July 14, 2023 -Bixler-Grace and Gratitude:
Several months after my arrest, I received a booklet in the mail from White Collar Advice. I had only just begun government Proffer sessions with the FBI, IRS and US Attorney; and I had my criminal attorney (Chris) by my side. I’d never been in trouble with the law and had no exposure to how the criminal justice process. I put my full trust in Chris to guide me through every step. I lacked an understanding of Chris’s role and believed that he was the only advocate I needed to help me navigate. Believing that, I set the booklet aside.
The full-color high gloss booklet I’d received was from Earning Freedom and White Collar Advice. I was intrigued by their mission. The organization was founded by Michael Santos, a remarkable man who spent 26 years in federal prison as a result of drug related crimes he’d committed in his early 20’s. Throughout the literature, I saw the faces and read the bios of several members of the organization all of whom are convicted felons who spent time in federal prison.
I was surprised to learn that they’re highly educated people with extremely successful careers prior to committing crime. Like me, they’d made some bad decisions and it changed everything. Despite adversity, they didn’t give up. They served their sentence with perseverance and hope. (At least that’s how I see it.) I could go on and on about them… the point is… they used prison as an opportunity for transformation rather than a pity party of defeat. It speaks volumes about their strength and character.
Although I set the booklet aside and took no action, I never threw it away. During purges when I’d come across it, I’d feel a spark of hope as I read their stories again. I began receiving emails from Justin Paperny also of White Collar Advice and Prison Professors (the educational arm). Justin wasn’t trying to sell me anything, he was inviting me to participate in free weekly educational webinars. I was struggling and couldn’t bring myself to consider prison let alone talk about every Thursday. I was in denial. I couldn’t imagine that’s what God had instore for me. In April of this year, three years after receiving the first booklet, I received another one. Knowing my sentencing hearing was only weeks away, the possibility of going to prison had become more real.
As I’ve turned to God and faith these past several years, I’ve realized how many times God has given me signs during times I felt uncertainty and needed direction. Sadly, I ignored some of those signs. Things didn’t turn out well in those circumstances and resulted in some harsh devastating lessons. I saw the second booklet as God’s reminder message. He’d been nudging me for years, but I didn’t act. Week after week, I received email invitations for free guidance, but my fear kept me from accepting the opportunity.
In April, just a month before facing my sentencing, I got the courage to join the webinar. I listened and learned so much and was glad I participated. After the webinar ended, I fell on the bed and began sobbing. As helpful as it was, reality hit me square in the face. I was mad. Mad at myself for the opportunities I squandered that would have prepared me for the journey. I’d put all my eggs in the basket of my attorney and had regrets. I realized that I should have taken more ownership of the process that was determining my fate.
For example, my Presentencing interview took place more than a year earlier. My attorney hadn’t prepared me for the interview or its significance. He’d mentioned it would happen at some point, but when I asked questions to gain a better understanding of what it was, he brushed it off as just another formality step. Rather than it being scheduled, the meeting was impromptu and took place immediately after my guilty plea hearing. Chris, my attorney, sat in for the first five minutes and then left for another appointment. I just sat there answering questions, but clueless as to what I should be focusing on. By failing to prepare, I missed a significant opportunity to highlight some really important facts that may have influenced the subsequent report. The Pre-sentencing report was released seven months later, and my heart sank as I read the summary of my life and my crime. It only mentioned the bad, nothing positive about anything I’d contributed throughout my life. I was devastated by the sentence that had been recommended to the judge, 27-30 months in prison.
The good news is… better late than never! I began watching Prison Professors YouTube channel, listened to Michael Santos’s podcasts and joined more webinars. They prepared me for the sentencing hearing in ways my attorney hadn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I had a good attorney, but my expectations and assumptions were wrong. The night before my sentencing hearing, Michael Santos and I spoke. He prepared me for the likelihood of receiving a prison sentence and encouraged me to be strong. He inspired humility and provided words of encouragement. I attribute their guidance to the work I did to prepare for my Sentencing Hearing. Ultimately, I received an 18-month sentence.
The day after sentencing I began writing my Release Plan, the pathway to my success after prison. Prior to Prison Professors, I’d never heard of a Release Plan. Typically, my case manager and prison team would develop my Release Plan as I neared release, but Michael and Justin instilled the importance of taking ownership and truly investing thought and action into my future. Instead of sitting in prison feeling sorry for myself and waiting for the time to pass, I plan to use my time in prison as an opportunity to continue moving forward, to prepare for life outside of prison as a law-abiding hardworking citizen upon my release.
In the two years leading up to my arrest, I had begun looking into law school. I’d started preparing to take my LSATs with hopes of entering law school, after stabilizing my business and having trusted leadership in my absence. At this point, I no longer have a desire to pursue my law degree; however, I love learning and look forward to utilizing the law library. I’m looking forward to meeting other women of all backgrounds and providing them with a snippet of the education that Michael and Justin have given me. I’m eager to become an Ambassador, helping other women think about their future and work on creating their Release Plans.
Being a convicted Felon is a lifelong label that impacts employability, housing and much more, but it doesn’t have to be lived as a life sentence. Rebuilding trust, a positive reputation and credibility take deliberate action steps. Reconciling and making amends are commitments that require actional plans with accountability. I accept that I will wear the label of Convicted Felon forever; however, it doesn’t mean I give up and will accept failure as my future outlook. I have big hopes and optimism for the next half of my life. I’m looking forward to volunteering with my church and several other nonprofits with values I support. I look forward to working as a taxpaying member of society and strengthening relationships with those I love and those I haven’t even met yet. I’m living life with grace and gratitude; and I look forward to seeing the butterfly that results from this transformative time.