My 10+ years in prison.
Have you ever been in prison? Maybe you have a friend or relative who has served a sentence in prison, so what’s it like? I have been in County, State and Federal Correction facilities, it can be scary.
My first time in prison began years ago when I was meeting with a young man who was born in Nicaragua and came into the US illegally, he was arrested for a VISA violation, incarcerated and later released to a Foundation where I was serving, called the Golden Vision Foundation. I was mentoring this young man, who was around 17 years old when he gave his life to Jesus. Later he married a young woman he met at the house owned by the Foundation, she was Russian, and they communicated with broken English. Long story short he was picked up by Immigration authorities and placed in York County prison and I wanted to visit him. My Pastor arranged for he and I to go inside and visit this young man before he was moved to NYC and eventually deported back to Nicaragua.
When you first walk inside prison and hear numerous doors slam shut behind you, the realization hits….you are inside until released, what if something happens? The other issue is the face of prisoners you see, some embarrassed, some macho, some with a sense of despair. I decided I wanted to come back, God had a plan that includes prison.
Federal Prison Johnson City, Tenn.
My next experience was a Federal Prison in western Tennessee. My wife and I were been invited to a Seniors conference and to share about our urban outreach ministry in York, Pennsylvania. We were living and working amongst drug addicts, alcoholics, homeless and the marginalized of the community.
The conference was held at Fountain of Life Bible Church in Johnson City, Tennessee. When the conference was over Pastor Vic invited Brenda and I to visit a prison where they were holding a concert the next day. He advised our role would be to mix with the prisoners and pray for them and try to encourage them.
Pastor Vic and his entourage of bikers, musicians went through the gates into the prison yard, they were setting up for the concert and Brenda and I were standing around when suddenly hundreds of prisoners came running toward us and no guards in site! The prisoners ran past us towards the stage area to meet the band members and check out the motorcycles. The best way to describe my initial reaction to them running into the yard was, “did I bring any additional underwear”, if you get my drift.
Two things that day that amazed us and made this day one to remember, when we asked the prisoners what we could pray about for them, I expected to hear, pray for my release, pray for my family….no! These prisoners were mostly murderers, lifers, or sentenced for a long term. Nearly everyone was a Christian, knowledgeable about the Bible, repentant of their sins, and not what we expected. Their prayer request was also not what we expected; that the Warden would not permit Wicca groups to come into the prison! The second surprise was once we packed up and were on our way home we stopped for dinner. Imagine this, Fountain Life Church is a what I would call a biker church, lots of tattoos, nasty looking bikers, bald heads, lots of leather, traveling on Harleys and other motorcycles….and then us, very straight looking riding in a car. We pull into a country diner, we walk in together and every person in the restaurant was watching us….what is going to happen? We all sat down quietly, and Pastor Vic stood up and said Grace…you could have heard a pin drop, it was awesome. This group may look different, but they love Jesus. Pastor Vic is a graduate of Oxford University in the UK, has shoulder length hair, rides a bike and loves to minister to those you might question inviting to your church.
State Prison SCI Camp Hill, Pa
My first visit to one of the largest prisons in Pennsylvania was scary. After many years in County prisons, I came to this facility to visit a young man who was sentenced here after serving about two years in York County prison. SCI Camp Hill is quite an ordeal to visit, it’s a huge complex with over 3,000 prisoners. My first challenge was which door or building is for visitors and where do I park. My experience has been every prison has its own rules, visitation times, limitations of what you can take in, unacceptable clothing, etc. I parked a long distance from what appeared to be the entrance for visitors; just as I arrived it started to rain so I grabbed my umbrella. Somehow I sliced my hand on the umbrella and as I made my way to the entrance, my hand was bleeding badly. I saw a crowd standing outside one door and most were getting soaked until we could enter. Next signs everywhere telling me no cell phones, so back out to the car with my cell and still trying to stop my hand from bleeding. After waiting in line for 30 minutes I was told my name was not listed as an acceptable visitor. During the time here, there was a feeling of oppression present. It was discouraging first time experience at SCI Camp Hill. I have been back many times since and it is a challenging experience. It takes at least 2-3 hours from the time you arrive till you leave and I heard stories of waiting all day to see someone while you wait.
York & Lancaster County Prisons
I assume by now you might realize I was never sentenced to serve time in prison, but I have been a Chaplain visiting men. Most meetings are discipling, Bible studies and some to encourage, some just to listen.
During one discipling session in a County prison I was wrapping up when an announcement came over the public-address system with a warning and a series of numbers and no one can be released until further notice. The inmate I was meeting with told me the numbers mean there was a fight somewhere in the prison. Soon there was lots of activity in the hallway, guards running around, and prisoners being herded past us. My hour was up so we continued to talk for nearly another hour and nothing was happening. I buzzed the office from the intercom in our locked room and was told there were no guards available to walk me to the front. After another half hours I buzzed again, and the guard asked me if I knew how to get back to the front entrance, I said I did and the door lock was electronically opened, I was able to make my way back to the front and leave. It was a bit intimidating.
Yes, prison visits can be scary! Many visits were men just weeping and confessed their sins, some asked Jesus into their hearts and were devoted to Bible study while in prison. Unfortunately, the majority do not continue walking with the Lord when released. Their priority once released is finding a job, see their girlfriend or wife, making money, getting a car, but not me or God. Since my time in prison is to please God, not man I am not discouraged. How many men have I saved from suicide? How many have I walked with until they are released. Seeds are planted so I feed blessed and expect nothing in return.
What can you do?
If you have a friend, relative or know anyone if prison, its lonely and scary inside. Some handle it better than others, mental health issues are rampant and not all get the treatment or meds they need. Getting sick in prison can be real tough. I had one man many who was stage four cancer and could not leave his cell, I had to be escorted to his cell to meet with him. Eventually when the prison realized death was imminent and his sentence was soon up, he was given an early release to die at home.
If you are unable to visit a prisoner, send cards, letters, accept collect calls, add money to their personal account. I have yet to meet a prisoner anywhere that ever had enough to eat…they are fed enough calories to stay alive but never full. They can but snacks, coffee, postage, even clothing if there is money on their account. Every prison has a web site where you can find the inmate mailing address, guidelines on what you can send, and your inmate’s ID number which everyone is assigned. Books must come direct from a bookstore or publisher and many prisons no longer accept books from Amazon since they use a variety of vendors in addition to publishers. Sent cards each holiday, they are greatly appreciated, like birthdays, Christmas and Easter.
Always tell them you are praying for them, this is encouraging and of course, follow through and pray!
Prisons are full of people who have made a foolish mistake, some just stopped taking their meds, many are alcohol and drug related offenses, many are things we have done but were never caught. I never thought I would find myself in prison but after spending over 10 years meeting with men sentenced for anywhere from 30 days to life, I know God placed me here for a reason and I do my best to please Him. Luke 6:31.