If you haven’t read part 1, click here.
If you haven’t read part 2, click here.
The room was a normal classroom that you could find in any high school around the country. Instead of individual desks, the inmates sat behind tables pushed together to make a U-shape around the edge of the room. There was another smaller row of desks in the middle of the U. Just like most classes that I attended in high-school and college, the inmates came in and sat around the outside until it was full. I was surprised to find that the entire room filled up. By the time I was introduced, 21 inmates sat there excited to meet me.
The group was very diverse with men from all different races and backgrounds. White guys, black guys, a Vietnamese immigrant, a Native American, guys with big muscles and small muscles, long hair and short hair, big beards, clean shaven, tattoos, and some guys were wearing glasses. The only similarity was the fact that all of them were wearing standard issue forest green jumpsuits, and that they had all made some kind of mistake which had landed them behind bars. Even their sentences were diverse. I met a guy that had spent the past 35 years in prison, another that was at 25 years, all the way down to 5 years. Some of them had been in the maximum security hell-holes that I had seen from a distance on the way in, and others had spent their time in minimum security prisons like the one we were in that day. Needless to say, there was a lot of prison experience in front of me, and I was getting more and more excited to hear their stories.
“Good morning everyone,” Karon began.
“Good morning Karon!” The prisoners responded enthusiastically.
“Today we have a special guest with us. He is writing a book about trying to make a difference in the world, and God’s been working on his heart about you. Daniel and I sat down for coffee the other day, and I was so excited to hear his heart and hear about what the Lord is teaching him. He is looking for guys who are willing to help him understand what prison is really like, and to hear from some of you about your stories and experiences. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, please feel free to just listen. But I know this is a transparent group so I figure that won’t be many of you! Daniel…”
As I heard Karon introducing me I was suddenly confronted by my own selfishness. Here I was hanging out with 21 guys that I had spent my life avoiding. 21 guys that God said he cared about, but I didn’t. I was confronted by the fact that writing a book was a mask to hide my lack of compassion and mercy. I wasn’t here to invest in the lives of these guys, I was here for personal development — an experiment of sorts. I was here to check off another command on the spiritual checklist of Christianity so that I could feel better about saying that I’m a Christ follower. As Karon began to wind down her introduction, my hidden agenda was at the forefront of my mind. As I began to speak, I couldn’t help but begin by confessing to these guys why I was really here.
“Good morning,” I said.
“Good morning,” the guys responded.
“I believe that honesty is important, and I want you to know where I’m coming from. I’m here today because of conviction. I was reading Matthew 25 the other day where Jesus describes the people that make it into the Kingdom, and he says ‘…I was a prisoner and you came to visit me…‘ For the first time in my life I realized that prisons and inmates were a massive blind-spot in my life, and this is actually my first time ever behind a prison gate. Not only have I never been in a prison before, but in the past I have never even cared to go into a prison. I’ve never cared about guys or gals like you before. But I’m here today because Jesus says to go, and I’m excited to get to know you and learn more about what prison life is like.”
“As Karon mentioned, I am writing a book and I’m really excited to hear your stories. The first question I have is: Tell me a little bit about what prison is like?”
A guy in the back of the room raises his hand. “Daniel, first of all thank-you for being here. You said that you go 10 days without stuff, if you want to know what prison is like try living in your bathroom for 10 days by yourself. Every once in a while have your wife walk by and jingle keys or slam stuff — then you’ll know what it’s like!”
After his response and the conversation that followed, I realized that I hadn’t asked the best question so I tried again.
“Let me tell you about someone that I talked to the other day when I announced that I was going to visit inmates in prisons. She basically told me that prisoners deserve to be in prison and don’t deserve special attention. She said that you all made bad enough mistakes to deserve separation from society, and that prisons are an important part of the justice system. She said that you should work for your food, and that she’s heard of people getting out and then breaking the law again because prison is so comfortable. She is basically of the opinion that prison is free well-fare with TV’s and a life that is better than many of the people who live below the poverty line. If I’m honest, this has been me in the past.
Also, the organization that I work for spends alot of time speaking to kids that have grown up in a Christian home, Christian school, and Christian church — just like I did. What can you say to them to help them understand why Jesus talks about prisoners?”
Another guy to the left raises his hand. “Ya Daniel, I just want to thank you for being here. It’s really cool what you’re doing and I hope we can help. First off, I also grew up in a Christian school, home, and church. I was just like that girl you talked to and those kids that you will speak with each year. I had hopes and dreams just like they do. I remember my dad asked me at 6 years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told him that I wanted to be just like him. We laughed and kept doing whatever it was that we were doing. I just say that to say that we are all one bad decision away from getting in here. Do we deserve to be here? Ya, we do. But I would just remind people that we have all fallen short…”
“He’s right,” another prisoner interrupted, “Daniel, thanks for being here, but I just wanted to add to his thoughts. Doesn’t the Bible say that we have all fallen short of the glory of God? Doesn’t it say that we have all sinned? I don’t think it distinguishes between prisoners and regular people when it talks about violating God’s laws.”
This same idea echoed around the room for several minutes as different guys took turns nodding, reading Scripture, and putting in their two cents about man’s fallenness. At this point I cut in because I wanted them to understand where I was coming from.
“If I’m completely honest, I have a hard time believing that,” I said. “I say that I believe that all have fallen short, but just hearing you speak makes me realize that I don’t really think that I’ve fallen short. You guys seem to really understand what it means that Jesus died for your sins.” They all nod, and the guy that would end up controlling much of the conversation that day spoke up again.
“I just wanted to say too, that prisons should exist. We all deserve to be here, and I don’t want you to think that we are sitting here thinking that we deserve to be free. We all made mistakes. In fact, you are talking about changing people’s perspectives on the outside well you can’t change those perspectives — it’s not your job. It’s our job as felons to change people’s perspectives. The reason people on the outside who have never been to prison have that perspective on inmates is because we keep stepping on people. I’ve been out a couple of times and every time someone gives me a chance I end up stepping on them by stealing their car or getting their daughter pregnant. It’s all of our faults that the perception exists, and it’s our job to change that when we get out.”
“Well how do you do that?” I ask. “How do you get out and stay out?”
“First of all Daniel, thanks for coming. I’m so happy that you’re here, it means a lot. Change begins with real hope. That hope is definitely centered in faith in Jesus, but that faith isn’t enough on it’s own for us prisoners. After faith we need to find purpose — and for me that comes through the Holy Spirit. Then I need someone to believe in me. When I have those three things I begin to find hope.
We have guys come in all of the time and yell at us to ‘turn or burn.’ But that’s not hope. Hope is when a pastor comes in and tells me the truth about Jesus, but then looks me in the eye and says ‘I want to see your face in our church family photo. You need to get on your best behavior and get out of here so you can come be a part of our community and family. Did you hear me? The next mug shot you get better be the one that we take that ends up in our church directory!’ Those are the pastors that bring hope. They actually believe in the redemption that they teach to the point that they are willing to let us join their church when we get out.”
Nods and “amens” echoed throughout the room as the guy continued. It was powerful to see a room of prisoners in agreement that they need someone to believe in them, spend time with them, and invest their lives in them. It continued to reinforce the conviction of Matthew 25 that God began placing in my heart over a week ago.
“After we find true hope,” the prisoner continued, “we need to start forming positive habits. We all got in here because our lives were full of bad habits. We spent time with the wrong people, at the wrong places, and doing the wrong things. Instead of practicing good things we were practicing selfishness, drugs, and other negative things. As a result we got good at it, and it began to define our lives. When we get out we need to focus on forming positive habits in our lives, and once we do that we will begin living for others and for God.”
As the time began to wind down I asked them one final question: “How important is it for people to come visit you?”
“Daniel, thanks for coming.” A different prisoner chimed in. “That lady right there, Karon, has made the difference in my life. I’ve been in and out of prison my entire life, and I’ve never had anyone care for me the way she does. She not only brought hope, but also love. Thanks to her and transformational ministries (Prison Fellowship’s program) I have the confidence and the new beginning that I needed to finally get out of prison and stay out.”
“He’s right,” said another inmate, “Karon made the difference in my life too, and now thanks to transformational ministries I have a mentor who will be working with me in here and when I get out of here. The other day I met my mentor for the first time. Now I don’t get visited much in prison just because my family lives out of state, and let’s face it — it’s not a very popular thing to hang out with inmates. So when I found out that I had a mentor, and that he was coming to the prison to meet with me I couldn’t wait. My hands were shaking because I was so excited to have someone who cared about me, and because of the time he spent with me — for the first time I really knew I could change and be different. It’s not just the accountability, it’s the fact that someone cares enough on the outside to come on the inside and invest in my life.”
At that point time was up, and it was time to go. As I shook hands with the different inmates, I was blown away by their joy and gratitude. They were so thankful that I had come. I felt guilty as I walked out of the prison because I felt like I had received a lot more from them than I had given back, but I guess it’s like that anytime we do ministry work.
I won’t forget these guys. They are responsible for a major paradigm shift in my life from prejudice and a “holier-than-thou” attitude to compassion and a desire to help these guys get their feet under them. They said, “all that we need is a hand-up, not a hand-out, a hand-up.” I think we could all do that. There was one question that still lingered unanswered after my time with the inmates. I had asked the inmates how to convince people to come in and spend time with prisoners, and one guy asked the simple question that I will leave you with today:
“What will happen if people don’t come in?”