Author: Sonja Bennett-Bellamy, Communications Officer
Jim Blackburn recalls compassionate PPOs as critical piece to his successful reentry
When administrators, managers and staff members of NCDPS Community Corrections met in Raleigh for their annual managers’ meeting, they came prepared to work, strategize, and to hear Director Tracy Lee’s vision for making the department and its employees better. But day one of the interactive agenda faded to silence when the guest speaker of the day clipped the tiny microphone onto his jacket lapel.
You could hear a pin drop when Jim Blackburn began to tell the story of his fall from the prestige of being the lead federal prosecutor in the high profile Jeffrey MacDonald murder case, suddenly to an inmate in a North Carolina prison.
“1979 was a good time to be me,” Blackburn told meeting attendees.
He was speaking about the acclaim he received after having successfully prosecuted and gained a guilty verdict in the case of the former Army doctor accused of murdering his pregnant wife and their two daughters in 1970 at Fort Bragg.
“I was great, until I wasn’t. Somewhere along the way, I lost myself. I lost my moral compass,” said Blackburn. “You could call it stupidity, arrogance, carelessness; I thought I could teach horses to fly.”
Blackburn recounted how he forged phony court documents and illegally wired money from his law firm’s account. Those acts would land him in the Wake Correctional facility where he served time following a 1993 guilty plea on fraud, forgery, and embezzlement charges. He was also stripped of his law license and unable to practice law again.
“It cost me a lot. My career, my reputation, my freedom and my income. My life was shattered, but it didn’t end,” he said.
Blackburn described his prison stay as something he never wants to have to do again. He joked that he earned the name “Matlock” after fellow inmates learned he was an attorney, but remembers that during his lowest times behind bars, he experienced some of the most professional yet compassionate DPS employees he had ever met. He reflected on the kindness of a correctional officer who transported him to court; the time a prison nurse wiped a tear from his face when he was having a really bad day, and his probation/parole officer, whose smile and words of encouragement, helped build his confidence when he was uncertain about his future.
He cautioned his captive audience.
“Do not put a period where God puts a comma. Lots of people put a period on your life when you go to prison, but it’s not the end, it’s a comma. What you say to people (your probationers) has a great impact on their lives,” said Blackburn. “What you can do for people in trouble is to give them time to adapt to what is happening to them, if you can do that. They need to know they can start over, even when they’ve screwed up badly.”
“Hearing Jim Blackburn’s story affirms for these men and women that what they do matters,” said Director Lee. “We know that not everyone who comes through our process will choose to turn their lives around the way Mr. Blackburn did, but every success story like his is a win for our officers, a win for our agency, and a win for the citizens who will ultimately call these probationers ‘neighbor’.”
Following his release from prison, Blackburn waited tables at the same Raleigh restaurant where he once met clients. Now a successful public speaker on ethics issues, he advised Correction employees that as they supervise people who are on probation or parole, be frank and prepare offenders for the challenges they will face as former inmates, but encourage them to humble themselves and be accountable for their past mistakes.
“Let them know the world will fall in love with them if they’re doing the very best they can and truthfully own their mistakes.”