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A Fresh Beginning PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jane Mullikin   
Monday, 18 January 2010
At some point in our lives, most of us find our situations so perilous that we are tempted to either take an easy out or give up. If we do struggle to find a way out, and we are unable to find one that is satisfactory, our own rash decisions can greatly compound our problems and leave us with a permanent disadvantage.

I want to offer the story of Rita Underwood as an encouragement for others. Rita has written uplifting stories for SpiritualSisters.com and HopeAndSpirit.com about her faith and trust in God. This story is different; here is the story of a young woman who made a mistake, rashly setting herself up for a life as a felon, but Rita Underwood achieved a fresh beginning. This is such an important story because it clearly demonstrates there can always be a "way out".

Woman urges others to seek pardon by Ann Work


Rita Underwood talks Monday about her experience in prison in the 1960s and her eventual pardon from then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who later was elected U.S. president.

Rita Underwood, then 18, was a scared teenager crying on her bunk in the Georgia State Penitentiary with a one-to-five year prison sentence ahead of her. The prison matron came over to her and made a prescient prediction.

“Rita,” she said softly, “you will take this and make a positive influence on others.”

At the time, Underwood thought the older woman — who never spoke to her again — was nuts. How could serving a prison sentence help anyone?

But in the 49 years since then, Underwood has worked hard to make sure that statement came true.

Underwood’s behavior after that night was so exemplary that she was paroled into her mother’s care after just four months. She later pursued — and received — a full pardon for her offense from the governor of Georgia — then Jimmy Carter — dated September 26, 1972. The pardon made such a difference in her life that she now urges others to make every attempt to earn one.

“You think getting a job is hard? Try to get a job with a record,” she said Monday in an interview with the Times Record News. “If you’ve been incarcerated, don’t give up on the idea of getting a pardon. You have nothing to lose by trying.”

Underwood’s own full pardon was typed on a typewriter and sealed by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. It declared that Rita (Slaughter) Underwood “has lived the life of a law-abiding citizen before and since this conviction and is fully rehabilitated to the satisfaction of this Board.”

That piece of paper allowed her to vote for the first time in her life, erased the “larceny of auto” charge that she was required to mention on every job application, and gave her back her self-esteem.

Until then, she had learned her lessons the hard way.

Underwood had been a frequent runaway as a teenager, making one particularly ill-fated trip to New York to marry a military man. But when she got there, she changed her mind and decided she didn’t want to marry, so she began hitchhiking back to Texas. A trucker dropped her off in a little Georgia town in the middle of the night, near a bowling alley.

With just enough money left to buy a hot cup of coffee, she headed across the parking lot and noticed an old car parked nearby. “I don’t even know why I looked in it, but I did,” she said. The keys dangled from the ignition.

Cold, tired, and broke, all she could think was one thing: That car will get me back to Texas. On a whim, she hopped in and drove away.

She had driven for a couple hours when her fumbling with the car’s standard gearshift caused her to roll into another lady’s car at a stop sign. Though there was no damage, the woman called the police. Underwood raced away but police soon apprehended her and took her to jail, where she spent her 18th birthday.

Underwood remained in jail for two months. Uninformed and naive, she expected her mother to come get her. Instead, she was taken before a judge and sentenced to one-to-five years in the Georgia State Penitentiary.

“What does that mean?” she asked one of the guards. When she learned that she was off to prison, she fainted.

Once in prison, she was so afraid to disobey that she became a model prisoner. When her case came up for parole four months later, she was released to her mother on the condition that her mother would find her a job, which she did.

She left the prison with a new pair of white socks and black penny loafers, and the determination to never cross that threshold again.

A few years later, she was married with two children, a stay-at-home mom. She worked occasionally as a waitress, but whenever she sought a higher-paying job, she was faced with ominous job applications that always asked the question, “Have you ever been arrested?” She often fled rather than answer.

She also noticed other effects from her time spent in prison. She was terrified that a police officer might approach her and question her. She also struggled with her self-image. “I felt like I had ‘Big Loser’ written on my forehead.”

Then she decided to contact her governor, Jimmy Carter, about how to apply for a pardon. She talked with the governor’s secretary about the procedure and followed up with a letter.

“I wasn’t a hardened criminal,” she said. She began seeking out recommendations from people who could vouch for her character. They were each eventually interviewed by officials, and her police records were studied.

Then she waited.

Her pardon arrived on the day her husband asked her for a divorce.

Still, she was elated. “It was like I became a real person. I didn’t have to hide my past anymore.” She was told that because she received a pardon, she would never have to mention her conviction again, not even on a job application. “Legally, I could write ‘No,’ if asked if I’ve ever been arrested.”

Nobody was prouder than she on the first day she was able to vote. “I’ve voted in every election since then,” she said. She even voted for Jimmy Carter for president.

She speaks frequently now about her prison experience and about its finale — her pardon — hoping to help others and make her prison guard’s prediction of good works come true.

With the Internet, learning how to get a pardon is easier than it used to be, and the task — which requires a clean, clear record that demonstrates true change in one’s life since the completion of one’s sentence — is a worthy one, according to Texas state officials.

“If you’ve been incarcerated, don’t give up on the idea of getting a pardon,” Underwood urges. “You have nothing to lose by trying. Whether it’s to get a pardon, go back to school or lose weight — as long as you keep trying, you can never consider yourself a failure, because you’re not. You’re never a failure until you quit trying.”

Jane Mullikin
Spirit - Finding Hope in a World of Uncertainty
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