There is a dark place in our prisons. It is aptly called the hole. But God is creating life and goodness in the people there. He is filling the void with His life and declaring, “it is good” just as He did at creation.
The following information may be found in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Fiscal Year 2017 Statistical Report:
G/J5 – Offenders in this custody have one or more disciplinary convictions for an assault with a weapon on staff or offenders within the past 24 months; two or more disciplinary convictions resulting in a major penalty for offender or staff assault without a weapon within the past 12 months; one or more disciplinary convictions resulting in major penalties for extortion or sexual abuse with the past 24 months; primarily Line Class I, II, or III time- earning status (prison offenders only) if the offender is assaultive or aggressive in nature; or escaped from a TDCJ secure adult correctional facility within the past five years.
As of August 2017, TDCJ kept 1,326 inmates in restrictive housing — defined by the report as at least 22 hours a day in a prison cell — for six years or longer.
TDCJ inmates in so-called administrative segregation, the official term for isolated housing, spend nearly all their time inside a cell about the size of a walk-in closet. The only physical contact they experience is when corrections officers shackle them for brief trips outside their cells — either for showering, medical appointments, to exercise alone inside a cage or to visit with family while separated by a glass window.
There are volunteer ministries who go into these areas of the prison to bring hope to these men. They take inmates with them, usually, men who were once assigned to G5 themselves. We once asked the 6 facilitators in our school at that time if they had ever lived in G5. As they called out their time there, we added up a total of 60 years in solitary confinement. Four of those men at that time were going back into G5 to bring hope to the men there.
However, this is not a report on solitary confinement or its effects. The above information is to paint the setting for the miracle that transpired. This is a testimony of how God is transforming the justice system from the inside out.
One of the men currently living in G5 recounted this testimony to one of the ministers there. He said, “I love to draw, and I’m good at it. I was working on a drawing of Martin Luther King for a friend. It was an important drawing for me, and I had been working on it a long time. I needed to go shower, but I hate to because sometimes when we go, the officers will use that time to tear up our cells. And that’s just what happened; an officer “tossed” my cell. When I got back, my bunk was turned over on my drawing. It was ruined. I was in a rage. My insides burned. My head pounded. I wanted to tear into him. The two men in the cells on each side of me, who are also in my Bible class, began to call out to me, “Don’t do it, man, that’s not who you are anymore.” I thought I would explode, and I yelled, “Right now, I am!” But then I began to cry, and I knew that I didn’t want to be that person anymore. I didn’t want to be filled with hate and anger. So, I said to the officer, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have acted like that. I’m going to pray for you. The officer responded, “Why are you apologizing to me? I did that on purpose because I don’t like you.” The man responded, “Now, I’m going to pray for you even more.” Later, the officer returned to apologize. Good was returned for evil, and life won. Now, there is peace between them. This is a miracle. Peace in the midst of chaos is God’s justice. People are experiencing heaven in solitary confinement, in the hole. In the darkest place in our city God’s justice is reigning.
How is this God’s justice? Biblically, justice means to make things right. How did God make things right? God’s justice was an innocent man on the cross for the guilty. God’s justice is beauty for ashes and joy for mourning. How is that justice? How is it just that I pray for my enemies and do good to those who deliberately wrong me and use me? Why should I not seek my own vengeance? Why should I not repay evil with evil? Perhaps because to do good in the face of evil is the greatest form of love. It is the precious and powerful commodity that cancels debt, absolves guilt and fills the void of loss. It is the power that sets all captives free and destroys the work of the destroyer. It is our mission to fill the world with this love, to bring heaven into the earth. That is justice. That is making all things right. That is the justice that will transform the Justice System from the inside out.
In watching “The Heart of Man’ I wasn’t expecting much. As a man incarcerated for a sexual offense, I have struggled with sexual addiction since I was a preteen. I have been through a sex offender treatment program and have viewed dozens of films on sexual addiction. None of them impacted me like “The Heart of Man.”
I found myself relating strongly to the testimonies. I saw that the struggles I believed were unique to me were actually shared struggles. In the video Jackie Hill Perry described that as a child, she didn’t know what happened to her was wrong, but somehow knew that it must be kept secret, knowing instinctively that it was shameful. I hated what I was doing but felt strongly compelled to keep doing it until I was finally caught. Getting caught truly was, as William P. Young testified, “a great and terrifying grace.”
When we assembled in our groups the next week, I witnessed a group of men in prison openly and honestly discussing their struggles with sexual addiction and overcoming sexual abuse on a level I never saw before even in treatment. This encouraged me to tell my story to the group and ask for help. I had been bound by this for so long I couldn’t remember what it was like to be free. It has ruled my life so thoroughly that its absence would leave a terrifyingly large hole to fill. I don’t know where I am going when I leave here, but it has to be gone before I get there.
As my group gathered to lay hands on me and pray, I spoke to whatever spirit ruled that stronghold. I told it that I wasn’t giving up this time until it was gone. For the first time in years I have hope of winning this fight. For the first time ever I have a support group of spirit-filled prayer warriors, and I know I have the Lord on my side.
My name is Joe. I’m 55 years old. I grew up with a single mother. My father was in prison all the years I was growing up. I didn’t really get to know him until I, myself, was coming to prison. I’ve been in prison 36 years now, since I was 19 years old. I have a 50-year sentence for murder. My whole life I was a hardcore gang member. I grew up in street gangs, sold drugs and did all kinds of drugs. I was a heroin addict. I was involved in all kinds of illegal activities, like gun running, prostitution, extortion. You name it; I’ve done it. I came to prison for killing a man in a gang fight. Once in prison, I went back to what I knew, “gangs.” I was a member and a recruiter of a Texas prison gang. I did 15 years in Administrative Segregation (solitary confinement).
All my life I’ve had this underlying belief that in order to receive love and acceptance I had to be a part of a gang with other people just like me, alone, broken and abandoned by everyone we let get close to us. Gang life was my security blanket to be loved and accepted. But it came with a big price. I lived in the dark world of Satan, who had me enslaved and doing his dirty work to steal, rob, kill and destroy everything in my path. My mother often talked to me about Jesus Christ and never stopped praying for me. Once when I was in a mental ward for setting one of my cell partners on fire and for cutting myself, my mother came to see me. For three weekends in a row the prison officials told her she couldn’t see me because I was a danger to myself and to others. Well, Mom wasn’t leaving until she saw me. They suited up a 10-man team and chained me up and put me in a protective metal cage. When my mother saw me she said, “Oh, my God, who are you? You don’t even look like my son; where is my son?” I was full of demons. She put her hands on the cage and started to pray. No one understood her, but the demons knew every word she was saying. I had 14 seizures back to back and woke-up in a free-world hospital. I didn’t know what had happened to me. Let me tell you, God answers prayers! He answered my mother’s prayer and freed me of all those demons. I was dead in sin; I was like the man who hung around the tombs always hurting myself. I felt unworthy, unlovable, with no purpose, no hope and no direction until one day I broke down and cried out to Jesus. I said, “Lord, am I so messed up that you don’t want me? Am I so messed up that you can’t do anything with me? Am I so messed up that you won’t take me back? As I saw there in that dirty cell, crying on the floor, crying like I’ve never cried before; the Lord answered me. He said, “I never left you! You left me! I love you, son, and I’ve been waiting for you to come back home.” Accepting Jesus is my biggest accomplishment in life! Jesus has transformed my life and I have an awesome relationship with him. Now I am able to love others and love myself.
I’m still in the recruiting business, but now I recruit people for God’s kingdom. Today I have a vision that Jesus has given me. I want to reach out to people who are sick, broken, oppressed and struggling with addiction. I want to go to college to become a chemical co-dependency counselor. I am helped and strengthened by the volunteers and ministries who have poured into me. I am encouraged by all of you and want to be a part of this family to help the lost and destroy the works of the devil. You may ask, “Does God still do miracles?” You bet! Today you are looking at one!
99 years in prison!
My heart lurched as the judge pronounced my sentence. I couldn’t believe it. Surely he misread the jury’s verdict? Maybe they meant 9 years instead of 99? I heard my breath, hoping it was a mistake, but it wasn’t to be so. One terrible choice, and at the age of 16 I was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Make no mistake about it; I would be in prison for a long, long time.
I sat in stunned silence as the overwhelming guilt of all the bad things I’d done ran rampant across my conscious mind. Regret and shame pressed down, crushing me beneath their heavy yoke. I struggled to breathe as it felt like a massive boulder pressed against my chest, squeezing all the air from my lungs. Black flecks flittered around my eyes as I tried to understand what had taken place. My mind screamed in panic while my body refused to move. My life was about to take a drastic turn for the worse, and I was not going to enjoy the ride.
Have you ever seen a rock crusher at work? Whole stones are dumped in and pulverized; dust comes out the other side. That is how prison transforms people. They enter as stone and are spewed out as dust.
Prison is a traumatic event for anyone. For me it was even worse. Because of the seriousness of my case, I was sent to one of Texas’ most violent maximum security prisons. I am not arguing that I did not deserve prison time, because I certainly did. I was legally tried, convicted and sentenced for murder. I deserved punishment, and it was a bleak future that I brought down upon my own head.
As a small, blonde-haired, blue-eyed kid in prison; my circumstances were very dangerous. I repeatedly suffered from assaults, mental cat-and-mouse games; and I lived under the constant threat of rape. My only option was to fight with every ounce of my being. Despite my greatest efforts, I lost most of those fights which encouraged others to try and “break” me. It’s a difficult situation for a small teenager to fight against a full-grown man, and it’s even more impossible when several men join in. At the first sign of weakness I would be in serious trouble. No matter the odds, I fought until one day I was no longer the new guy, and the sharks moved on in search of easier prey.
After saying that, surprisingly, the physical part of serving time is the easiest. It is the mental and emotional struggle to keep your sanity in an insane place that takes its toll. I was a child in an adult world with all my hopes and dreams dashed because of my stupid decisions. All those dreams were traded in for a lifetime in prison.
Since that time 28 years of incarceration have slowly trickled by. The 16-year-old boy who entered prison is now a 44-year-old man remaining in prison. For a time, a long long time, not only did I lose hope, but I lost myself too. In a twisted desire to fit in, I became someone totally unlike the real me. I embraced the cold, calloused prison code of conduct like it was the Ten Commandments handed down directly from God. That code is a perverted form of discipline that makes perfectly good sense inside but is absolutely ludicrous on the outside. For example, I once stabbed a man because he stole a set of $3 headphones. The act was acceptable behavior in here but would be crazy anywhere else. As I look back over the years lost to the sands of time, I realize that I have no happy memories of family vacations or lakeside BBQs. My memories revolve around race riots, fights and stabbings on some of the worst prisons in Texas. I became a man on Beto, Ferguson, Darrington, and Connally prison units. Those harsh places were my terrible mentors, teaching me what a man should be. I stayed in trouble so that disciplinary court became my oft-visited stepfather who was trying to punish me into acting right. I believed that I had nothing to lose so I refused to listen to correction from anyone. The more I was punished, the worse I acted.
Gang life beckoned me like a siren perched atop deadly shoals. I answered that call by running my tiny boat right onto those shoals. I joined the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang in an effort to fill that empty void deep within the center of my being. The void remained hollow, and I discovered that gang life was another bad mistake atop many prior mistakes. I performed a lot of terrible things in the name of the brotherhood, but I refused to care, believing that I was better than others and that they deserved less consideration than me or my “brothers.” The truth is, I was worse than others. I was a lost soul whose shameful actions cause me to spend 13 years of incarceration confined in Administrative Segregation (ad-seg is Texas’ version of long-term solitary confinement).
In Ad-Seg my foolishness continued. Despite the restrictive environment and close scrutiny by the guards, I figured out ways to assault prisoners and guards. Because of that, I was treated as a dangerous prisoner. That treatment twisted my mind further astray until I became a bitter animal waiting for the next opportunity to attack. I would attack, and the guards would beat me into submission. It became a game; attack, receive a beating, submission; attack, receive a beating and submission….
Even my drug-use continued and even escalated. As a gang member, I had easy access to drugs. In 1995 I beat a case for stabbing another prisoner. My celebration of the not-guilty verdict consisted of drinking some hooch (homemade wine) as well as shooting-up coke and heroin. I overdosed.
As I lay on that prison stretcher waiting on death’s cold embrace, I realized that I wanted to survive. I needed to live a better life and to be different. I needed to change. My life must become much more than racism, fights, and drugs. I knew that there was more to life than those things, and I wanted more. I desperately needed more.
Regretfully, after the overdose, the madness resumed. It was like two people living inside my head at the same time. One person wanted change while the other wanted to lash out and blame everyone else for the desolation that my life had become. The latter won out, and I sank into a stinking cesspool of anger, rage and bitterness. It boiled within me like a witch’s brew, and I wanted to pour it out on anyone who crossed my path, even those I loved. Long-term isolation finally broke me like the stone in the rock crusher. I became dust, but it was dust that I needed to become before I could embrace change.
When I was finally crushed beyond repair, I began listening to that soft whisper of God speaking into my life. The encouragement and unceasing love from family and friends taught me that I am loved despite all the things I’ve done to deserve otherwise. When I embraced true love from God and man, true change emerged.
Previously I sabotaged my own success because I felt undeserving of anything worthwhile. Now I fought to make it happen. As I changed, my sanity returned; and I even worked my way out of Ad-Seg in 2006. After the isolation this transition to “freedom” was very difficult. Still, it was a necessary and needed change.
There are many unchangeable parts of my life that hurt to admit, but I do look at and use those painful memories as reminders of who I once was and who I never wish to be again. I constantly push to not only better myself but to better everyone around me.
My life has come full circle. I lost everything but gained even more. My prison resume once labeled me as the worst of the worst, but not it shows things like a facilitator of multiple faith-based programs, Toastmasters Club president, Teacher’s Aide, Diesel Mechanic, and college tutor. I’ve developed from a 6th grade dropout to a college graduate. I am a leader of positive change and growth within the prison walls. Because of my past, no challenge is too great, nor is any duty too low for me to perform. Pride has no place in my daily life.
While my life as a rotten rock may be over, I’ve discovered that the dust of gold is a precious thing to have. All people have gold in them; it’s up to us as fellow humans to find it and bring it out.
Last week the guys were ministering on the prison rec yard. The revival group pastor told the group gathered around to ask God for the impossible. An older man spoke up and said, “My daughter hasn’t talked to me in 47 years. That’s my impossible.” A couple of weeks later, God began to stir up this man’s impossible in the heart of the RGP. He wondered if anyone had ever tried to find this woman, so he contacted his sister in the free world to see if she could find the man’s daughter with only a name. There were 50 women with that same name. But she found her! The woman listened to what was going on with her father and sent back a word to him. She said, “Tell him that I became a Christian a year ago and that I’m working on forgiving him.” When the older man was told what his daughter had said, he cried like a baby. Yes, we have a God who loves to do what we think is impossible, and He loves to have us partner with Him.