Job 7:1 “Is not the life of man upon earth a trial?” (Then let us try to understand those who strive.)
Special thanks to Doug B. for contributing to this article.
I spoke this week with Doug B., another prisoner who happens to reside in the cell next to mine. Our conversation shifted from the possibility of serving a “life sentence” (a penalty we each face) to the real world definition of what it means to be institutionalized. The main focus of our conversation was the subject of young men and women in today’s society going to prison for long terms and coming hope with few hopes.
Becoming dependent on the walls that surround you happens a lot easier than one might think. Both Doug B. and I have been down this sad road before. I was, however, genuinely surprised to learn that someone else had as much passion as I had regarding the implications of an exploitive criminal justice system and the marginalization of ex-felons by society once they are free.
How Detached Policies Can Affect (and Often Hurt) Real People
As a casualty of the “War on Drugs” (more on that in a moment), the only thing I find comical is that none of our POWs were subject to the standards outlined in the Geneva Convention. To be sure, it wasn’t that type of war. Needless to say, this has made little difference for the tens of thousands of us who were directly and adversely affected by it. What’s more, countless lives continue to be altered and completely destroyed by the whimsical agendas that seem inherent to the world of politics. This is allowed to continue unabated in our country under the clever disguise of public safety.
Forgive me if I tend to rant. Clearly I’m jaded by the horrific situation I find myself in today. Still, we are talking about our fellow brothers and sisters here–real people, not just inmate ID numbers or statistical data. Besides that, I have never come across anyone yet who has started off as an unreachable and hard-end arch-criminal.
What Life Behind Bars is Like
The simple facts are evident: what most people think they know about life behind bars wouldn’t fill a 3×5 index card. By design, prisoners are kept out of sight and out of mind. I find myself curious as to why this would be. If the goal of incarceration is meant to deter crime, wouldn’t it make more sense if everyone were exposed to the inner workings and penalties imposed by our system? I’m convinced that one of the main reasons the general public is kept in the dark is simply because our prisons have become an embarrassing failure. Only when one of society’s “defects” goes off in a major way do we get to weigh in and ask the question, “Why did this have to happen?”
Today in the United States, the leader of the free world, we are second to none with regards to the amount of people we incarcerate. The striking contrast comes in how we prepare these offenders who will one day come home. I think most of you would be shocked to learn what little the state offers in the form of rehabilitation before releasing these inmates back into the community. Furthermore, once that felony appears on your record it’s like a big fat black eye that never goes away. You may be done serving your prison sentence, but you will never be through repaying your debt to society. All those employment opportunities who’s doors were once wide open are now slammed shut in your face. Should we really be surprised then when someone ill-prepared to cope in an unfamiliar and changed world fails to meet our expectations?
12 Years in Prison
My own story has unfolded in a unique way and, without justification, I would like to tell you what it was like after spending over 12 years in prison for selling $50 dollars worth of narcotics, then, afterward, being turned out on the streets with zero preparation and a “gate” check the bank refused to cash with my prison ID. I was being released with plenty of dreams but no real plans.
At the time of my incarceration it seemed to me that only successful businessmen and contractors had cell phones. I’m sure everyone over the age of 35 remembers the “brick.” Now, by the year of my release, smart phones had become all the rage. As my day soon approached to walk beyond those grey walls, I was lucky enough to have a loving family member send me their old flip phone in a parole package so I could contact them once I got out. In all the time I’d been away I guess it never really occurred to anyone to mention the fact that pay phones had gone the way of the dinosaur. I was brought up to speed, but only on my way out the door.
Oh well, it didn’t seem to matter. I was “Joe cool” with my flip phone. The problems soon began when I realized that I couldn’t text, I couldn’t take a picture, I couldn’t even place a call! To tell you the honest truth, I was shocked when I somehow managed to power the stupid thing up. Later on, I became quite upset with a good friend who was only trying to help me program the numbers and show me some of the features. “Look,” I said. “I don’t care about the ring tones. I just want to be able to dial numbers. Can you make it do that?”
My anger came because I felt stupid having to ask someone for help. And not being able to do something that any five-year-old child can do with ease did not help my attitude.
What Those First Days of Freedom Were Really Like
When I began serving time, Wal-Mart probably wasn’t even an idea yet. My first trip into this monster of a store was for the sole purpose of shaving razors. This may sound funny to you, or maybe you just haven’t given it thought, but do you have any idea how many different kinds of razors there are in a Wal-Mart? There is one whole aisle dedicated to this single item!
The hundreds of brands that do everything but mow your lawn overwhelmed me. (And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the lawn mowing model is scheduled to hit shelves next month.)
All jokes aside, I stood in that aisle for a solid 45 minutes trying to figure out what to do. In the end I just closed my eyes and grabbed a package (Shick Sure Grip). Those are the only razors I buy now.
Choosing shaving supplies is only a mundane example, a small bump in the road to social conformity. But if such a simple task is so difficult, imagine how daunting employment, housing, and real world relationships might be. For over 12 years the only thing I had to think about was whether I wanted the cheap yellow razor or the blue one that costs a little more. Trust me when I tell you, the things that work well in a prison setting have no place in our society.
Doug B.’s Story
I’ve asked Doug B. to weigh in on this topic and tell us about his experience. Here is his story, in his words:
I don’t claim to be innocent of the crimes that I committed. Nevertheless, at the age of 17, I was tried as an adult, receiving a sentence of five years to life, then sent to Folsom State Prison. Upon my arrival at the age of 18, I tried to settle into the day-to-day routines, but nothing could have prepared me for the world I was about to become a part of. During the 1970s and early 1980s, state prison was a real-life gladiator school. (Some things are different today, but not a whole lot.) What I saw there were some of the most brutal acts one human could possibly do to another. To someone who has never been there, it’s tough to imagine the reality of the situation. I remember telling myself that no matter what, I would never turn into the kind of convict that surrounded me. I would always maintain a firm grip on my humanity despite what my peers did, I was sure of it! Unfortunately, as time wore on, I did lose my compassion for others, and, living my life in that type of environment, I felt certain my compassion for people would never come back.
Fast-forward 23 years down the road when I was given $200 dollars, a pair of Khaki pants, a shirt, and a pat on the back. They told me, “Good luck out there, you’re a free man again.” That statement struck me as odd since I was just a boy when I was convicted.
It’s hard for me to express what those first few days out were like. It was a surreal time in my life. I think the most pronounced thing I felt was fear. Now that someone wasn’t watching my every move, it was only too easy to slip up and find myself in trouble once again. I found out very quickly that the things I had learned in prison were totally unacceptable out in society.
It’s not for a lack of effort that I have been unable to make the adjustment back into the world. The Lord knows I have tried. At some point in time, however, I had become a product of my environment. As I sit here next to these unforgiving steel bars and cold concrete walls, I pray for change in our prison systems. Because without that change many other young men and women will inevitably end up just like me.
-Doug B., April 2016
We Need to End the Warehouse Approach
Today’s prisons are designed for one purpose: to warehouse society’s undesirables. But what happens when they come home as 90 percent of them eventually will? With token drug treatment programs, a laughable education system, and almost zero preparation for living life beyond the prison walls, it’s little wonder that our recidivism rates are nothing less than obscene.
There is little doubt that a nation such as ours cannot be managed without laws and justice. What’s more, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend there is not a need for prisons in our society. What I do criticize is the end-all, be-all of mass incarceration, excessive prosecution of low-level offenders and first-time felons, and predatory laws aimed at ensnaring substance abusers to fill prison beds in lieu of treatment options. And then there’s the issue of prison industries that not only target the prisoner, but also the friends and families of those prisoners.
Why Should I Care? What Can I Do About It?
At this point you probably have one of two questions on your mind: “Why should I care?” or “What can I do about it?”
You should care because there are 2.2 million lost souls in our jails and prisons today. One day soon many of these will be coming home, maybe to a neighborhood near you. You should care because Someone has cared for you. We are all deserving of death, yet Christ willingly went to the Cross on our behalf. Hebrews 13:2 asks us to, “remember the prisoner as if chained with them–those who are mistreated–since you yourselves are also in the body.” Don’t end up like those who say, “How could we have avoided such a tragedy?” the next time a tragedy happens. We can prevent these tragedies if we start caring for these lost souls and taking action.
So what can you do about it?
Get yourself involved in a Christ-like way and make a difference. Donate an encouraging, Christ-focused book to your local jail. Write an uplifting anonymous letter to a prisoner like I mentioned in my article Time = Love. Vote for prison reforms. Get involved in prison reform organizations like this Christian one called Prison Fellowship. Don’t think your voice doesn’t matter. My grandfather used to say, “It’s the pennies that make the dollars.” In other words, even the small things eventually add up.
A Very Different Approach
Not too long ago I read an intriguing story about the wildly different approach Germany takes with the idea of crime and punishment. Their “prisons,” if you can call them that, don’t have walls surrounding them. Nor are there prison guards in the traditional sense we’re use to. Yet, there are no escape attempts, and prison violence is rare. How do you suppose this is possible?
Germany really is light-years ahead of the rest of the world with regards to restoring criminals back into law abiding members of society. Their idea of reform comes through educational and spiritual programs, and it’s working. Here is an article from Business Insider with data about this, and here’s one from The Marshall Project, a non-profit journalism organization that covers criminal justice.
Let us always remember, when you invest in others, you’re investing in the future and your community.
And to my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I leave you with words that tell the story much better than I ever could.
Some dwelt in darkness and shadow of death, prisoners in misery and chains, having rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the plan of the Most High. He humbled their heart with toil. They stumbled; there was no one to help. Then they cried to the Lord in their need, and he rescued them from their distress. He led them out of darkness and shadow of death, and broke their chains to pieces. Let them thank the Lord for his mercy, for he bursts the gates of bronze, and cuts through iron bars. -Ps 102:10-16
The voice behind the walls,
April 14, 2016
Dear Heavenly Father,
Please restore all young men and women who have been separated by imprisonment from their loved ones and society. Give us strength, O Lord, to meet transition and change with an open willingness and trusting hearts. Protect young people from the harmful influences of substance abuse. Clear a path through all the barriers that divide and keep us apart. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
(For Mom and Dad. Thank you for not giving up on me when anyone else would have. You’re in my prayers always.)
Note from the Editor: During my first visit to the jail where Robert was, you might think that the intense intimidation of such a place like a prison might be the thing I remember most. But the thing I remember most was the joy it brought to Robert. Something as simple as walking in, sitting down, offering a smile and a friendly hello, can have a huge impact on someone who is facing that kind of challenging situation. It can be a really encouraging thing for an inmate. And it brings words of life to them. And though there are steps you have to take with the prison system, (i.e. the person you’re visiting has to add you to their approved list first), it is worth the effort to go and encourage them. And I find that I am often the one who is encouraged as well, when I see Robert’s love for Christ, and he shares his faith and hope in the spiritual joy and life that only God can give. So if you are ever presented with an opportunity to visit an inmate, pursue it. Don’t shrink away from it. It is a powerful thing, and it blesses everyone involved. In fact, after one of my visits to the jail, one of the officers who was escorting me out of that part of the prison genuinely thanked me for visiting Robert. This shocked me. There was genuine gratitude and emotion in the officer’s voice. When the community gets involved in positive ways, it has an encouraging and edifying influence on everyone involved.