Jermaine Sims is serving a life sentence for purchasing a gun used in a fatal bank robbery in 1997. A bank teller was killed, three others were wounded.

Sims did not participate in the robbery — the two men who did are serving life for the crime — but federal law holds him responsible as if he had committed the crime himself. 

His trial judge called the mandatory life without parole sentence too harsh and has written a letter supporting Sims’ clemency request. Sims, now 40, has served 18 years behind bars. 

By Jermaine Jerrell Sims

As a young man, I wanted nothing more than to be the first of my immediate siblings to attend college. It was in 1997, somewhere around the age of 22, that I finally got my opportunity. I was an elated young man!

Upon receiving the financial aid letter from J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College, I rushed to the kitchen to show my mother the good news. I hadn’t seen a smile on her face that big since I graduated high school.

The following day, I made plans to enroll in the downtown campus in Richmond, Va. No one could have told me that that the week after enrolling that I’d be incarcerated for allegedly aiding and abetting a fatal bank robbery.

It was the school of hard knocks — prison — that I finally earned my college degree, graduating from Ashworth University in 2006 via correspondence courses.

Baby Jermaine: Working hard for second chance at 40.

Baby Jermaine: Working hard today for second chance at 40.

As I worked in the Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR), I took advantage of the UNICOR educational scholarship, resulting in my being certified in small business management with a GPA of 4.0!

My daily routine consisted of going to work, returning to the housing unit and immediately going to my cell to study. While other prisoners watched television, played cards and gossiped about what was going on on the “yard,” I spent my time on becoming a college graduate.

Since then, I’ve completed close to 100 programs via Adult Continuing Education classes and/or College! I’m a Suicide Watch Companion, and a teaching assistant for the Principle Centered Living class in my prison. I’ve learned Spanish as a second language — and I’ve had no incident report(s) in approximately 15 years!

I have worked very hard, in a very difficult environment, to improve my mind and moral character. If it an opportunity was allowed, I did it. I’ve worked hard and am proud of the man I’ve become.

So, why am I still being referred to as a criminal and killer, rather than a model prisoner?

Why am I still serving a life sentence for a crime in which the government’s own witnesses testified that the actual perpetrators cleared me of any criminal involvement?

After both my sentencing judge and his colleague wrote several clemency recommendations on my behalf to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, why hasn’t the OPA granted both judges’ request that my sentence be commuted?

These are questions that I’ve asked myself for years, believing that someday I will regain my freedom. Until then, my belief in God and a sober mind helps me to stay the course.

Education is the key to demonstrating what true rehabilitation is about and why people, such as me, deserve a second chance at life.

Jermaine has finished nearly 100 education courses.

Jermaine with family on a prison visit.

I refuse to believe that I’m no more than a hardened criminal who deserves to die in prison. I much more than that.

First and foremost, I’m both a child of God and a wonderful human being worthy of a second chance! I had potential as a young man but made a mistake and lost the opportunity. Today, I am a middle-aged man, rehabilitated (in the pure meaning of the term) and full of hard-earned potential.

A mandatory life without parole sentence did not fit my crime — “aiding and abetting” in a tragic crime — nor does it accurately reflect the man I’ve become.

My work to obtain freedom will continue until my goal is achieved. I pray that others — especially the Office of the Pardon Attorney and President Obama! — will realize that showing worth to others (and ourselves) through years of hard and earnest effort is the only way we have to prove we deserve a second chance. True rehabilitation should be encouraged!

Clemency is our legal and moral system’s last chance to make sure the punishment of real live human beings fits the crime. Sentence commutations are a crucial safety valve in an era of long, mandatory minimum sentences.

I was locked up at age 22 and am serving life without parole, a sentence even my judge opposed. I am an example of one of God’s children who deserves a second chance.

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