Marriage Behind Bars is the story of how one couple not only survived the wife’s prison sentence,but emerged with a stronger, healthier marriageand a desire to help others break the chains in their own relationships.
When Patty Miller broke down one Sunday morning and confessed to her husband that she had been fired for embezzling over $100,000 from her employer, Gerry Sweetnam’s response left her amazed.
“Have you told me everything?” he said quietly.
“Yes,” Patty said.
“I think we should go to church,” Gerry said. “We will get through this.” And then he said it again: “I think we should go to church.”
For the newlywed couple, this moment marked the beginning of a path that would lead Patty to prison for two years and Gerry to the lonely life of a “judicial bachelor.” In many ways, it was a dark road pitted with obstacles. Patty was a non-violent, white-collar criminal and first time offender. Yet because of a bureaucratic snag, she spent 30 days (the first weeks of her incarceration) in the SHU: Special Housing Unit, a maximum security holding tank where she was thrown in with violent offenders and treated as such. She wore shackles on her feet and her only fresh air was a daily one-hour “walk” in a 12 x 15 cage. The facility was bordered by a ten-foot fence topped by coiled razor wire. She had no privacy going to the bathroom in her cell and during visiting day she needed an escort to go to the bathroom where she was on constant watch by the guard. Later she was transferred to a more appropriate minimum security prison camp in Pekin, Illinois.
Cry me a river, right? Why should anyone feel sorry for a woman who stole money from a program benefitting abused children? Patty would be the first to say she deserved to pay for her crime, which was embezzling over $100,000 from the non-profit she ran.
Patty, a highly regarded member of the Duluth, Minnesota community, began to periodically use the organization’s credit card for personal expenses, and over an eight-year period the debt snowballed to a huge amount of money. How could a professed Christian, who cared deeply for the victims of child abuse, allow things to get so out of hand? With hindsight, Patty can see how her whole adult life was shaped around the need for approval from others, not from God. She believed Satan’s lies about her worth being tied to possessions and keeping up with the Joneses. She used the siphoned funds to pay for everything from lattes to lunches out to lavish birthday presents for friends. Guilt and shame gnawed at her long before she was busted and fired from her job. At one point, she cried out to God to pluck her from the snare of her sin, and she believes her firing was a direct answer to her prayer. “Part of my healing process was to acknowledge the darkness and greed in my heart and to allow God to restore me and change my thinking, as well as seeking His approval,” she said.
Patty was indicted through the laws of this world, but her real reckoning was with God. At the moment she came clean to him, Patty realized she had been seeking approval from everyone but God. When she sought his approval above all, her life changed, and as she was handcuffed and led to prison on June 15, 2009, she did so as a “free woman.”
That day began two journeys in one marriage: Patty’s path was one of real shackles and iron bars, while Gerry’s emotional chains were loneliness, grief, and fear for his wife. For two years, their marriage would be tested by distance (the Pekin camp was a ten-hour drive each way for Gerry), lack of communication, and forgiveness. Could Gerry stand by Patty through public scandal, financial catastrophe, and two years of eating pizza over the sink in an empty house? Could Patty come out of the raw, dehumanizing prison experience in one piece, with her faith and marriage intact? The odds were against them: Statistics show that 95%-100% of marriages fail when the wife is incarcerated (80% when the husband is jailed).
Marriage Behind Bars is the story of how one couple not only survived the wife’s prison sentence, but emerged with a stronger, healthier marriage and a desire to help others break the chains in their own relationships. As a Licensed Professional Counselor (Patty completed most of her master’s degree in professional counseling through Liberty University before her prison term and finished up after she got out), Patty has seen how it’s possible for an individual and a marriage to be imprisoned in more ways than one.
Prison life was like a counseling internship for Patty, with ample opportunity to share counsel, comfort and wisdom to broken and desperate women. She saw parallels between the shackles of prison life and the chains that can bind us all. Her prison term was often bleak and heartbreaking, but it also gave her a chance to live out the new mission God had given her when she recommitted her life to him and he gave her the verse Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”
Gerry lends a unique voice as the husband of an incarcerated wife. His account of hanging on for dear life to his marriage, driving through blizzards and heat waves to visit his wife with only the company of “Little Wilson” the volleyball for company, is fascinating. Another compelling player in this story is Chili, the loyal Malamute who was Gerry’s faithful companion and who waited patiently for Patty to come home again.
Today, Patty leads a bible study for local inmates. She and Gerry have been able to share their experience with others whose marriages are in a dark, confining place. Through chapters such as “When Life Throws the Book at You,” “Barriers to Intimacy,” and “Shackles: Real and Emotional,” the couple tells their story and offers ideas and solutions for readers who want freedom and release in their marriages.
A thread of hope and redemption runs through “Marriage Behind Bars,” a reminder that God is in the business of restoring broken marriages and setting prisoners free. “God has forgiven me, and I have forgiven myself,” said Patty. “I hope to help others come to this place through the grace of God, to be healed, whole, and released from their captivity so that they can live a life for God’s glory.”
Gerry Sweetnam is a former banker with twenty-five years of experience. He has a Bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology from the University of Alberta in Canada, and is currently an RN Care Manager and a nationally certified foot care nurse. Patty Miller, his wife, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and the former CEO of a non-profit. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminology from the University of Minnesota and two Master degrees; one in Management from the College of St. Scholastica and one in Professional Counseling from Liberty University. She is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist® through the Grief Recovery Institute in San Diego, California and is currently employed as a therapist at a children’s residential treatment center providing individual, group, and family therapy. Patty also leads a weekly bible study for female inmates at the St. Louis County Jail. Gerry and Patty live in Duluth, Minnesota. They have two adult sons, Jason and Erik.
In 2009, Patty was sentenced to twenty-seven months in a federal prison for committing fraud. Because of this experience, Patty and Gerry developed a passion to give hope to those incarcerated, their loved ones, and hard-won wisdom to those whose marriages are “behind bars” in some way.
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