After spending five years in prison, here is why I believe in second chances

To: Those who feel like they don't deserve a second chance in life,

From: Brigitte Harris (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To those who feel like they don’t deserve a second chance in life, 

In life, there will be many people who won’t want to give you a second chance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have one. Your mistakes, your past, and your pain, don’t have to dictate all of who you are or all of what you can become. 

In 2007, I was convicted of manslaughter.  

My father, whose name was Eric, physically, emotionally, and sexually abused me throughout my life. 

Three years old. 

That’s how old I was the first time I remember him abusing me. I was wearing a daisy-print underwear/top set which he took off before getting on top of me. I wasn’t aware of what he was doing to me. I only recall that it hurt.

At about four or five years old, he once told me to “Suck it like a bottle.”

Through the years, sexual abuse became another form of punishment. He would also physically abuse me, using the belt or locking me in the room all day without giving me any food. 

The physical and sexual abuse persisted on and off for years, only stopping when I lived with other family members for periods of time, both in the U.S. and in Liberia.  At one point, my sister told my step mother what he was doing to us, and my step mother told the police. But Eric denied it, and that was that. He said we imagined it all. 

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The abuse continued until I was 18 and able to leave home. At that point, I was in Liberia and took out a loan to come back to the United States. But as a young adult, I suffered from severe depression and suicidal tendencies. The emotional pain was overwhelming, and I did not have the resources to get the help I needed. I didn’t even understand why I was hurting so much or how to help myself feel better. And then one day, I found out Eric was back in New York, where I lived.

At that point, I was 26 years old. He was no longer abusing me, but I was angry, depressed and worried about him hurting other young women in my family. 

I thought about going to the police, but I had no proof of what he did to me. There was nothing they could or would do. In my 26-year-old mind, I thought the only way to protect other young girls would be to take away his weapon, which was his penis. He came over to talk and that’s when I cut it off. In the process, he started screaming. I put a towel in his mouth. Unfortunately, he choked on it, and that’s how he died. 

My intent was not to kill him, but I did want him to suffer – just like he made so many others suffer, myself included. 

After spending some time in a psychiatric hospital, the police arrested me. My sister testified that Eric also abused her. Everyone seemed to believe us. The jury convicted me of manslaughter instead of murder, and many of the jurors wrote letters to the judge saying they hoped I would only receive probation. Politicians like Eric Adams and Chuck Schumer also advocated for me. Even so, the judge gave me the maximum sentence, 5-15 years. 

While I didn’t want to go to prison, my five years in prison helped me build a foundation for my second chance at life. It was where I started to see a future and a reflection that extended beyond the trauma and pain I endured. 

I found excellent therapists in prison and began to work through my past. To this day, I still see one of my therapists that I met in prison. Therapy has helped me realize why I was so depressed. Also, it gave me the vocabulary to express myself. It’s where I learned  how to build a new relationship with myself and others. 

In prison, I also started to dream. I baked for people in prison. People liked my baking so much that my peers told me to open a bakery. Now, I am working on opening a Liberian food truck before I establish a Liberian restaurant on Staten Island. And it’s not just an idea.I completed a business plan. There is a non-profit called Kiva that provides interest-free loans to people in situations like mine, and I will apply. In preparation, I have worked with several programs, including Leap for Ladies, SCORE and Defy Ventures. They are all organizations aimed to help me achieve my entrepreneurial goals. 

Since I have been out of jail, I have also been able to give back to others. During this pandemic, I worked for DoorDash, delivering food on my bike. While working, I noticed restaurants throwing out so much leftover food at the end of night. One of my younger brothers died of starvation and I remember often being so hungry as a child. I hate seeing food wasted. When I found out about an organization called Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC), I was excited to get involved. In between working for DoorDash, I picked up leftover food from restaurants and bakeries and delivered it to homeless shelters and food pantries around the city.

While I enjoyed the work I was doing, unfortunately, several months ago, while making a delivery for DoorDash on a rainy day, my back tire slipped and I fell, dislocating my shoulder. 

Now, I am out of work and on workers comp. But I have come too far to  give up now. 

Instead, I am still pursuing my second chance at life. I am currently saving money to begin the process of acquiring my licenses and permits for the food truck. Also, I am focusing on my physical health and preparing to start work again.

I know second chances don’t come easy. And not everyone thinks I should have one. There are family members and friends that no longer speak to me. There are strangers that are scared of me. And in our society, there is a lot of rejection. I tried to get my coast guard license, but I was denied admission into SUNY Maritime College. I went back and forth with Amazon for a month, applying for a job delivering groceries. After I provided recommendations and told them my side of the story, they sent me a letter telling me they could not hire me. New York City wouldn’t even give me a job picking up garbage and cleaning graffiti during the pandemic.  

I know second chances don’t come easy. And not everyone thinks I should have one.

All the rejection is frustrating and discouraging.  It feels as though even after I paid my debt to society and did my time the world continues to punish me. 

But even if the same happens to you, keep pushing forward. That’s what I am going to do. 

I am going to make it happen. I will get my second chance at life—my second chance at happiness. And you can too. If someone abused you, let go of the guilt. As a child, abuse is so hard to process and understand. But I want you to know it is not your fault. 

And whatever mistakes you’ve made or however people may perceive you, always know who you are and what is in your heart. 

My past is painful and complicated, but when I think about everything that has happened to me, I am proud of myself and how far I have come. I know I am a good person, and I love and care about people. 

So regardless of the negative comments tossed your way or how much rejection you receive from society or the people around you, keep finding ways to grow and heal. Seek help. Go discover your passion and chase your dreams. Please, let yourself feel joy. 

You deserve a second chance and if no one wants to give one to you, I hope you do the same as me and you give one to yourself. 

2022 is going to be my year. The best is yet to come for me, and the same can be true for you! 

With love and hope for the future, 

Brigitte Harris
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