An interesting comment no doubt and one that was said during the course of a casual conversation. I didn’t say it but a convicted felon in the Oregon state prison system did. You see, I went to prison last week – maximum security wing – not because I had to but because I wanted to.
The venture was part of my writer’s group annual trek behind bars to read essays, stories or poems, which we had written, to a bunch of inmates. These inmates were not soft crime convicts, as you can tell by the earlier quote, but longtime residents of the state’s correctional institution. And though many (most?) may have been violent at one time that was no longer the case, at least in our presence.
I had never been to prison, or jail for that matter, and I was initially excited about what I was originally told would be somewhat eye opening and perhaps life changing. I did feel some bit of nerves about going to prison but when I learned the day of that I was going to be speaking at a podium, my fear of public speaking took over. We actually got lost getting there and at one point there was a concern, that being so late, we’d be turned away from participating. The thought eased my nerves somewhat.
But it wasn't to be the case. We were led behind bars one iron gate closing before another would open. It was clear we were among men as it smelled like a giant locker room. We entered a corridor that opened into a room which was more like a central station as on each side were the prison cells. A handful of inmates were roaming around in this area.
Next we went up a flight of stairs into a larger room which was more or less a high school gymnasium without the basketball court. Chairs were lined behind long tables and at one end was a stage. On both sides of the room were individual “office” spaces occupied by a variety of club activities encased and separated by more iron bars. A few inmates were present handing out cookies they had made and offering handshakes and heartfelt thanks to us for coming.
Soon, the rest entered; one by one they strolled in filling the room. I’ve never given a speech to this many people – about 80 – much less to felons. Would they even care or relate to what I had to say? I requested to go first or second as I wanted to get the public speaking part over with.
I read my essay entitled “The 10 Minute Atheist.” Though I was unable to read all of it because of time constraints, I beat my nerves and will admit I did a pretty good job presenting it. But that’s not the real story of this evening.
Once all presentations were given a gentleman came up to me, shook my hand and told me how much the story of my dying cat meant to him as he too was a pet lover. We talked for 10 minutes about our love of pets. Others followed suit simply thanking me for coming and sharing my story about SweetCheeks.
Then I got engaged into a conversation with “Steve” and “Chuck.” Steve who had been incarcerated since 1985 said quite simply, “What do you want to know.” I was with another member of the writing group so we asked questions about prison and how they survived.
Steve, who looks like a cross between Alan Ruck and Edward Norton and could easily be your next door neighbor, said his days fly by as he is involved with work and other activities that keep him occupied. And though he’s been in incarcerated for more than 25 years and was looking forward to his release in 15 months he would actually in some ways miss prison since it’s been home for so long.
I didn’t ask what he was in for nor did he offer it though based on his candidness I am certain he would have told me had I asked. Steve said he had little to complain about especially considering the plight of others in the world. He gets fed three times a day, has a roof over his head and is dressed nicely – dress being jeans and a light blue shirt which was pressed quite professionally.
Steve said he learned to grow where God planted him. A Christian now, he gets up at 5:15 a.m. and reads his Bible every morning. Chuck was denied parole in 2004 and fighting back tears said his roommate’s mom had died a few weeks earlier and resolved that perhaps God kept him in prison knowing his roommate would need him. Chuck had been in the system since 1984. Both men were educated, articulate and didn’t look much older than 40. And both had clearly come to understand the concept of being grateful to be alive, for what you have and to grow where God plants you.
Whether our paths cross again only God knows. And I recognize that a convicted felon behind bars for25 years has done something significantly more than fencing a couple of watches but these two convicts taught me more about what it means to follow God than just about anyone I’ve ever met. Only God knows if their hearts are indeed changed and Lord willing they will be released after paying their penance to society and build their lives into what it should be.