[Editor’s Note: In the fall of 2013, I visited Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Bedford Hills, New York, to explore the spiritual lives of women behind bars. Over the next three weeks, I’ll be sharing the stories of three women who found freedom in faith while incarcerated.]
On March 18, 1996, Bridget Osborne kissed her 16-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter goodnight. She told them she would be right back. Instead, she has been incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for nearly 18 years.
“My ‘ex-husband,’ (‘common law’ husband) had a previous incident with a young man,” Osborne told EBONY.com. That particular night, [the young man] was waiting for us and he confronted us. I tried to protect myself and my husband and I shot him. He died.”
Prior to this crime, Osborne considered herself to be a non-violent, very spiritual person. “I lived a very spiritual life,” she said, “but I wasn’t fully committed until after I got incarcerated.” Up until that point, the Guyanese mother had been an entrepreneur, running her own beauty parlor and promoting parties and boat rides in New York. She lived what she called a “worldly life,” full of partying. Osborne had thought, in the back of her mind, that she would commit to living a Christian life once she turned 35. But she was 33 when she got locked up. That was when she knew she was being called by God to change immediately.
“Sometimes, until you are with yourself, you are looking outwardly. I was in Rikers Island [jail] and I found myself in a room by myself, with myself. I prayed and asked for forgiveness and I made that decision that this is the time, not 35, but 33, was the age God wanted to use me or start working with me. So I surrendered myself and just [decided to] live a committed life to the Lord.”
For an inmate, a surrendered life is the law of the land, but a life devoted to God behind bars can be especially difficult. Osborne knew in order to honor God with her life, she’d have to make some serious changes. One of those changes was in her interactions with others, putting into practice the inner peace she had been given through her relationship with Christ. “Even though there are things I want to do, I know that I cannot do it because I am a representative of Christ. There’s times and situations [at Bedford Hills] where you could just say a soft prayer under your breath and walk away, because when you have peace within, it doesn’t matter who you confront throughout the day.”
Another major change for Osborne was separating from the man she called husband, the father of her daughter. She says of the man who supported her for 5 years into her 17 years and 9 months in prison: “We had a wonderful relationship, but when the transformation in my life was taking place, his life wasn’t transformed. So it started to take a toll. I felt like I was struggling between two things, my God and my lover. My lover and my God,” she laughed. “So someone had to go and I made the choice to let go of him. I didn’t want nothing to come between the relationship that I developed with God.”
The man believed that her newfound dedication to Christ was only temporary, a way for her to deal with life in prison. “But then when he realized that this was not actually a coping mechanism, this is who I have become, he still couldn’t understand. But unless he was willing to change and journey down that road with me then we have nothing more, because it would be changing but going back to the same place and same environment and doing the same things. Sometimes you have to cut the umbilical cord and keep it moving.”
This was in no way an easy or immediate change for Osborne. “It’s amazing because when I look at it and I look back, it was a hard decision, it’s not something that you just wake up and do. I had to pray over it. But you get that sense of peace, you know when it’s God, when God is saying, ‘I’ve got you.’ And even in the Word of God, it says, when your mother, your father, and everyone forsakes you, He’ll still be there.
“I could’ve made the decision where I still let go of God and hold on to the flesh, but the flesh cannot be trusted. Men cannot be trusted. Women cannot be trusted, kids cannot be trusted. They will always walk away one day. He is who I need for my every day guidance.”
Another decision she has made is to forgive herself for her crime and to accept God’s forgiveness. “I have repented of my sins. I am facing a consequence for my actions. I am a new person in Christ. My life has been transformed. I’m not the same person who walked in here 17 years ago. So for me, I have let go. Yes my actions that I have done was wrong but I cannot live in the past because I will never get to the future that God has called and created for me, so I have to let go of that [guilt].”
A part of that guilt that she had to release was not being physically there for her children. As a result, she said her children do not have the kind of relationship with Christ that she wished she could have instilled in them. However, she is proud to have maintained constant, nearly daily communication with her son, now a 34-year-old corrections officer, and her 22-year-old daughter who is preparing for college.
But the things Osborne could control were getting an education herself and mentoring other women in and outside of prison. Since being incarcerated, Osborne has also earned her GED, an Associate’s degree and a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in social studies. “I promised the lord that once I get my BA, I was going to use the education that he has given me to help others and that’s how I started to write.”
For the past 9 years, with the help of her family, she has distributed an encouraging monthly newsletter to sons and daughters of inmates. She’s also written five books and published two, the first of which is Faith it, Don’t Fake it, wherein she shares the testimony of her life and provides guidance for others.
“I want men and women who are incarcerated to know not to give up hope. Some people are still struggling with past guilt and I want them to know that the same God that I found, that found me [can find them].” All the royalties of that book, she said she puts towards The Lilies of the Valley Deluxe Home for Children. “That is one of my goals when I leave here, to get an orphanage for children in Guyana.”
One of the most difficult parts of living a new life and knowing you have been transformed by Christ is the reality that everyone will not accept that you’ve changed, Osborne said. “For the past 3 years, I have applied for clemency and I have been waiting for Governor Cuomo for clemency. And this is one of the things whereas again after being incarcerated for 17 years, I feel I am fully rehabilitated. I have completed all of my programs successfully and yet still cannot get a second chance. They put people incarcerated but never look back to see how lives have changed. I truly believe my life has made a tremendous change. I could be a better asset to my community than to be incarcerated.”
But when asked if Osborne will be able to maintain her faith should her hope of freedom never be granted in this life, she answered, “Absolutely. My peace is not based on conditions, whether I go home or not. My peace is a relationship with Jesus Christ, and I would not forsake my Lord because I don’t get what I want. It means, it’s not in His timing.”
Brooke Obie is a Contributing Editor for EBONY.com and writes the column, “The Spiritual Life.” Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.