The Love Story That Became a Foundation

In 1991, I left behind a life in which I roamed Africa and Europe as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. After bearing witness to famine and coups, the raging hatred of apartheid and the rise and fall of dictators, I had found myself on a personal search for

Fate gave no clues that my yearning would ultimately unite me with a man who would begin his own search for meaning—and redemption—after taking another man’s life in the very year that I returned to the United States to begin my new life.

In my search, I stumbled upon the prison ministry at the Riverside Church in New York. I started attending meetings, and was asked to correspond with incarcerated men and women who wrote to the ministry. Although generally viewed as faceless statistics or frightening stereotypes, the people I came to know through letters were multidimensional, talented and complex human beings, much like the rest of us. More than a few had used their time in prison to rethink and disavow the values and belief systems that had brought them there.

In August of 2002, the prison ministry received a letter from Joseph Robinson, who was incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility. He wanted someone to write to. I wrote him back, and thus began a long correspondence that would make both our lives richer.

At first glance, Joe and I couldn’t have looked more different. I was a respected, well-traveled journalist for one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers. He had left college and turned to drug dealing to make fast money to support his girlfriend and the baby that was on the way. With the unwavering support of a hard-working mother and father, I had made my way out of the St. Louis ghetto and now made my home in one of New York City’s choice neighborhoods. His father was not in his life and, when he was 15, his mother succumbed to crack cocaine, forcing him to make a road by himself, a road littered with bad choices that would lead to an upstate prison. I was in my early 50′s. He was in his early 30′s.

But through letters, I discovered that Joe and I stood on common ground: Abiding faith. A commitment to self-improvement. A determination to be supportive parents to our sons, Sean and Joseph. A love of books and learning. A sense of duty to our people, our community. A desire to give back, to make society better.

My journey to that common ground seemed fairly straightforward. But I came to understand and respect how Joe’s journey there involved a conscious decision to remake himself into the man he wanted to be. Through dark hours and long years behind prison walls, he used introspection, reflection, books and prayer to find an inner light that revealed to him his best self, the man God had intended him to be.

After more than a year of corresponding, I traveled to Sullivan Correctional Facility in 2003 to meet Joe. And in 2005 I married him because I had come to love and respect–and be inspired by–the man he had created to honor his best self. 

Joe and I founded the Think Outside the Cell Foundation to end the stigma of incarceration and to help the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated and their loved ones through literacy, education, personal development and the removal of societal barriers to the American Dream. When the barriers are removed, those who live in the long shadow of prison can create their own opportunities.

Keep the faith,
Sheila Rule