My friend, Charlie Ryder, wrote this amazing story.
In 1976, Sonia “Sunny“ Jacobs, and Jesse Tafero,
her common-law husband of three years, accepted a lift from a man called Walter
Rhodes—a man who had a criminal record and had broken his parole conditions.
Together with their ten month old daughter Christina, and Eric, Jacobs’ nine
year old son from a previous relationship, the couple were traveling to the
coast to look for casual work. Pulled over at a rest stop on the interstate
route, Jacobs was breast-feeding Christina when a routine police patrol pulled
up beside the vehicle. With two officers approaching the vehicle, Jacobs still
didn’t think anything was amiss until Rhodes panicked and shot both men dead.
He then kidnapped the occupants of his car and tore down the freeway. They
eventually encountered an armed barricade across the road. But instead of the
police rescuing Jacobs and Tafero, they arrested them on suspicion of murder.
Rhodes, who was used to dealing with the criminal courts, struck a plea
bargain. In exchange for three life sentences, he testified that Jacobs and
Tafero were solely responsible for the killings.
“My whole world seemed to dissolve”, Sunny says,
“Anger and disbelief, that’s what I remember feeling most.” (When she was
sentenced to death.) “They tell you exactly how they’re gonna do it. They’re
gonna send 2,200 volts of electricity through your body until you’re dead. And
then they ask you if you have anything to say to that and, really, it’s kind of
In a cell the width of her arm-span, Sunny spent
five years on death row in solitary confinement. Her only lifeline was the
stream of impassioned, life-affirming letters between herself and Jesse,
offering love and strength, each echoing the other’s conviction that the truth
would soon be revealed. She refused to lose hope, even though the state had
falsified testimonies and inconclusive polygraph tests to condemn her and
Jesse, disregarding hidden evidence and the true murderer’s confession. Locked
into a 9ft x 6ft, windowless, and permanently lit cell on death row, only the
delivery of meals gave her a sense of time; and guards were not allowed to talk
“It feels as if you are starting to dry up and
die. Your head is gone, the head will do you in, make you angry, make you
scared, makes you self-pity and confused. The answer is not there. In your
heart there’s pain and sorrow and suffering, but the answer is not there. You
have to go deeper than that and then you connect with what I guess you would
call your spirit and it’s there that you can find the way to open up into that
other dimension of life. It’s something very basic. Either you find it or you
keep spinning in circles until you crash and burn.”
In 1981, Sunny’s sentence was reduced to life and
she revelled in the freedom of eating in the company of other prisoners,
teaching yoga, and forging new relationships, yet Jesse remained on death row.
Sunny lived under the constant shadow of his impending execution and the loss
of contact with her children. “It had a terrible effect on my kids and I
worried so much for them when I was there. Eric, my son, was also put into
detention for two months when I was arrested. How could you do that to a child?
He developed a terrible stutter and had an awful, awful time of it. Eventually,
my parents got custody of the two kids which was some relief.”
But when Sunny’s parents were killed in a plane crash
in 1982, Christina was put into foster care and Eric, then in his middle teens,
went out alone and supported himself as a pizza delivery boy. Her parents’
death was the lowest moment in prison, along with the moment she heard Tefaro
had been executed. Until that point the couple had continued to nurture their
relationship through letters: “We carried on a fairly full life in our letters,
actually, including our sex life.” This is evidenced in one of the last letters
Jesse wrote: “We’re so lucky, I love you so much, you’re my woman, as close as
my breath, you’re the strongest female I’ve ever known. Hand and glove you
He suffered a brutal death. The electric chair
malfunctioned and his executioners had to pull the switch three times. It took
three bolts of electricity, which lasted 55 seconds each, and 13 minutes for
him to die. Flames eventually shot from his head and smoke came out of his
ears. Jessie died in a horrible, botched execution that caused outrage the
Finally in late 1992, after a campaign led by a
childhood friend of hers, the court of appeal overturned her conviction.
Without compensation, Sunny Jacobs walked out of jail as a 45 year old
grandmother, her son Eric having married and fathered a child while she was
Since her release from prison, Sunny Jacobs has
spent much of her time campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty. It
was on such a speaking tour for Amnesty International in Cork that she met her
husband Peter Pringle, a former fisherman: “I was speaking and I was aware of
this man in the audience listening to me and he was crying. After my talk he
came up to me and told me his story; he was wrongly imprisoned for 15 years. He
survived through yoga and meditation until he was able to learn enough about
the law to secure his release.”
“When we met, Peter and I had a discussion about
forgiveness. Maybe I’m entitled to feelings of negativity, but they don’t serve
me. I’ve come to terms with myself. I’ve forgiven myself for being such a
stupid girl. We have the whole gamut of feelings. I’m not going to live in this
area where there’s resentment and anger and looking to be repaid for what was
taken from me, and I’m not going to live where everything is beautiful and
there’s nothing bad in the whole world. Somewhere in between is where I chose
Soon after meeting Peter they married and now live
in a beautiful part of Western Ireland where Jacobs rears chickens, grows
vegetables, and teaches yoga. “We are very happy together and so lucky to live
the life we do. People might think I’m mad but I feel blessed. When I came out
of prison I made a choice. To be bitter and twisted or to fill my life with joy
and celebration. It was the same choice I made in prison. I wasn’t going to be
defeated. Forgiveness is a selfish act. If I hadn’t forgiven the people who put
me in jail, I would not have had the marvellous life I have now. No matter how
awful your circumstances may be, you always have a chance to make them better.”
I asked Sunny to write an article on the Art of
Forgiveness and she has shared this gift of ‘forgiveness as an art form’.
FORGIVENESS AS AN ART FORM: By Sunny Jacobs
“Art” suggests the use of tools, the creation of a
representation of one’s inner process, the expression of feelings to be shared
with and interpreted by others. Art requires skill in the choice and use of the
tools and basic raw materials. And it depends on creativity—inspiration,
insight, emotion—and the courage to externalize it, expose it, and become
vulnerable, in a sense. But it is through that very willingness to become
vulnerable that we find the greatest strength and freedom. If forgiveness is an
art, then we should be able to talk about the tools, the skills, and the raw
materials with which the artist must become acquainted.
For me, the most important tools were yoga and
meditation because they helped me to clear away the debris of the past in order
to have a clear slate on which to begin. Both of these practices are based on
the breath, which is a physical manifestation of the spirit, the breath of Life
that connects us all.
The Raw Materials
But before one can begin, there are some decisions to
be made. The basic colours of one’s palette must be chosen. With what would you
fill your Life’s canvas? Do you prefer happy or sad? Joyousness or depression?
Hope or hopelessness? Love or hatred and self-pity? Those were the choices I
faced. I would have been perfectly justified in choosing to hold on to my pain
and resentments. After all, I had paid dearly for them. But, if I didn’t clear
them they would have muddied and eventually eaten away at anything I might try
to cover them with, corrupting and undermining my best efforts. My choices
would have been severely limited and my palette restricted. I chose happiness,
healing, joy and gladness. I chose gratitude over resentment—because I had been
given the chance to have a beautiful life and share it with others.
Once I had chosen my palette and my theme, I set
about using them to clear and then to fill my life’s canvas. Forgiveness meant
being willing to let go of hatred, resentment, anger, self-pity, clearing the
slate, then filling the newly opened space with broad strokes of colour and
letting the details dictate themselves as the universe unfolded and revealed
them to me.
The thing about forgiveness is that it is a living
creation and so has no end. It is never complete because each day, and
sometimes each hour, it has its own shape and tone. No two people’s creation of
forgiveness can be alike. You have your own choices to make. But knowing how to
find the tools and raw materials is a big help. I have no regrets over my
decision to choose forgiveness. It has brought me in contact with many others
seeking to heal and move on, and filled my life with love! And so, I highly
recommend giving forgiveness a try. It is worth the effort!
Peace and Love,
Infamous UK prisoner, Charles Bronson, drew this picture with a poem in response to Sunny's story:
“Happiness is a state mind dig deep and find. It’s somewhere deep inside. Don’t leave your heart behind. Deep within the blackest hole a rainbow in a dream. Reaching up to kiss the sky clouds of Devon cream. A pure white dove passes by a tear drop falls from an eye. Another day another laugh happiness will never lie”. By Charlie Bronson
I finally got around to reading your
book, Hard Time! Wow, once I started I could not put it down! I was usually "you do
the crime you do the time" in my opinions, but I could not believe the
vile conditions you had to endure, and I could not literally believe that you
spent all of that time in there on "remand", without trial being
treated that way. I was astonished at the corruption and the way that the
system is stacked against EVERY inmate, irrespective of circumstance. Whilst I
believe in punishment for the crimes, these conditions are totally unacceptable
in any circumstance. I also believe that somehow the corruption needs to be
stamped out, and as such I applaud your work in trying to get the message out
there to get this cause noticed and on someone's agenda to try and get some
action done! I notice today yahoo is running your story, which is great!
The book is great, but I suspect you
wish you didn't have to write it - you have succeeded in opening my eyes to the
alternate view for sure
A question: A lot of people relate
criminal activity back to treatment during childhood. Can I ask, did you
receive any discipline as a child? Were you, for example recipient of any forms
of corporal punishment both at school or at home? Do you think you were allowed
to go "off the rails" through a lack of discipline both at school and
at home as a child? Or were you studious and well behaved (having a degree and
all) as a child?
If I misbehaved as a child, I wouldn’t
be allowed out to play with my friends. I only got caned a couple of times at
school - one was for throwing a snowball that hit a teacher. I don’t believe I was allowed to go off the rails. I was studious, and
didn’t really go off the rails until I was making big money in America in my
twenties. I tried drugs thinking I could have fun at first and quit whenever I
wanted, but over time drugs put a cloud in my mind. Chasing my earlier highs, I
did more drugs and mixed drugs up, and my behaviour became much crazier. With
most of my friends doing the same, we reinforced each other’s negative
behaviour. With no one to put the brakes on, and our decision-making faculties
scrambled by years of drug use, we all went off the rails at the same time – as
you’ll find out in much more detail if you read my next book, Party Time.
Regarding your comment about the jail
conditions, you quite rightly pointed out that unsentenced inmates shouldn’t have
to endure such conditions. In America, there is a presumption of innocence
until guilt is found, and the law states that pretrial detention shouldn’t be a
form of punishment. The conditions are illegal, but Sheriff Joe gets away with
it because he’s elected by people in Arizona, where he is a law unto himself, out doing publicity stunts every week, while raking in millions in political contributions from vested interests such as the private prisons.
"Want to see the tent where all the Mexicans are?" Arpaio asks in a conspiratorial whisper. "Huh?"
The curtain is back open. And so here we are in the triple-digit
heat, entering the sheriff's Tent City, where thousands of inmates he
and deputies have picked up live in the open, biding their time for
misdemeanors ranging from drunk driving to street-level drug dealing.
"August 2nd, 1993, right here," Arpaio says, poking a bit of gravel with
his foot where he broke ground on the site. "My favorite spot."
From the start, the jail was notorious for its minimalist living
conditions, which Arpaio says have saved Maricopa County millions of
dollars in building and operational costs. Arpaio fed prisoners two
meals a day (valued at 30 cents each), banned cigarettes and coffee, and
boasted that temperatures in the summer can hit 141 degrees. His
constituents lapped it up, and the national press came calling. Arpaio
brought back chain gangs and paraded prisoners through the streets to be
jeered at. In 1996, he published his first book, America's Toughest Sheriff, which was praised by Sen. John McCain as "no-nonsense."
Flanked by Arpaio's two large body men, we pass through a series of
jail yards, first for the women (where one of Arpaio's deputies warns
me, "Remember that you're a married man – heh heh"), then for the male
prisoners, who idle torpidly in the shade. Inside Arpaio's jails,
according to the federal lawsuit, guards refer to Latino inmates as
"wetbacks," "Mexican bitches," "stupid Mexicans" and "fucking Mexicans."
Female prisoners, the suit claims, were forced to sleep in their own
menstrual blood; officers refused to respond to the inmates' pleas
because they were made in Spanish. Meanwhile, Arpaio's jailers allegedly
circulated e-mail images of a Chihuahua in a bathing suit, calling it
"a rare photo of a Mexican Navy Seal."
As the prisoners recognize Arpaio, he pulls out a pen and offers to
sign autographs on postcards that show him playing with puppy dogs in an
air-conditioned part of the jail. Some of the women inmates take him up
on the offer. When one woman says she's in for selling drugs for one of
the Mexican cartels, Arpaio brightens. "Do they know me?" he asks.
In the tents reserved for "the illegals," I meet a young inmate
originally from Chiapas, Mexico, who tells me through an interpreter
that he's been working in the U.S. since 1996. Many members of his
immediate family are American citizens, but he now faces deportation
over a drunk-driving charge. Other men chime in with similar tales.
Arpaio steps inside and proudly holds up a digital thermometer to show
me that it is 128 degrees inside the tent.
"There's a lot of people here who did a lot of things wrong," says an
inmate who steps forward to confront Arpaio, in English. "But a lot of
people were just working in peace and didn't do nothing. Just leave
those people alone."
The man from Chiapas asks Arpaio, "You're against us being here for
work?" "No, not for work," says Arpaio. "For being here illegally. Not
for work. You're here illegally and you're fake."
Arpaio, who speaks a little Spanish with a pronounced Italian accent,
is hated in the communities where these men lived. In Hispanic areas of
Phoenix, you can see decals on cars that read FUCK ARPAIO (which is
also the title of a popular Chicano anti-Arpaio rap song). The sheriff
argues that he's simply doing the job the federal government has failed
to do, arresting illegal immigrants on the pretext of violating state
criminal laws and then handing them over to federal authorities. Arpaio
claims he's detained 51,000 illegal immigrants since 2007.
Illegal immigration is a top concern among voters in Arizona, tied
closely to fears of drugs, crime and unemployment. Maricopa, the
fourth-largest county in America, is 50 miles from the Mexican border,
but Phoenix, its major population center, is a destination for illegal
immigrants and drug dealers alike. Thirty percent of the county's
residents are Hispanic, and their numbers are soaring – up 47 percent
over the past decade. But the money and political power in Maricopa
still reside in the largely white and conservative suburbs around
It is those whites and conservatives, as it happens, who employ many
of the illegal immigrants targeted by Arpaio. But the sheriff is careful
to steer clear of the white owners who profit from exploiting immigrant
labor. In his 20 years wearing the badge, in fact, Arpaio has busted
only three businesses for hiring illegal immigrants. "You've got to
prove that they knew," he says, "and it's very difficult." Instead,
Arpaio goes after the undocumented workers they hire, notifying the
media every time he rounds up Latino fruit pickers or factory laborers.
In the process, according to the Justice Department, Arpaio has
frequently arrested and detained U.S. citizens and legal residents of
Latino origin, including children, for hours at a time without a charge
or a warrant.
Jailing Mexicans, of course, is what sells to his base. In an
influential retirement community like Sun City, where the median age is
73, Arpaio serves as an armed security cop keeping out the riffraff. And
he's not alone: All of the most prominent Republican politicians in the
state, including Gov. Jan Brewer, have risen to power by inflaming
anti-immigrant sentiment. They blame the Obama administration for
failing to crack down on illegal immigrants, even though deportation has
spiked under Obama. And contrary to their overheated rhetoric, there's
almost no relationship between illegal immigration and crime. "Illegal
immigrants make up less than 10 percent of those arrested," says Charles
Katz, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University who
conducts annual studies on crime in Maricopa County. "They're involved
in less criminal activity than native-born Americans." Illegal
immigrants, the studies show, are twice as likely to be employed than
U.S. citizens and half as likely to use illegal drugs – yet thanks to
Arpaio's tactics, they're far more likely to be arrested for drug
But Arpaio doesn't care about the complicated realities of
immigration. For him, the equation is simple: Fear equals votes. While
I'm with him, he happily trumpets reports that Mexican drug cartels and
prison gangs are offering a reward for his head – proof, in his mind, of
his effectiveness, and evidence that the Latino community harbors
criminals. "He's vilified Latinos in such a way that normal people,
they're scared to death," says Bill Richardson, a retired police
officer. Such terror, in turn, only makes it harder for the police to do
their jobs. "It creates fear in the Latino community for law
enforcement," he says.
Thanks for the food box. I enjoyed every bit of it. Again
Anyway, I don’t know if you know, but all the building go to
rec together. We get rec 3 times a day and I still hold the chess title.
Everyone likes it when I come out to play cuz I still talk a lot of caca. I
tell them, “You guys ain’t gonna be able to sleep tonight cuz you’ll be
thinking up ways to try and beat this old man.”
My friend, I’m gonna do my best to get a passport cuz I do
want to go and see you, plus I want to try out that English booty or pussy. It
doesn’t make a difference. I just got to have it.
I’ve been trying to get the porter to give me head, but he’s
real scared cuz we’re in school and there’s people all over the place, but I
told him I don’t care what anyone thinks. I pulled my cock out, and let him
jack me off or more like touch it cuz he’s so scared to get busted. I think
he’s got an old man and is worried about someone telling on him. On my behalf,
I don’t care. All I want is my cock sucked regardless of who his man is. I told
him all I want is a sample, but he wants me to fuck him cuz he says he doesn’t
think he can handle it in his mouth. Tomorrow, I’m hoping I get some head off
My friend, I’m done with prison. I won’t be back. This life
ain’t for me no more.
What’s up with Cuban Boy? Are you still in touch with him?
If yes, let him know I’m getting out soon, and to write me a letter.
Can you send me some good art books? That’s all I do now and
read. Prison has got worse, especially the food. They give us so little. Can’t
wait to leave this place.
If the porter gives me head, I’m pulling out and coming all
over his face for making me wait so long.