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  • Vive Griffith

Meet Jacqueline Velez: Writer and Advocate

Many people got to know Jacqueline Velez, a graduate of the Clemente Course in Holyoke, MA, when her essay was published in O, The Oprah Magazine, early in the pandemic. But Jacqueline was a powerful advocate for prison reform and a community organizer long before her story, “I Survived 20 Days in Solitary Confinement: Here’s How I Got Through,” lit up computer screens across the country.

The seed for the essay came in her Clemente Course. After reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, with its romanticized images of solitude, instructor Tziviah Gover asked students, “Have you ever been alone for an extended period of time?” For Jacqueline, the answer was yes. She’d spent nearly three weeks in solitary confinement at Rikers Island, an experience that changed her life. And years later, when O Magazine was gathering stories of isolation amid the coronavirus shut down, it was just the piece they needed.

The essay only tells part of Jacqueline’s story. Coming out of jail, she didn’t believe she could ever go back to college or build a rewarding career because of her felony conviction. She says, “I thought my life was over. I was not going to be able to pursue my dreams.”

Ultimately she found an organization where her lived experience was of critical importance. Jacqueline became a volunteer and then a paid employee of a New York nonprofit advocating for criminal justice reform. She worked on a campaign to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws and another that led to the 2009 anti-shackling law, banning the shackling of laboring women. When Jacqueline moved to Massachusetts from New York, she found work as a community organizer and later as a regional director for the reelection campaign of Senator Markey. She also found a way back to education through Clemente.

From the beginning of her Clemente experience, Jacqueline was struck by the positivity of the faculty and staff, the way they created a supportive and welcoming environment. And the course material in literature, history, and art revealed new ways of seeing the world and gave her hope for the future. “Maybe if I’d had all that stuff when I was young, my life would have taken a different turn,” she says.

A new me was born in that cell. By the time I successfully completed probation five years later, I had become a prison-reform advocate, speaking up for all those women I left behind. --from Jacqueline Velez's essay in O

She graduated from Clemente and then transitioned to the Bard Microcollege Holyoke, where she earned her associate degree. Through it all, she worked on the essay that ultimately found its home in O and continued writing each week with Voices from Inside, an organization that offers creative writing opportunities for women who are currently or formally incarcerated. Jacqueline will be one of the featured writers in an upcoming documentary about the organization, tentatively titled, “Finding the Words: The Power of Voices from Inside.”

Today Jacqueline serves as Racial Justice Organizer for Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, working on several environmental and climate justice campaigns, police accountability, and incarceration issues. And she serves as Vice Chair of the Hampden County Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, supporting the movement toward gender equality in her community. In her work and volunteer time, she is making good on the dreams she held when she came out of incarceration and started building a new life. And she’s kept writing beyond the story she told in O Magazine, with the hopes to one day write a memoir.

“Writing saved my life. It has been my sanity,” she says. “I’d never written like that until I took my first Clemente Course. It opened my eyes to this whole world, this whole canon of writers. It also opened up something in me that might have died or never fully come alive.”

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