me for what’s to come.

I do not believe I will die in prison. I have hope for the future. Jesus’s example informs my position on sentencing reform. Jesus spared the woman who was about to be stoned to death for committing adultery, a crime her community thought worthy of the death penalty. Jesus also asked his followers to visit the imprisoned, indicating that he still considered them part of the community. Back in Jesus’s time, exile was one of the worst forms of punishment. To be cut off from one’s home and one’s community was the harshest penalty, next to death. 

But even with exile, you had the opportunity to start over someplace else. Pennsylvania is one of only a few states with a mandatory LWOP sentence for first-degree murder and the only state with mandatory LWOP for second degree. I believe those of us serving LWOP are exiles, and we should be considered for the opportunity to start over. There are hundreds of women in Pennsylvania alone who have been permanently exiled from our communities. I find hope in the work of all the activists fighting to end LWOP by urging our legislators to create parole options for people like me. These amazing people keep me engaged in life, knowing that we all have a role to play in creating a more just society.

Heather Lavelle

Heather Lavelle is from Wilmington, Del. She discovered her love of writing while incarcerated and contributes to a variety of prison publications and projects.

4 thoughts on “Prison as Exile

  1. Dear Heather,
    I am so moved by your writing. Thank you for bringing more light to the plight of women in prison who are struggling with their pasts, struggling with self-acceptance, and struggling with recovery in an environment that is not really conducive to recovery. You have clearly done much to help your fellow prisoners, and I know you have done much to help the understanding of those who are fortunate enough never to have been incarcerated. My thoughts and prayers are with you as you continue to work for release.

  2. While I’m glad this person is finding some peace and doing good works, it troubles me that in this article she doesn’t even mention her victim or his family, beyond a bare statement of the crime–and their eternal grief and their lost hope, and their lack of peace, and if she has shown any contrition outwardly and directly to them, and how this could or should play into her spiritual journey. She talks much about God’s and Jesus; what about the Christian call to reconciliation; as Jesus says in Matthew 5:23-24, “If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Has this writer reached out to her victim’s brothers and sisters? Has she ever apologized? Has she asked them if there’s anything she can do to ease their agony? Wouldn’t that also bring her peace and perhaps them as well? I looked up her crime and it was absolutely horrible. Her victim’s family daily has to remember that he died in utter terror and excruciating pain. If she feels her punishment is just, is she willing to give up appeals or parole hearings? It just seems to me that this article is self-centered and self-serving.

    1. I was the temporary associate editor at Friends Journal over the summer, and I worked closely with Heather Lavelle on this article. Just wanted to let you know that Heather HAS submitted a letter to the victim’s family, through the Inmate Apology Bank of the PA Office of Victim Advocate: She is not able to reach out to the family in any other way, and also is not able to learn whether or not they’ve read her letter. All of this is deeply painful to her.

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