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Reaching Out to Those in Jail

If I didn’t have this scar, I would never have gone back to jail.

It could be a hopeless and lonely place. That probably scared me the most–not so much for myself, but for the guy I was there to visit.

I hadn’t been to a jail or prison since that fifth grade field trip to the state prison when that inmate pretended to escape, jumped on our bus, and then gave a motivational speech to his “captive audience”. I liked the fourth grade planetarium trip better.

As I walked through layer after layer of security, I couldn’t help but think of that day some 20 years before. The prison chaplain was excited about my visit.

“So, Joe used to be in your youth ministry?” he asked. “Yeah. I baptized him three years ago when he was 14. Funny thing, I got this scar on the same day. Tough to forget that kid,” I replied. That scar had reminded me of him almost every day since his arrest about two months earlier.

I had tripped while changing to go out to the baptism, cutting my head when it hit the wall. I went through the baptism with a napkin and a visor covering it. Twenty years as a Christian, the Church had always reminded me of purity, destiny and helping the next generation. Relevant voices had reminded me to help the poor and flee greed. But it took this silly scar on my skull to jar my mind to remember those in prison.

It shouldn’t have taken that. So many voices have called out for thousands of years: Joseph in Genesis, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, pretty much every disciple, Paul and the guy who wrote Hebrews.

Sandwiched among his calls for love, forgiveness and purity, came this reminder: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3 TNIV).

Twenty years as a Christian, and I’d forgotten these people. It was almost too easy, because in some way, they were supposed to be the enemy. Every nightly newscast, every day on the radio and every newspaper almost begged me to join the moral majority who lamented each crime and arrest as a sign of the downward spiral of our nation.

“Shouldn’t have taken prayer out of school.”

“That’s what we get for teaching evolution.”

“Our streets are a little safer today.”

Anyone else have anything to say?

“I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

What are you talking about Jesus?

“I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Walking past a hall of cells, I was surrounded by guilty people, but I was feeling pretty guilty myself. Talking to the old chaplain was tough. He’d given decades helping these guys, and now, he was giving me advice about my visit with Joe.

“I’m getting up in age. We need more young guys like you in here. It gives these fellas hope. Hope that they can make it when they get out. Now, when they ask, I give them this Bible. That’s the beginning. The next step is up to them and the Lord,” he told me.

I looked at the stack of Bibles. The front cover said, “Free on the Inside.”

It was time to see Joe. He was escorted into the chaplain’s visitation room. With no protective window, I’d be the first person who’d visited Joe that he could hug. When the door opened, I thought of the 14-year-old kid I’d baptized just three years earlier. He walked in–35 pounds thinner, coming off a cocaine addiction, very pale–and his eyes lit up. He’d had no idea I was coming. It was a good hug, and I couldn’t help but realize: by coming to see him, I could tell that, in his heart, Joe was coming back to us.

The United States has the largest number of documented prisoners in the world, some 2.2 million people, or about 1 in 150 US residents. Of that 150, it’s so easy for the 149 to go about our way, forgetting. Statistics say that of the 150, about 119 are professing Christians. Maybe the writer of Hebrews knew something about life behind bars. He simply said “Remember them.”


Nine months and many visits had passed since my first visit with my friend Joe in jail. On a rainy January day, I stood outside a courtroom with six friends, waiting to get a seat.

There would have been more of us, but it was finals week at the local high school. Two of my closest friends and I had agreed to break out our best suits. Friends joked that as we came in, Jason and Scott looked like my lawyers. We joked I looked like their client from a Celtic organized crime syndicate.

It took two hours for enough seats to open up for us. Fortunately for us, the judge agreed to see all defendants who had lawyers of their own first. Joe was being represented by a public defender. Like I said, good for us … not so much for him.

Joe had five minutes with his lawyer before he was to stand before the judge. The defender told him he could serve another nine months or enroll in an in-patient work release rehab program and get his G.E.D. Joe shoved aside the options. He’d fend for himself. He may have taken those options a few months back, but he was a different person and had grown so much over those months. To the naked eye, he’d have to go this alone, but that wasn’t really the case.

Not Forgotten

Joe had lost almost every good friend he had through a year of drug use that ravaged his 17-year-old life–robbing him of his love for God, friends and family. In the past year, he had three wrecks while high, four seizures induced by cocaine and a gun held to his head in a holdup. Teachers that used to love him as a son found themselves on the other end of his rage and aggression resulting in his expulsion from school. All he’d cared about was getting high, and it showed. At his sentencing that summer, I noted that only his family was in attendance to support him until I got there. He’d lost almost everything but found the one Friend he needed. He’d recommitted his life to Christ some 40 days after being locked up, but he had a lot to prove to his friends and family before he’d earn their trust again.

He’d gotten that chance to prove himself during the fall. He attended rehab, school and church and passed every drug test he was given. His teachers were amazed. His friends saw a new person.

Letters for hope

But his lawyer didn’t have much outside of that, with so many other cold facts in the case. Here was Joe- back in court for a second time–this time for violating his probation for wrestling around and getting kicked out of rehab. Felony, probation violation. It was serious stuff with a five-year sentence hanging out there as a maximum punishment.

We had gathered letters from six teachers, one church leader and myself as character references and gave them to the offices of the judge, public defender and state attorney in manila envelopes in hope of making a difference. The public defender’s office told me they doubted the judge would reference them at all due to the charges. Joe had a tough fight in front of him. Nine more months stared him in the face.

And so did the judge. She smiled when Joe came to the podium, almost like she knew some sort of secret. The defender and state’s attorney negotiated quickly and went for 60 more days and the in-patient program with the G.E.D. option. The judge asked Joe what he thought.

“I just wish I could go back to school and graduate,” Joe replied.

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Then she pulled out a manila folder. She said she’d read every letter, and that he was so fortunate to have teachers and friends who supported him. She could see the entire back row leaning forward trying to listen, so she pulled the microphone closer to her mouth.

It was such an awkward moment. For hours we’d watched sentence after sentence come down, but here was this obvious break in the rhythm of the day. The judge began to brainstorm out loud what to do. She asked if anyone else wanted to say anything on Joe’s behalf.

His parents got up, and talked about graduation. Finally, his dad spoke up and said, “Can’t he just come home and do out-patient
rehab?”

At that, the judge recommended a program. That was it. It almost seemed she’d had that in mind all along. Joe was going to be free.

Staying Alive

We filed out of court, emptying the entire back row. We met with Joe’s parents in the foyer. We were all so happy. I suggested we pray. We all held hands, and for the first time in a long time, I choked up. I could barely get out three sentences over the tears.

A day later, Joe met with the judge and other youth enrolled in the program he was sentenced to. She said he should be thankful for the support he’d received at court the day prior. She said very few people have anything close to that, and he should hold onto it.

If you have a friend in jail, rehab, prison or on probation, here is some of the stuff we did for Joe that you can do as well:

Send letters. Beg for them from the inmate’s friends. They hang on every word to know they’re not forgotten.

Send books. The Man Comes Around: the Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash, by Dave Urbanski was one we sent Joe. We also sent in Red Moon Rising and The Irresistible Revolution. Prison can be an extended Sabbath for many of these prisoners, giving their souls the rest needed to quiet the noise of life enough to hear the voice of God.

Have a support network ready for the days and months after the inmate gets out. Much like our friend Jamie with To Write Love on Her Arms, it takes a daily long-term commitment to help those in and out of prison. Joe came to our house so many days to play cards, drink Kambucha, and read the Bible that I truly lost count.

Write and collect letters for the judge and attorneys. We even included a DVD with Joe’s testimony with friends interjecting. The system is so accustomed to only family letters.

If you feel called to help, even if you don’t have friends in jail or the system, here’s some additional insight:

– The chaplains are getting older and older. They need fresh relevant voices. Inquire about becoming a volunteer. You can speak the language of the younger inmates, and give them hope for the outside.

– Call the juvenile facility about faith-based programs on the inside. They always need volunteers.

– Direct inmates you meet to the social justice causes you know of in the community. In many cases, the habitat house or land reclamation project you spearhead can be found in the neighborhoods where many of these inmates will return when they get out.

Above all else, pray for the inmate(s). We prayed nonstop, and felt God pulled out a miracle, both in Joe’s spiritual life and in his court sentencing. Like Joe said, all praise goes to God. Now he’s free on the inside, and on the outside.

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