Emily Dickenson wasn’t too far off when she described hope as a thing with feathers. However, I would describe hope as something smoldering and blazing, emitting luminous and radiant, brilliant light. It is one of the most powerful and driving of human emotions, even for those of us who are incarcerated. Perhaps even more so.
In what can be such an inherently negative environment, how does the inmate population find hope for the future? Especially those facing life without the possibility of parole, which is a grim reality in Pennsylvania, or a lengthy sentence — “football numbers.”
I can speak for myself, an incurable optimist and one who observes countless resilient women on a daily basis. Many of us stay involved, participating in the Muncy Inmate Organization, volunteering our time in committee work and fundraising for charitable causes. Countless women learn new skills such as cross-stitching, knitting, crocheting and donate the things they make. They can also learn how to play an instrument such as the guitar or the keyboard.
Some women participate in the puppy program, sponsored by the nonprofit Canine Partners for Life. In this program, women train dogs as young as just a few weeks old to become service and companion dogs, which are given to people who need them. Other women become Certified Peer Specialists (CPS), a job requiring women to give advice, support and comfort to their peers. Hospice care jobs are also available to those prepared for the task.
Many of us resolve to get fit, taking advantage of the numerous weightlifting, training and other fitness classes offered. Most women participate in group programming, parenting classes and further their education after earning their institutionally mandatory GED or high school diploma by enrolling in a trade, including cosmetology, business technology, accounting, computer-automated drafting and design or CADD, machine shop, building trades and culinary arts.
Inmates can also take college courses, further preparing them for the society they will bravely face upon release. Serving time productively fosters a sense of hope in the women of Muncy, in addition to giving them a plethora of life skills they will forever benefit from.
My journey has been one that I never imagined I would embark on, let alone weather and blossom. Handcuffed, shackled, rail-thin from excessive medication and petrified, I was escorted by two sheriffs twice my size into the admission of SCI Muncy five days after my 15th birthday on leap year of 2016.
I entered the prison a scared, vulnerable and insecure girl dominated by self-hatred, guilt and remorse. The feelings of remorse and guilt will never fade; they are mine to endure for the rest of my life.
However, now I am growing into a self-possessed, strong, bright and compassionate young woman who is committed to seeking redemption, dedicated to becoming a person who her family, friends and community will one day be proud of — especially her mother. Someone who is more than, not defined by, the worst decision they made in their life.
I continue to make mistakes, to do and say the wrong thing, to sometimes make decisions that I reflect on later and say, “Jamie, really?” But now I have the insight to separate myself, my character from these actions; know they don’t define me. I have the insight to learn from them, choose not to repeat them. Allow my peers to learn from my occasional stupidity, and try to be teachable as well.
It’s March 2018, and my hope is alive, it burns like a fire. The political climate in Pennsylvania has never been better for women behind bars to file for commutation. I am ecstatically waiting to watch some of my peers, some of whom have been incarcerated for decades, reenter a welcoming society where they can contribute. The concept of restorative justice that I shamelessly promote is gaining popularity.
I turned 17 at the end of February and celebrated with unabashed joy by having a one-person dance party in my room, music turned as loud as possible without me getting in trouble. When I eventually collapsed in bed, laughing at my own awkward movements and total lack of rhythm, I turned my gaze to the numerous vibrant birthday cards I had received and placed atop my locker. I felt my chest swell with gratitude, my face now beginning to flush with not just exertion but the rosy heat that precedes tears of joy, the blush of the realization of how fortunate you are.
I graduate from high school soon, and I can’t wait to have loved ones watch me receive my diploma in a cap and gown, view a beautiful ceremony you wouldn’t expect in a prison. I have the ability to enroll in college, and I am struggling to contain my enthusiasm as I decide what I want to major in.
I am surrounded by resilient women who make the best of their individually unique circumstances every day, as I strive to do. I am supported by caring staff members to whom I owe my growth and progress. Incredibly, I am blessed with a remarkable support system that has faith in me, who inspire and motivate me to embody what I seek and be the best person I can be. Patiently, I’m waiting to see when my friend and mentor’s commutation will be signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, making her the first woman to be commuted in Pennsylvania since the ‘80s — and she deserves it.
Despite everything I’ve done, the pain I’ve caused, the people I’ve victimized, the community that will never be the same, I have been blessed with some who still see good in me. Family members who forgive and love me, friends who support and laugh with me. Strangers who meet me that — when I explain to them solemnly and candidly what I’ve done — don’t see me as the monster I once tearfully referred to myself as at my guilty plea hearing.
And for these reasons, just a few of many, I have hope.
Jamie Silvonek was sentenced to 35 years to life in Muncy, Pennsylvania at 14 for first-degree murder in her mother’s homicide. She is now 17.