As Jamie Matthews sat in a prison yard, reflecting on how her life had gotten so out of control, something clicked.
“I had this moment where I looked around and said, ‘What the hell am I doing here? Why am I here?’” Matthews said in an interview this week. “And then I thought, ‘What is it going to take for me to never end up here again?’”
Then and there, Matthews resolved to turn her life around. But little did she know her inspirational and impassioned path to recovery would culminate with a pardon by Gov. Jared Polis, which is exactly what happened in December.
“It’s like a weight you didn’t realize you were carrying until it’s gone,” Matthews said. “But then it’s gone, and you know what it feels like to stand.”
Matthews grew up in Miami, and after graduating from the University of Florida, moved to Durango in 2005, where her mother moved two years before.
The 24-year-old new arrival took a job as a waitress at a local restaurant, and that’s where her life slowly began to go off track.
“The drug scene in restaurants is prolific,” she said. “And it started, and spiraled from there.”
Matthews, now 38, said the days of her drug use have become a bit of a blur. But what started out as taking drugs for fun quickly turned into something darker. Before Matthews knew it, her entire friend circle was drug users, and she even started to sell.
On Dec. 20, 2007 – two days shy of her 26th birthday – a friend at the time said she would treat Matthews to dinner in Durango, but it was a setup. The friend was wearing a wire and recorded Matthews talking about selling drugs on the way to dinner. During a stop at Walmart, law enforcement with a drug task force were waiting.
“I don’t know if you could call it lucky or not, but I didn’t have drugs on me,” she said. “But people did have wires, and they arrested me for attempted possession with intent to distribute.”
Officially, Matthews was charged with a Class 2 and a Class 4 felony for attempted distribution of a controlled substance, as well as driving while ability impaired. She pled guilty and was sentenced to two years in the Department of Corrections at La Vista Correctional Facility in Pueblo.
From there, Matthews got caught up in a cycle so many who run afoul of the law spiral into. She would be released on bail, get into trouble, and end up back in prison. It got to the point where they wouldn’t let Matthews out anymore.
That’s when Matthews had her big moment in the prison yard. From there, all bets were off – she set her mind to getting her life back in order and has never looked back.
“I have a strong will, and I’m very determined,” she said. “When I make a decision, I will do everything it takes to follow through on that decision.”
And it wasn’t just lip service. Matthews was released on parole in April 2012 and came out like a force.
She was required to stay at Hilltop House, a community corrections center in Durango, and immediately took a job at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. She had a daughter, Vivienne Avila. And she entered a relationship with another person recovering from addiction, and the two kept each other in check.
Matthews didn’t stop there. She enrolled at Colorado Community College, taking online courses during the day while watching her daughter and would then head for the night shift at work. In a small town, she’d see her old friends, but instead of avoiding them, she faced them head on.
“I used to hide my face and cross the street, but now, I walk right up and say hello, but a lot of them don’t recognize me,” she said. “Relapsing was never a problem for me because there was no way in hell I’d ever go back to that life. I have way too much to lose to even consider doing that.”
Matthews eventually graduated with a degree in accounting from Fort Lewis College among the top students in her class. She earned her CPA license, no small feat, and interned for FredrickZink & Associates, a local CPA firm, where she worked her way into a full-time job and is employed today.
“She was just showing all the right signs: motivated, excited, smart,” said Michelle Sainio, audit manager and owner at the firm. “We’re all human, and we all make mistakes. It’s the steps after the fact that are important.”
For Matthews, having a strong support system from family and friends was essential for recovery. But just as important, having those job opportunities provided a sense of worth and focus.
“They didn’t have to hire someone who was a drug felon; they could have said no,” she said. “But they saw how hard I worked, and how much I’ve accomplished since then and took a chance on me.”
Tina Beekmann, Matthews’ parole officer at the time who is now retired, said in her 28-year career, she has never advocated for one of her parolees to receive a pardon.
But Matthews, time and again, proved she was different.
“From the beginning, she stood out,” Beekmann said. “She had goals and a clear vision. And she meant it. She was passionate about where she wanted to go.”
Beekmann said prison can affect people in different ways: Some people learn from their experience and come out better on the other end, while others fall deeper into a hole.
In her line of work, Beekmann said maybe one in 10 people show flashes of strong potential. Someone like Matthews, however, comes along only so often.
“I would have never lasted 28 years if I didn’t see people have the potential like Jamie,” she said.
Beekmann was the one to plant the idea of a pardon in Matthews’ head – the fact she raised a daughter as a single mother, all while working full time and earning a college degree, made her a perfect candidate. Not to mention Matthews has a laundry list of organizations she volunteers with.
Matthews submitted her application for pardon, along with more than 20 letters of support, in December 2018.
Having a felony conviction on her record created several barriers – she could have been denied a CPA license, for instance. And, more than anything, there was a certain stigma of having the blight on her record in her professional career.
During her court process, Matthews was able to get her conviction down to a Class 4, which meant she could have her record sealed after seven years if she didn’t run into trouble. But the prospect of a pardon brought with it an idea of cleansing to her past life.
After a year of not hearing anything back about the pardon, Matthews received a phone call on Dec. 20, 2019 – 12 years to the day after she was first arrested – notifying her she was selected out of hundreds of applications.
“My knees went weak and I just burst into tears,” she said. “I was on cloud nine for the rest of the day.”
In his letter to Matthews, Polis wrote: “not everyone earns the privilege of a second chance.” Only four other people received pardons as part of Polis’ announcement in December.
“But you have demonstrated that you deserve one,” Polis wrote. “I hope this pardon will allow you to pursue your dreams and continue to make good choices. By doing so, you will improve not only your life, but the lives of your family and community members.”
These days, Matthews tells her story at events, hoping anyone in a similar position can find some inspiration.
“Every single person is touched by addiction in one way or another,” she said. “I want to destigmatize it because there doesn’t need to be shame there.”
As for the pardon, Matthews had a smile on her face that lasted days. In her darkest moments, she never thought this is how her path to recovery would end.
“I get to officially close that chapter of my life,” she said. “It’s about saying, who I was at those moments when I committed those crimes is not who I am today. I am no longer defined by those moments, in the eyes of the law and our community. Instead, I’m defined by everything from that time on.”