I’ve not told many people about my prison experience. I’m not hesitant to tell anybody. It’s just that telling others about it affects me emotionally.
It’s deeply saddening to think of the inmates whose backgrounds were quite unlike mine. Many of them grew up poor as I did, but did not have the family stability I enjoyed. Of my 16 brothers and sisters, only 9 were still at home while I was growing up. The others were grown and even had families of their own. All of us loved each other dearly, honored our parents, and laughed constantly while managing without running water and many other “conveniences.”
Most of the prison inmates I came to know were not so blessed. Many never knew their fathers. Many had to take care of themselves while they were children, enduring violence, neglect, loneliness, intellectual and spiritual emptiness and emotional pain. By the time they were teenagers, their paths were laid out. Hopelessness reigned.
Most of the inmates I talked with stated that, one way or another, their path to prison began with America’s pet drug, alcohol! We call it whiskey, beer, wine, champagne and lots of other things, but its destructiveness we refuse to acknowledge. Americans simply keep sipping or gulping, building breweries, and looking down their noses at prisoners who couldn’t control alcohol. I wish every drinker of alcohol could have paid me a visit during my 10 years. They might have acknowledged alcohol’s power, but maybe not.
Not all of the inmates I got to know in prison came from dire dysfunctionality. A small minority was blessed with stable homes but had chosen lawlessness despite good parents. During my 10 years, I was in classes not only with inmates who had been down and out, but with lawyers, preachers, teachers, nurses and successful manual laborers.
Recently — in fact this past week — two things whirled my mind back to my 10 years in prison and got me all emotional. One was a news article in the Marietta Daily Journal; the other was, of all things, a Super Bowl commercial.
The MDJ article told about Pastor 7. Read the Feb. 2 issue and you might weep unless you’re one who believes all prisoners are undeserving of a second chance. Pastor 7, the director of a nondenominational Christian ministry in southeast Cobb, had a horrendous childhood and youth. The MDJ article chronicles his path from age 10 when he ran away from home, to age 12 when he was first incarcerated, to age 16 by which time petty crime became a way of life, to four years in the Army, to further crime and federal imprisonment, and to the pages of a weathered King James Bible where his life began to change. The MDJ article also describes Pastor 7’s transformed life and a recent serious challenge as well.
The Super Bowl commercial that also got to me was about former convict Alice Johnson. Johnson was freed from prison by the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill that is part of the current administration’s criminal justice reform. Having been sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense, and having completed 21 years of incarceration, the African American Johnson expressed gratitude to President Trump for her freedom. The commercial, a Trump 2020 campaign ad, was brief, moving and effective.
Although 10 years in prison haven’t diminished my belief in capital punishment, they have shown me in bold type letters that not every crime is committed by hardened souls out to do evil. Pastor 7’s childhood and youth primed him for a path of uncertainty and crime. Alice Johnson’s story illustrates that there is such a thing as bad, over-reactive law. I wish that I could have had both of them in my college freshman English classes at the two state prisons where I was teaching. I also wish I could convince some fellow conservatives that not everyone who lands in prison is irredeemable.
Nine years of my time in prison were at a state men’s prison. The 10th year, which ended in December of 2019, was at a state women’s prison. I am the richer. I now have 87 more brothers and 16 more sisters whom I wouldn’t have, had I not taken up prison teaching. I learned that spouses and children of inmates usually fade away, never to be heard from again, but not so with parents. Moms and dads keep on writing.
I now have a renewed fervor for strengthening America’s families. Far too many future Pastor 7s and Alice Johnsons are yearning for a loving mom and dad while the culture redefines and slays the family.