From Prison to Law School: A Journey Tempered by Sadness—and Anger

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Jeremiah Bourgeois near his home in Washington state. Photo courtesy the author.

In the span of six months I went from being a convict to a law student. On May 26, I will begin my first term of studies at Gonzaga University School of Law.

I envisioned this from my cell at Washington State Reformatory. I knew it was possible if I devoted myself to doing what was necessary to achieve it after being freed.

I worked full time, advocated on behalf of those I left behind, and studied for the LSAT while dealing with reentry.

I did it.

I am not happy.

I cannot recall the last time that I truly felt happiness.

There have been moments of joy, such as when I ate Mike & Ike candies with my 10-year-old nephew watching movies all evening and we fell asleep on the couch next to each other.

Or when I swam in the hotel swimming pool on my first day out of prison and realized I was still able to do the backstroke.

Or when I attended the Nutcracker with my fiancée and wore a suit and tie for the first time in my adult life.

There are snapshots of what freedom provides after 27 years in confinement.

But they are just moments.

Most of the time, I feel nothing.

I awake in the morning and start off slow as I did in the penitentiary.

I go outside and walk around the block as if it is the track on the yard in the penitentiary, the difference being I have a dog in tow.

I write in bed instead of a table as if it’s the bunk in a cell—the difference being I have a laptop instead of a paper tablet.

When ordered to shelter-in-place due to the coronavirus pandemic I paced the apartment, back-and-forth, tracing the same dimensions as my old prison cell.

I feel nothing—except an overwhelming drive to succeed and dissatisfaction when the day ends, over the fact that I have not completed all the tasks I had set out to do that morning.

When emotions do penetrate my psyche it is either frustration, anger, or sadness.

Frustration as I forget passwords and logins to gain access to the myriad online portals that store everything one needs to function in society.

Or I must locate another card, or key, or other tangible things that were unnecessary in a penitentiary.

Anger when I have no ability to head off and visit my family because my conditions of release require me to obtain pre-approval to travel outside of the county.

Or I must walk past homeless people, and addicts, and runaways on the street, and pretend that I do not see them as I stifle my empathy.

Sadness when I talk to friends who are still confined and hear the despair in their voices because they know they will likely die imprisoned.

Or I attend conferences, and give lectures, but doubt that it will have any affect on policies and practices.

I seem to have created a world for myself where there is little space to feel joy—or passion.

I have driven around with plenty of money available to me and could not think of anything to do.

Not a movie.

Not a restaurant.

Just driving and listening to loud music.

At times, I am overcome by the same psychosomatic seizures that began prior to my first parole hearing. I feel the same tenseness in my head that I felt as I would contemplate legal strategies to win my freedom.

I just do not know how to have fun. I take life too seriously.

For far too long, my life was defined by trying to overcome my circumstances and maintain my equilibrium in places that breed despondency, depravity, and depression. I had to stay focused to earn a college degree and publish legal commentaries while trapped in a penitentiary. I had to become dissociative and stoic to maintain my sanity and humanity.

These are the qualities and characteristics of a man who can become a legal scholar notwithstanding the fact that he was confined at the age of 14.

This is what enables a man to forgo situational homosexual activity when he believed he would die imprisoned.

These are the ingredients necessary to propel a man out of the penitentiary and into a law school within 180 days.

It is exactly what a marginalized, felony-disenfranchised, financially strapped returning citizen needs for a successful reentry.

You just will not be happy.

I wonder when I will be.

I wonder if I need to be.

The only thing that really moves me is advocacy.

For so long, I had nobody in my life that could effectively advocate for me. Nobody who know policies to cite to administrators when I was being treated arbitrarily. No one who could be my intermediary when I could not reach attorneys.

I am now able to do just that for the men that I left behind in confinement—and I do it. I take pleasure being able to assist them in ways that might help them gain their liberty or reduce their misery.

In fact, it is quite possible that my destiny was to use this opportunity to hold a torchlight for those I left behind.

jeremiah

Jeremiah Bourgeois

I know it will not be easy.

Getting to this point has taken almost everything out of me.

I will have to stay focused to earn my law degree and engage in advocacy. I must be dissociative and stoic to maintain my sanity and humanity.

These are the thoughts of a man who cannot shake the psychological trauma of spending almost 30 years confined for crimes he committed at age 14.

I hope one day I am happy.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to The Crime Report, and author of “The Extraordinary Ordinary Prisoner,” a recently published book of essays written during his imprisonment. He now lives in the Seattle area, and welcomes comments from readers.

One thought on “From Prison to Law School: A Journey Tempered by Sadness—and Anger

  1. Thanks for your bravery and sharing. Your story might be more extreme than mine in important ways, but we share much. Happiness is elusive, but I have learned at least (and at last) a good path. I will look to share with you.

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