Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, YouTube. Full transcript below.Sonia 'Sunny' Jacobs spent 17 years in prison, including 5 in solitary confinement, for a crime she didn’t commit. Sentenced to death at the age of 28 for the murder of two police officers in Florida. When she was imprisoned, her two young children were cast into the foster care system. Nearly 17 years after her arrest, Sunny’s conviction was overturned on appeal. Her story, along with those of five other wrongfully convicted death row inmates, became The Exonerated, a play put on by the nonprofit theater, The Culture Project. Sunny is the author of Stolen Time: One Woman’s Inspiring Story as an Innocent Condemned to Death. www.sunnyandpeter.com
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The Love and Courage podcast
The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.
Host Ruairí McKiernan is leading Irish social innovator, campaigner, writer and public speaker. He is the founder of the pioneering SpunOut.ie youth organization, and helped set-up the Uplift and the A Lust For Life non-profits. In 2012 the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins appointed Ruairí to the Council of State, a national constitutional advisory body whose members include all current and former leaders of the country. Ruairí is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fulbright fellowship, and he contributes regularly to the media on youth, health, community and social justice issues.
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RM: Maybe let’s start with the question: for you, what is freedom? Because this event is about the theme of freedom.
SJ: Well, actually, I’ve struggled with that question myself, obviously, for a long time. In the beginning, freedom was about: how do I get out of this prison? You know? [Laughter] When this first happened to me, I didn’t actually take it, maybe, as seriously as I should have, because I knew they just made a mistake and when I explained and they were able to listen – because they were so angry because of the two policemen being killed that they weren’t really listening to anything. So I could understand that, but I thought, in time, they would understand that I would never kill anybody. I mean, I’m a vegetarian, you know? Like, I don’t even eat meat so I’m not going to be killing people. You know, and hippie, and all that. So I just thought: I believed in truth, justice and the American way and all that stuff that you hear in Superman. And, you know, I believed it. And so I went to court with that attitude, and when things went the way they went I was totally unprepared for that. And I ended up, then, in my own private death row, because there were no other women sentenced to death at that time. So I was in complete isolation, in solitary confinement for the entire five years that I had the death sentence. And so at that point in time, freedom to me was just being released from that whole situation: getting out of the cell and then being released from prison, and then going home to my family. That’s what freedom was to me.
But there are so many kinds of freedom. I now know that that’s a very, sort of, surface kind of freedom - and that didn’t happen for a very long time. And so I started having to go deeper into myself, and the question of freedom became more of an internal question, until finally I realized, one day – and it was, I should say, especially in this place, that it was because of… I only had two books in my cell. My cell was six steps from the solid metal door to the toilet-sink thing, and if I reached out my arms like this, I could touch both walls. There was a metal shelf on one side, with a thin mattress, and that’s all. There was no chair or table, nothing. That’s all that was in my cell except for two books: a law book and a Bible. The law book at that point in time was totally useless to me, because it’s another language entirely, and I had no use for the law at that point anyway because they got it all wrong. And the Bible was a book of wisdom, and at that point in time I was questioning whether there even was God at all, because how could God let this happen? Not just to me, but to my whole family. My 9-year-old son was held in juvenile detention for over two months, until my parents were able to convince a judge to release him into their custody. My 10-month-old daughter, who was still nursing at the time, was held for two weeks, and we weren’t even allowed to be in contact with the people holding her to explain that she didn’t know how to use a bottle, because I’d been nursing.
So this tragedy happens to the entire family. And I had never hurt anybody in my whole life. Maybe hurt somebody’s feelings, but I had never actually hurt a person. I couldn’t understand how that could happen. But I realized at this one point: there was something that I read in the Bible that told me that they don’t really get to say when I die. That’s not really up to them. And so I started thinking that what they wanted me to believe was that my situation was hopeless, and that I was just there waiting for them to decide when to take my life. But I decided I would rather believe in hope – and in order to do that, I had to then make my peace with God. Because otherwise it really was hopeless. If there wasn’t any God then I was – they were the end of the line. And so I had a serious discussion with God.
RM: And who was God to you at that time? Did you have a religious or spiritual background?
SJ: No, well I’d been brought up in the Judeo-Christian, you know, religion and ethic, but we weren’t very religious. So you know, we did the holidays, but I wasn’t sure. You know, God was this energy all around, somehow – it wasn’t a man or a woman. God was in me and in you and all around. So I just thought of God as an energy – but one I could talk to. We had discussions. [Laughter]. And so God was like I wished I could be. If I didn’t have a body I could just leave! So once I settled that question for myself, then I realized that, until they did either realize that they made a mistake and release me or - for some strange reason of my karma - take my life for something I didn’t do, the best thing I could do was to become the best person that I could be. So that, when they released me, I would still have something left inside me to give to my children and, if it was going to go the other way, then it was still the best thing I could do to become the best person I could be, so that when I went up there I could answer for myself.
RM: It must have taken you some time to arrive at that, though, because you had five years in solitary, and I’m wondering…
SJ: No – that happened within a few months.
SJ: Because I got sick of myself. Because, like, all I did, in the first weeks, was to pace back and forth the six steps. Angry, confused, frightened. I mean, I was all alone in this building – there was not another person, no other prisoner, in the building where I was held. There was just a guard up in the office, in the front, and me. And no other prisoner was allowed to communicate with me in any way, so I was truly isolated. And after – I didn’t get any phone calls, or visits, or even letters, in the beginning. And so I sort of got sick of myself. You know, you have to live the rest of your life with somebody who’s angry and scared and confused. It just was like…I just got sick of it. And so then when I read this in the Bible, I was like: “Yes! This is the way.” So I had my discussion. You know: “How could you do this?” I mean, you know. And then we decided that the best thing I could do was to turn my cell into a sanctuary. I mean, I didn’t have to look at it from their point of view. Their point of view, I was locked up in this dungeon waiting for my life to be taken from me. But actually, and looking at it from a different way, it was a wonderful opportunity for me to do my spiritual work. Because I was excused from work, I didn’t have anybody to take care of, I didn’t have to cook or clean, or do anything except… For the first time in my life I had servants, even! [Laughter]. Wow! Didn’t they cook for me? They came and got my dishes and washed them for me, they did my laundry. I had free electricity. [Laughter]. So it all depends, you know? And I realized it was a big trick that they had played on me, that I didn’t have to see it their way at all. That there was another way to see it. And until such time as they, as I said, realized they made a mistake or killed me, my life still belonged to me, and I didn’t have to live it in misery.
And so I decided that it was a good opportunity – because before that I was always busy either taking care of the kids or my husband and the house and working. So I decided I would do yoga, meditation and prayer, and that I would never be bored. I would never count the bricks in the walls. I did mathematical problems in my head, I thought of recipes that I would cook for my children when I got home. And it actually transformed my life. I think I actually learned more about freedom during that time than I ever knew before. Because I found a different kind of freedom. I couldn’t leave the cell, OK – so you are, in a way, a prisoner of your circumstances, to an extent, always. You know? And five years after I got out, the same thing, it’s the same story. As I flew through the air the car hit me and I was flying through the air like: “This isn’t supposed to happen to me. I already had my test, didn’t I?” And then afterwards the injury caused me, over time, to be less and less able to walk. And that’s another type of freedom taken away from me, the freedom to move around freely. And yet, again, it made me go deep inside again and appreciate the freedom that I really do have, and where freedom really does begin and end.
RM: Is a big part of that the freedom to decide how you…like, the decision in that moment. That there’s something I’m getting at around being a victim – and you chose not to be a victim of those, some of those experiences, even that car crash. Like, at what point does a person have enough?
SJ: I guess that’s pretty individual. But there’s always…you always have a choice. No matter how limited, there’s always a choice. Even when they just brought the food on the tray, and you couldn’t even recognize what it was, usually: you could choose whether or not to eat it. So there’s always a choice, and there’s a certain freedom in that. Once you recognize that – there’s always this very core, this essence of freedom that you can draw on to get through anything.
RM: I’m guessing you experienced the opposite, where other prisoners didn’t see things the same way as you did, and perhaps went into themselves?
SJ: Yes – well, there weren’t any other prisoners in my section.
RM: Well, yes, after five years.
SJ: But afterwards, and actually sometimes, every once in a while – this part of the prison was a separate unit that was used for, like if there was a riot or something in the prison or if someone had become violent towards themselves or other people, they would put them in this building where I was. And occasionally they would put someone else in there. But the only people that I met in those circumstances were going through some sort of an emotional upheaval, or maybe were mentally ill – there’s a lot of mentally ill people in prison.
So they might be self-harming, or…like, one woman kept swallowing things, so that they would have to take her out of the cell in order to get a break from being in the cell. Whereas, for me, I just meditated, you know? And then I could leave. Every night at 11 o’clock – at certain times of the day and specifically at 11 o’clock each night – they have what they call “count time” in the prison. All prisons have count time. And at 11, they would have count time – and everybody had to be, apparently…I knew this later, but they would come round and count. And when I went into the population, after I was released from the death sentence, that would be the quietest time, you know, because you all had to be quiet and sit on your bed. And so that’s when I would meditate. And I would send myself, my spirit, out, and I would…Jesse and I would swirl around somewhere in the atmosphere together, and then I would go and I’d swirl around my children and, in that way, I could be with them. So that was another kind of freedom.
RM: Did you have any contact with Jesse and with your children, or anybody, at that point?
SJ: No. No, not when I was first in the death sentence, no. It took a number of months before I was allowed. It was weeks before I even got a letter. And finally I was allowed to get letters from my parents, and at least I knew the children were OK, and they were with my parents, so I knew that was fine. And then I started getting letters from Jesse, and he would try to, you know, cheer me up and tell me everything was going to be OK, and that kind of thing. And that helped a lot, too. And he helped me with my meditation, you know. He had been doing meditation as well. I remember one time he sent me a circle that he had drawn for me, and he told me: “Just stare into the circle.” And I found it very difficult at first [laughter], you know. Even though there were no distractions, because there was absolutely nobody else in the building, I was my own distraction, you know. So it took me a while to learn how to get beyond all those feelings and find a place of peace in myself. And that was key. And that lasted me all through the rest of the years, even to this day. See, I thought, even in prison after having done all this and found out about the inner peaceful place and the inner freedom that you can find, I still was under the misconception that freedom would happen when I was free, when they released me. Then I’d be free. And that’s what I kept looking for and working towards all those years. And then, finally, I was free. And I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea what to do next. I wasn’t…freedom was overwhelming. Like: “OK, now what do I do with it?” And so it was an interesting, a really interesting moment. Because now, they’ve released me, finally, I was released from prison. And I just stood there with the cardboard box that you mentioned, that had all my possessions in the world. I went in when I was 27 - I came out, I was 45: I owned six pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, two bras, two white shirts and two pairs of jeans, and two pairs of shoes. And a Walkman radio [laughter]. That’s all I owned in the whole world. And I had no money, I had no identification, I had no place to go. My parents were gone, I didn’t have a home to go back to. And my children, by then, had grown up with the foster family, they were…my son was out on his own and, actually, by then had a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter of his own, was living in a different state. And my daughter, after her father was executed - she was about 15 when he was executed - and when she heard how terrible it was, she tried to take her own life. And so the foster family that had custody of her decided to send her to a school for children with emotional and behavioral problems, because they didn’t know what to do. And so she was locked up in a school for…where I wasn’t allowed even to communicate with her by letters, any more. I wasn’t even allowed to write to her. And she was locked up until she was 18 years old. So when I got out, she was stuck in that school – I wasn’t even allowed to communicate with her. And so I stood there with my little cardboard box, and finally I decided, since nobody yelled at me and nobody shot at me, that maybe it was OK to take a few steps around. I put the cardboard box down and saw a stairway, and I decided to go down the stairway. And I found I was in the street! And it was just me and the sun and the moon – it was that time of day when the sun and the moon are out together. And I just started to run! [Laughter] And I ran, and I ran – and it was the most beautiful moment, I think, of my entire life. I just ran – it was just me and the sun and the moon and the wind. Until, all of a sudden, a car stopped in the middle of the road, a man jumped out and said: “Are you Sunny Jacobs?” Sony Jacobs, he said. And I said: “Yeah. How do you know?! [Laughter]. Santy Claus?” And he said: “Well there’s some people looking for you back there.” And he pointed in the direction, actually, that I was running. And I was like: “Oh, OK!” And I ran, and what had happened is, I had run around the block. I had no idea, I was just [aaahhh]. And I ran round where he showed me, and there was the stairway again. So I went up - and there was my, one of my lawyers, and a friend who had helped me in the end, who joined forces with the lawyers. And I tried to go back in the building, but my body would not allow me to pass the threshold. I couldn’t go back in. And so I called in the door, and someone came out, and they ran out to me. And then the next chapter of life actually began. But during that moment, I think that’s the most free that I’ve ever, ever been. Before or since [laughter]. Because then, all of a sudden, the responsibilities of freedom enter into the picture. You know, like, freedom isn’t free. It comes with responsibility. And OK, now I’m free: “So where am I going to eat? Who’s going to feed me?”
RM: So where did you end up living at that point then?
SJ: Well… I didn’t know. I had no idea. I had no plan. I just needed to be free; I didn’t understand that that meant I wasn’t going to have a place to sleep that night.
RM: At this point, because the state weren’t necessarily looking after you, they just dumped you out into the street.
SJ: With not a penny.
RM: And is this where lawyers and friends came in? How did you, kind of, get to the next point?
SJ: Well, yes. No, the lawyers – she was, she picked…we went in her car. And they handed me a telephone in the car, which was very strange, because when I went into prison they didn’t have telephones in cars! [Laughter] They had long curly wires that got all wound up. And so they handed me a phone and said I could call my son. “Oh, OK!” And so I called him and let him know that I was free, because this happened kind of unexpectedly, at a hearing. And then they took me to my lawyer’s house, and she told me I could pick anything I wanted out of her closet to wear. Of course, she was like six feet tall, so I picked a pair of shorts [laughter] and a T-shirt with a flamingo on it [laughter]. And they had asked me what I wanted to eat. God, I had dreamed about so many…in the beginning I dreamed about all these amazing things, very complex dishes, but in the end it was like: “A potato, maybe?” You know? Or, I remember, I had a list – everybody has a list, when they get out of prison, of the things they want to do. And my list was: number one was a bubble bath. Because there are no bathtubs in prison. And then number two was a Thomas’s English muffin with real butter. And number three was a man [laughter]. You know. And it took me, actually, three years before I even went on a date, and that was on a bicycle because I didn’t trust anybody, so I wasn’t going to be stuck in somebody’s car.
But, so I got the bubble bath at the lawyer’s house, and then they ordered Chinese food. I decided that’s what I wanted, Chinese food. And chopsticks. And then, the following morning, they took me to a big hotel and we had a sleepover with friends that…some of the women that I’d known from the prison, and Jesse’s mum was there, and she brought me a pair of pajamas. She’s the only one who understood, to any extent, that I wouldn’t be prepared for anything. And then, the next morning, they took me to the restaurant in the hotel, and they gave me this menu: pages and pages, it was like a novel. And I couldn’t possibly…it would be tomorrow breakfast time before I could possibly read all those things and make the choice. And so I saw this omelet with all kinds of things in it on the menu, and I said: “Could I change my mind? Could I change my mind and not have the Thomas’s English muffin and butter now?” And they were like: “Yes! You can have whatever you want!” But, you know, in prison you don’t have a lot of choices, so I wasn’t sure I was allowed to change my mind. And, if I did change my mind, if I could still get the Thomas’s English muffin and butter the next day, because, again, in prison, if you got the opportunity to have something, you had to take it right away because that opportunity was not coming back. So they said: “Yes, yes, you can have whatever you want!” So I had the omelet, just having a little faith that maybe I could have my Thomas’s English muffin soon.
And then I wanted to go to the sea. It was really important for me to go to the sea, because I felt that the ocean was the only thing powerful enough to wash away the prison, just the whole feeling of it, and just neutralize the energy. And I could be born again, like a selkie, almost. And so, right after breakfast they took me to the sea. And I just ran. I ran and ran and ran along the shore, and then I ran into the water, and just let the sea wash it all away. It was really beautiful. And it was important, I think: symbolism is really important to us. It’s part of our nature. You know? It’s like when you see those pictures of the soldiers fighting, you know, for some unknown reason, on some little island or something, and then they get the flag and they post the flag up on the top of the hill and they’re renewed and it gives them the impetus to go on. That’s a symbol. They’re really, really important. And so, symbolically, that washing away the energy of the prison in the sea was really important for me. And, from there I just went on to create my new life.
RM: Can you talk about how you re-entered the workforce? Because there’s an interesting story there about how your practice in prison led to employment.
SJ: Well yes, nobody was going to hire me. I mean, OK: I was wrongly imprisoned at the age of 27 for something I didn’t do, and 17 years later I finally was released when I’m 45. So, how does a 45-year-old woman get a job? You know? Nobody’s really hiring 45-year-old women. And then I tell them my work experience. “Well, you see…but I was innocent.” “Oh yes - well, don’t call us, we’ll call you.” You know? Right. So the only thing I really knew how to do was yoga. Because all during the time that I was sentenced to death in the death cell, all during the time that I was in prison, I did yoga and meditation. And that helped me. And, in fact, when I was released from the death cell into the population, the other prisoners used to ask me: “How did you manage to keep your health and your sanity?” I’m not sure I kept my sanity, but…you know, because I was locked in this little cell for years. I only got out of my cell twice a week, by the way. Not one hour a day – I only got out of cell twice a week for a brief shower, and then about 15 minutes outside in the courtyard with a guard who didn’t speak to me. And then I was put back in my cell for another three or four days. So, the other prisoners knew this, and they were amazed that I came out fit, pretty healthy. And so they would ask me, and I’d say: “Well, meet me on Saturday and I’ll show you”. And so we started doing yoga, and it ended up to be kind of a yoga class. And then after about another ten years the prison noticed that we had a yoga class! [Laughter]. And so they brought in a woman from the local community college to teach yoga. And up until then, I really wasn’t quite sure that I was doing it right, but I knew it worked for me. And when I got out of the death cell and I was in the population, I could go to the library and get yoga books. So I got a yoga book and I just did what it said in the yoga book, and it seemed to work. See, I was doing it very internally. I wasn’t looking in the mirror saying: “That looks right.” I was feeling it inside and going: “That feels right.” So you could feel…it was more what I felt inside me happening, rather than what I could see outside me. And so, when this teacher came in, we found out we were doing it right. And in fact, she was so impressed with what we were doing that she brought in the swami. Swami Nawanda - how a swami ended up in Broward County, Florida, I’m not quite sure, but there she was. And so she came in once a month – she brought in a vegetarian feast, and loads of prisoners came because, if you want prisoners to attend anything, you just bring food [laughter], you know? It’s sort of like being in college, you know, just offer food and you get a whole crowd. So we had…every month she’d come in, she’d bring the vegetarian feast and we’d do yoga and meditation, and she’d teach us various things. And she would use me as her demonstrator model. So that was her way of fine-tuning my own practice. So when I got out, that’s what I knew how to do. And it’s what kept me healthy through all the most difficult times of my life – and getting my freedom was one of the most difficult times in my life, as well. So I decided that I would teach yoga, and that would help me to get through this, the difficulties, and also it would be a way for me to share the ways that I knew that could help other people with their difficulties. Because when I first got out, I didn’t realize that… I didn’t think I had anything in common with anyone else. My experience had been so different than everybody else my age, and… But then, after being out for a while, I realized that everybody has their own prison, of sorts, and their own challenges, and they could use the same tools as I did to get through their challenges. So it became a way of sharing, and a way of connecting. Because the things missing for anyone, I think, that’s been locked away for whatever reason, guilty or not, is the connection back into the community. And there are people here in Ireland, as a matter of fact, who have had this happen to them and been wrongly convicted. Not as many as in America but, you know, there aren’t as many people in this country as there are in New York City. So it’s such a vast place. But comparatively - we have our population of people who are wrongly convicted as well, and they find it very difficult to re-enter society, because they have this stigma. People think: “Well, I don’t know, maybe. They did say she did it and maybe it was a technicality, or maybe… Isn’t that the woman, isn’t that the woman who’s accused of – and this is often the case – of killing her child?” Because most of the women that I know that were wrongly convicted were wrongly convicted of killing their own child. And so people point, they actually point at them and say: “Isn’t that the woman? Isn’t that the mother of the woman who was accused of…” You know, it’s very hard for them to get past this stigma. So, it didn’t happen for me – I kind of did it for myself, but I now know that it’s important for people to welcome someone who has that problem back into their society. I think, even if they were guilty – if they paid their price to society, give them a chance to have a good life, to be part of society. Maybe the whole reason why they went wrong in the first place is because they were on the fringes of society. So I think that it’s up to church groups and community groups to invite these people back in. And give them a chance to belong. Because it’s not just, again, the person: it’s the whole family. My family had to move after this happened to me, because they were so devastated and so embarrassed. And my son, when they finally did get him released into my parents’ custody, I found out years and years later, that he had to fight every day in school, because the kids - who can be kind of mean, you know – they would say: “Oh, your mum’s a murderer and she’s going to die in the electric chair.” So he would fight. And he was a very gentle person, so this was terrible for him. So they actually had to move. So when tragedy happens, and especially an injustice, it happens to the whole family. And so I think as a society we should be aware of that.
RM: At what point did you decide to become a campaigner, or an activist? Because you could have chosen to get on with your life. You didn’t owe the world anything, necessarily.
SJ: Yes – I think, now there’s this phenomenon called the Innocence Project, and they’ve been working to free people who were wrongly convicted, like myself, like Peter. And, as a result, it’s really raised awareness about the problem. And I find, now, that many, if not most, of the people who were wrongly convicted, when they get out, want to do something to help. Because they know others who are in prison who were also wrongly convicted - and they know how it feels, and they know how it affects the families. And so a lot of them do try to become activists - but activism comes with a price. Activism is a great thing to do, but then you have to be able to, at some point, separate yourself from your activism and say: “You know what? For all the people that I’m trying to help – and I had to learn this myself – for all the people that I’m trying to help, that I’ve left behind, that I think need my help, I owe it to them to enjoy my life. Because if all you do is fight, fight, fight, then…what about enjoy, enjoy, enjoy? And it’s hard to enjoy when you know other people are suffering, but it’s exactly for that reason that you need to enjoy – because they wish they had five minutes of your life. If they could just have a little bit of what you have, they’d be so happy. And so, for you to waste it is a sin. To waste the opportunity. In 24 hours of a day, you can fight, let’s say you fight for 18 hours of that day – take one hour. One hour, to just purely enjoy what you have, the privileges you have, the freedom you have, the opportunities that you have. And that’s not just for you: that’s for them. Because they see, they see that. They see, those people that are left behind in the prison, the people that now are just being released who were wrongly convicted, they see that: “Look at Sunny and Peter! Why, they have a beautiful life! It is possible. We have that to aspire to, to hope for.” So, at the very least, what we do is we give people hope that maybe they can have that too. Before we did this we’d spend our days and nights fighting, well, great. It’s a good cause but, you know? What about sex, drugs and rock and roll? [Laughter]. What about good food, a soft bed? What about fun?! So we really do owe it to them, not just to ourselves but to the people we’re trying to help, like to do it. I’m doing it for them, I’m doing it for Jesse, I’m doing it for my parents, I’m doing it for my Uncle Joe. I mean, I lost them all, when I was in there. I lost them all. And yet, when I do stuff like this, they’re here. I feel them, I really do feel them. And they’re going: “Yeah.” You know, because I give them a voice. I give them a life, I give them joy. And that’s my revenge, if you want [laughter]. That’s my revenge: to be happy. [Applause, laughter].
RM: I just want to do a time check – can we just have the time?
SJ: Well we could hang out [inaudible 45:45].
[We have five minutes]
SJ: Oh we have five minutes!
RM: OK – we’re going to open up the questions. I just want you to tell people a little bit about your current life and your current work and maybe a little bit about the goats and the various animals that are about.
SJ: And then they can ask questions.
RM: So yes, if you tell us about life in Connemara and, particularly then, the Sunny Sanctuary, the Sunny Center.
SJ: I should tell you that, when I first came over here – and this is relevant because of tonight – when I first came over here, it was a bank holiday weekend, and so…Amnesty International brought me over, and so I got to take the bus, the bus tour of Dublin that I heard about Kilmainham Gaol, and it’s not on the bus tour. And so I get off the bus, and I went to go see Kilmainham Gaol – and I realized then that… Because I hadn’t been in a prison again since I got out. And I realized that the cell, just the same size as the cell that I had been in on death row – but I couldn’t, again, it was one of those times when I couldn’t make myself go in. So my friend, Trish, she had two children with us on the little tour, so I said: “Hey, kids - you want to go in there?” You know? And they went in, so when they went in I was able to be like…it broke the spell. But it was exactly the same size as my cell – cells like that, I think, are pretty much the same. So, when I met Peter, I didn’t know anything about… It was Steve Earle, the Galway Girl? The original Galway Girl…
RM: You heard the Galway Girl playing?
SJ: No, well, but I know who she is! [Laughter]. She’s [inaudible 47:34]. She’s in his video.
SJ: So there’s a hint. But anyway, and she has long dark, dark hair and blue eyes, just like the song. Anyway, Steve is an activist, and he told me that when I went to Ireland I should meet Peter Pringle, because he knew that Peter had also been a person who was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of two policemen that he didn’t do – which was pretty coincidental. And so, yeah. And so when I came over I got in touch with him, and he came to my talk, like he is now. And then, finally he told me about his circumstances and I found out he did yoga and meditation as well, which was pretty interesting because you don’t meet many guys who tell you they did yoga and meditation while sentenced to death. [Inaudible 48:27]
RM: It’s not on Tinder that much.
SJ: Yes, yes. So that’s what started this whole thing, and that wasn’t exactly what… I mean, that gave us a connection, but that wasn’t what really connected us. It was, the yoga and meditation connected us on one…another level, very closely, but it was that he said to me after that first meeting, he said: “I try to lead an honorable life.” And that clicked, for me. Because by then, I had no time for nonsense. You know? You just don’t, not when you’ve been through all that. You just don’t have time for all that stupidity. So that’s what attracted me - and then we became friends, and more than friends, as Peter always says [laughter]. And then we realized that we had become part of each other’s healing, and we were in a special position. Like we had been given a gift. And all of this, it was a gift. And the gift was to be able to help other people who were in a similar situation to find healing, or at least find hope, that there could be happiness afterwards. And so it sort of happened organically – a young Irish lawyer named Niamh, Niamh Gunn, she had been working with one of the Innocence Projects in America, and had helped free this man in Detroit. And he was having a lot of trouble after becoming free because, like us, he found out that freedom isn’t just: “Whoopee, now I’m free.” So she asked if she could send him to us. And he spent a month living with us in our little cottage in Connemara, and he was…it helped him a lot. He went back and he was doing much better. So that’s how it began. And we were too old to have children of our own, so we have kids. [Goat impression, laughter].
SJ: They all call me “Neeehhh.”
RM: How many animals do you have, in total?
SJ: Now I’m even “Grandneeehhh” [laughter].
RM: So you live in the wild west of Connemara, and you run what is the Sunny Center , which has now received many people over the last couple of years, hasn’t it?
SJ: Yes, yes, and we now have a foundation based in New York. And a board, and all this kind of stuff. And it’s really, we find, overwhelmed our lives. But, at least for the next five years, we’re going to continue to do it the way we do, and we’re hoping that we can train others to do what we do. Other exonerees that have come through our program, and then maybe they can continue the work and we can kind of be consultants and just get our nice quiet life back in our old age. But it’s a beautiful thing to be able to do – and to see people come, they can’t even look up, they keep their head down when they come. And then, after a while, you can see their face, and they start to smile, and they start to participate, and it’s a beautiful thing. And we use our neighbors to help us, too. When we find out what the person is interested in, what their interests are, like art or music or bicycle riding, or whatever it might be, then we introduce them to local people who have the same interests. “Go on, go on, spend the day – this is our friend John, go on now.” And they don’t know, necessarily, we don’t tell them their background or anything. “This is our friend John from America.” And that becomes “Sean, and off you go.” And it’s a beautiful thing, and they learn that they can connect with people on another level – that they’re not just their past. Because in America, mainly, they’re used…they have no way to get a job, like me, they have no way to make money or get a job. They live in such poverty. The only way they can really get a break is by talking about their experience and being used by the activist movement, against the death penalty, for that purpose. But they are being used, and it’s really, after a while, not very healthy, because it’s keeping them in that box, and being a victim. And so what we do is, we bring them here and set them free. And now, if you want to go back into that box every once in a while, you can, but that’s not who you are.
RM: Thanks, Sunny. I think we’ll give her a round of applause. [Applause]. I’m going to have to be a little bit cruel, because I know there’s many people here who want to ask questions, but I intentionally allowed the wisdom to flow this direction. But if there’s anybody that really, really, really wants to ask a question…
SJ: Oh, do!
RM: Tracey, you’re up. And I’ll give another hand, you. I’ll try, I can’t promise. Tracey, go for it. [Inaudible 53:54] There are bosses in the background hovering here. [Inaudible 54:00] I’ll repeat the question so everyone can hear it.
Tracey: So, at one point you said that you didn’t have trust in anybody after you came out of prison. What was it that led you to come to trust people again?
RM: How did you regain trust in people? Because at one point you said you no longer had trust in people.
SJ: I still have trust issues [laughter]. In this world, I think they’re justified. But it is a gradual process, and what I do is, I go back down into myself. Sometimes my immediate reaction is visceral. [Uhh] and then [exhalation] I take a deep breath, and you can do it in one breath if you practice enough. And I get rid of that, and I go: “OK, what does my heart say? What does my tummy say?” And, if it feels OK, I go with it, and if it doesn’t… If it’s something I wouldn’t normally, you know like it doesn’t fit me, I don’t do it. And if it does, I do. And I’m willing to take a chance, because I found that – and this is really important – being hard, you break, OK? Hard things break. But if you can be soft, then you can flow, like the water and like the wind. And they’re much more powerful than anything hard and rigid. So I found that I’m more powerful as a soft, flowing being than I am as a hard, rigid being. So I know that, OK, I can handle it. If I’m wrong and I get hurt, I can recover. I know that I can do that. So this gives me strength, and so I’m more able to trust now than I used to. But it’s still an issue.
RM: And yourself down the back?
[Audience member]: I was just wondering, do you think that there is such a thing as collective freedom, or is freedom only a personal journey?
RM: So, do you believe in collective freedom, or do you think it’s only a personal journey?
SJ: Oh no, it’s both. Almost definitely. Freedom is so complex – I mean, freedom starts and ends with that little kernel inside of yourself. Only you can set yourself free in the end, or imprison yourself, in the end, regardless of what else is going on around. But then, there’s physical freedom and mental freedom and emotional freedom. And all of us are connected in that way, so there is, I think – we can share a freedom. I’m doing it now – we’re sharing freedom right now, you know? The freedom to be here, the freedom to listen, the freedom to take this in, the freedom to connect with each other, the freedom to change, the freedom to share. So I do think that there is a collective freedom, but we have to recognize it.
RM: I’m going to go with you on that, and we’re going to have to wrap it then. Sorry to do this.
[Audience member]: When you mentioned about being in solitary, you said that within a few months you made that decision to become the best that you could be within the limitations of your situation. But, while you could have presented it as if it was: “Oh I made the decision,” and then you could kind of cope with things, but I’m imagining that the intensity of the fear and the loss, all the loss and everything – was it like a to-ing and fro-ing, I’m assuming it was very challenging to be able to be like that. There must have been so much trauma.
SJ: There was, there is – there still is. The decision is instant. But the process continues, even to this day. You know? So like, when I hear that my son is having trouble finding a job, and I know it’s because of his treatment in the juvenile detention center – he was so traumatized that he developed a speech impediment, and when he gets nervous he stutters. And I know that, when he goes for a job, that affects his possibilities. And that makes me angry again. And I have to [breathes] practice forgiveness again, because that doesn’t help me or anyone, for me to take on that anger again. And so it’s a process that continues to this day. But the decision is an instant, and it changes your life.
[Audience member]: And was this forgiveness [inaudible 58:38]?
SJ: Forgiveness is one of the key tools to happiness. [Applause].
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The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.