This is the second part of a series on incarcerated Christians. Read the first part here.
In August of 1988, someone shot Felix Valentin eleven times as he sat in his car in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. Jaques Rivera, a 23-year-old member of the Latin Kings gang and father of three young children, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 80 years in prison. He was innocent, and the detective who oversaw his case later would be implicated in the wrongful convictions of at least 20 people.
Just a few months after Jaques was arrested, Paul Bosanko, another young member of the Latin Kings, executed 17-year-old Rudy Hernandez. When he was apprehended by the police, Paul was also charged with beating a man named Jesus Chavez to death the year before. He ended up at Tamms, a supermax facility in southern Illinois that housed inmates in solitary confinement, where he spent about 23 hours each day alone in a cell smaller than a parking space.
For several months now, I have been corresponding regularly with both Paul and Jaques about their experiences in prison, which in some ways couldn’t be more different. Jaques has been exonerated, and now lives in the Chicago suburbs. He’s a compact man with an athletic energy and tattoos edging out beneath his sleeves, his hair more silver than gray.
Paul remains in prison, so I know him only through his online messages and jovial voice on the phone. His Department of Corrections photo shows a middle-aged man with a shaved head and green eyes. He’s listed as white, and looks it, though his biological family is Romani.
Conversion felt like a restoration, like being returned to the hand of God.
While Paul labored under the twin psychological pressures of solitary confinement and the knowledge that he had violently ended two lives—something he pretended not to care about—Jaques was housed in a less secure facility, facing decades in prison for something he didn’t do. Despite these foundational differences in their circumstances, both Paul and Jaques credited the same thing with their ability to survive, to grow, and to change while in prison: conversion to Christianity.
Eleven years into his sentence, Jaques had filed appeals and post-conviction petitions that were all denied. Not long after receiving word that his last option, a federal habeas corpus petition, had been denied as well, he found himself at a Christian service. He wasn’t religious, but the Latin Kings often used church services as a way to congregate. Jaques sat in the bleachers, thinking of his children and how every avenue to return to them was now exhausted. Who, he wondered, can help me now?
On the heels of that seemingly rhetorical question, Jaques says he heard a voice: My son, it said, I am here for you. I chose you; you didn’t choose me. He discovered similar words spoken by Jesus in the book of John, and also on a small metal cross he found lying inexplicably on the otherwise spotless floor of the segregation unit where he worked. Believing God had spoken, he became a Christian.
Who, he wondered, can help me now?
Downstate at Tamms, Paul was struggling with solitary confinement. His body, so accustomed to free movement, could go barely a few steps in any direction. He exercised in whatever creative ways he could think of, like putting books into his laundry bag and lifting it, and started reading philosophy and studying Buddhism. The murders he’d committed were torturing him, causing night sweats and terrors.
Then it happened that Paul’s long-lost biological brother, Skip Christo, went searching through a prison database for the younger brother he’d barely known and discovered Paul, who looked like an exact copy of their father. Skip was a pastor, and getting to know him showed Paul what it could look like to rely on God. It also helped Paul come to terms with his past. Paul had been placed in foster care after suffering horrific abuse. “My grandmother, at one point, tried to sell him,” says Skip.
Paul decided to become a Christian during his ninth year in solitary confinement. “When you kill someone, you feel, you know something has happened. You’ve truly been transferred over to the devil,” he says. Paul felt this as a reality at the time, though he had no religious language to describe it. Conversion felt to him like a restoration, like being returned to the hand of God.
Paul and Jaques at first seemed to me like opposites—the wrongly convicted and the rightly convicted. And so I imagined their internal spiritual worlds as divergent as well, as though they are trembling at opposite poles of Christian experience. Jaques has been wronged, profoundly and deliberately. Paul has committed the profoundest wrong against another human being. One must forgive something unthinkable, the other must allow himself to be forgiven for the unthinkable. I ask Jaques about whether and how he managed to forgive the people responsible for putting him in prison, and he says it was a simple thing once he realized it needed to be done. He read the words of Jesus exhorting his disciples to forgive, that they may be forgiven. “After all the wrong I’ve done, I want forgiveness,” he says. He had physically abused his wife before going to prison and cheated on her repeatedly. As he received forgiveness for those acts, he also forgave the detective who had framed him. Jaques became both the forgiven and the forgiver.
One must forgive something unthinkable, the other must allow himself to be forgiven for the unthinkable.
The more I hear of their stories, Jaques and Paul seem less like opposites and more like two people simply standing at different points of a continuous circle, the circle in which we all exist: forgiving and forgiven, wrong and wronged, all within the ever-forgiving presence of God. The opposite poles of forgiveness, the receiving and the granting, are not really opposites at all.
Jaques spent another full decade in prison before he was finally exonerated, for a total of 21 years. Paul’s night terrors went away after he became a Christian and truly felt forgiven, but his faith also gave his transgressions a new gravity. “You never get over what you’ve done,” he says.
I visit Jaques in the Chicago suburbs just after he’s moved, so his cavernous home is strewn with boxes. Two small dogs greet me, a pug mix named Brownie and a wiry, white terrier named Cookie. The dogs wander around the backyard as we talk on the porch. He tells me Cookie has a seizure disorder, one that will cost thousands of dollars to treat. “She’s only two years old,” he says, watching her sniff the grass. “Now that I have money, I just want to give her as much life as I can.”
In the knowledge behind his words, this man who has lost so much life, there is at once a gift and a wound. I sense the same paradox in Paul as he tells me about mentoring juvenile offenders and the pain he knows they’re in. They are not opposites either, the wound and the gift. The wound may become a gift without ceasing entirely to be a wound. The forgiving are also the forgiven, and all of this, somehow—along with Felix Valentin and whoever killed him, along with Paul, along with Rudy Hernandez and Jesus Chavez and everyone who loved them—is encompassed by their creator.