This is part 2 of my adventure in prison, to read part 1 first click here.
“Well here you go,” says the guard at the front gate, “when are y’all expecting to be out?”
“10:30,” Karon replies.
“Great. Well we’ll be here.” The guard laughs as he walks back into the small building. Evidently that is a prison joke, but I don’t get it. I’m not sure if it’s because my mind is so focussed on the lifeless concrete prison to my left, or because it wasn’t funny. Regardless of the reason, I break out in a small nervous smile to make the guard feel like I’m paying attention while Karon puts the car in drive and pulls through the gate.
I feel relief as we pass the entrance to the huge concrete maximum security prison.
“What’s that building?” I ask.
“That’s a brand new prison that they just built a couple of years ago,” Karon responds. “The former governor was making a statement about coming down on crime when he built the multi-million dollar complex, but it’s already been shut down because of budget cuts.”
“So that’s not where we’re going?” I asked in a relieved tone.
“No, there are actually seven prisons on this property, and we are going to the one up there on the hill.”
My eyes follow the road up the hill to a small set of buildings at the peak. Although surrounded by razor-sharp barbed-wire, the buildings look far less daunting than the concrete behemoth we had passed at the gate. As we pull into the parking lot fear and anxiety begin to fade. I’m still anxious about interacting with inmates, but I’m also curious to see what life is like on the other side of the fence.
We walk up to the gate, and for the first time I get a look at real barbed-wire. I had grown up on a small hay farm and was no stranger to the rural barbed-wire that keeps cows from wandering away from home. As a kid, I was really good at climbing over a barbed-wire fence without snagging my clothes or worse, my skin. But this barbed-wire was different. As I stared up at the rolls of razor-blades that lined the top of the thick chain-link fence, I knew there was no climbing over this one. In fact, I found out from the guard that pigeons often get stuck on the barbs. He didn’t go into detail, but I could tell that when that happened they didn’t make it. Feeling something under my right foot I look down to see that I had stepped on a dead baby-bird. I wondered if this bird was one of the pigeons he was talking about.
As the guard processed our ID’s and handed out visitor passes I looked around at the complex. For the first time in my life I was standing on the inside of a prison-yard. The view of the rocky mountains that I had enjoyed on the way in was broken up through the links of the fence. The weight of what it would mean to live here began to hit me. I love to hike and I can’t imagine what it would be like to stare at the mountains every day without the freedom to go climb them. Then another thought hit me, “I haven’t been hiking in months.” Just think, I have the freedom to enjoy creation and yet I don’t take advantage of it.
As I’m standing there taking in the view I realize that I’m already within reach of three inmates. These guys are waiting by the entrance in their all green jump suits for a different guard to come and take them to work. I found out later that the most coveted jobs are the ones outside of the fence, and that good behavior could mean a chance to work with horses and cows instead of cleaning toilets. It made sense that getting out of this complex would be a reward, and I can tell that these guys are excited about getting out for the day.
“Here’s your pass Mr. Day,” the guard said as he handed me a red guest pass, “please remember to return it when you leave.”
“Yes sir,” I reply as I clip the pass onto the collar of my striped button-up shirt. “Thank you.”
Karon, Jeff, Bob, and I grab our things and begin walking through the complex. I turn to Karon and say, “I can’t believe they didn’t pat us down or make us walk through a metal detector.”
“Sometimes they pat us down,” she says. “And if we have a box or something like that they always check it. They aren’t too concerned with a notepad and a pen, and they are used to seeing the three of us each week.”
I nod and continue to look at all of the buildings. As we come around the guardhouse, the complex opens up into a giant courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard is exercise equipment. It looks like Venice Beach in Las Angeles with guys pulling down on pulleys attached to large stacks of black weights — more than I could ever lift — out in the open for all to see. My wife and I had just visited L.A. for the first time a couple of months previous, and we had enjoyed watching the novelty of very strong guys lifting weights outside (probably to pick up ladies). It was interesting that at Venice Beach guys were lifting weights as an exercise of their freedom, and yet in here they were lifting weights to distract themselves from the fact that they didn’t have freedom.
“I wouldn’t want to tick those guys off,” I say to myself. “They could probably squash my head with their biceps just like I can crush an empty coke-can with mine!”
There are also quite a few prisoners jogging around an asphalt track. It’s the same scene that you could find during warm-ups at a track meet, but instead of brightly colored uniforms everyone is in forest green jumpsuits.
“This is it,” I think to myself. “I’m in. Now what the heck am I doing here?”
If I’m honest, prisoners are not a group of people whom I have ever cared about. In fact, one of the main reasons that I’m at a prison today is because Jesus said to not because I had a change of heart. The other day I read Matthew 25 where Jesus describes people who make it into the Kingdom.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?
At the time, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Why would God care about prisoners? This verse was convicting because I realized that I had never been to a prison before. I’ve been a Christian for like 20 years, and yet I’ve never obeyed or even paid attention to one of Jesus’ basic commands.
It was that realization that began me on a journey to discovering who the untouchables are in my life. Who are the people who I don’t care about. I realized that prisoners were at the top of that list, and it was convicting to think about how much I lacked compassion and mercy in my heart and life.
It was also that realization that led me to contact Karon and Prison Fellowship in the first place, and now here I am hanging out with a group of people who God tells me to care about. I know this sounds so heartless, but I’m trying to be honest. I did not care about these guys who had obviously chosen to be behind bars by their lifestyle. They were getting what they deserved, and if lack of touch was their punishment than so be-it.
I would find out over the next several hours that caring for prisoners was a blind-spot in my life. It was something that Jesus cared about — that I didn’t. At least until I ended up in a room with 21 prisoners. What these guys had to say would end up having a powerful impact on my life.
Read more by clicking here.