VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – Every love story looks a little different.

Paulettra James knows that better than most.

She met her husband, Jerry James, during his stay in Deerfield Correctional Facility, where he’s currently serving a 38-year prison sentence.

“We started talking, and then it kind of blossomed into a friendship,” she said.

The couple met through Mrs. James’ son, who befriended Mr. James while he was also incarcerated.

“It was love at first sight when I first met her in the visiting room,” he said.

“I fell in love with him,” she said. “In February of 2017, he asked me to marry him, and I said yes. On May 10, 2017, we got married.”

Now 22 years into his sentence, Mr. James says meeting and marrying his wife has been the highlight of his time on the inside.

But Mr. James has had his share of lows, as well.

His pardon was denied last year. But then he found out about a change to a Virginia law that would allow him to earn time off his prison sentence. The law, passed in 2020, expanded the state’s earned sentence credit program. It allowed inmates with nonviolent and mixed offenses to work toward time off their sentences with rehabilitation programs.

“This was a glimmer of hope for us,” Mrs. James said.

While Mr. James never received paperwork with an exact timeline for an earlier release date, he tells 10 On Your Side that after talking with counselors, he expected about seven years to come off his sentence.

“It was joyous,” his wife said. “It was like, let’s start looking at house plans again. The motivation has been keeping him strong, keeping him inspired,” she said.

But then in June, the law was changed after Governor Youngkin introduced a budget line item. It made it so inmates with both violent and nonviolent offenses no longer qualified to earn time off their sentence.

It was because many of the people who could have been released were identified by the department of corrections as being at a high risk of recidivism, a spokesperson for Governor Youngkin tells 10 On Your Side.

“Everyone knows the original bill was not meant to accelerate the release of folks who had committed violent crimes. So the bill had an error in the way it was written, versus what was intended, and what my amendment did was correct the error,” said Governor Youngkin.

But for Mr. James, who says he has been working towards an associates degree and participating in rehabilitation programs, the change was a gut punch.

“I just need them to have compassion and give me the opportunity to show that I am the man that I say I am today,” he said.

10 On Your Side reviewed transcripts from police interviews immediately following Mr. James arrest. He told officers then that he was suicidal when he brought his BB gun into those banks – a position he maintains today. 

“I was doing it hoping to be gunned down,” he said.

Mr. James says he’s grown into a different person over the last two decades. He feels he came so close to having a chance to prove that, before the governor’s line item. 

“Even if they left me with two or three years, knowing that I’m going home in two or three years, that would take a lot of pressure off,” he said.

The first thing James says he wants to do when he does get out – whenever that might be – is to return to Mount Trashmore.

“I can’t wait to actually really climb that hill and get to the top and throw my hands in the air, and thank God for allowing me to actually climb this mountain.”

The Department of Corrections says since the changed law went into effect last month, more than 2600 inmates have been put in the pipeline to be released early. 

The DOC says they are working on finalizing the sentence calculations for those impacted.