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Speaking for Those Who Can’t Speak for Themselves

“God continues to bless me and answer my prayers even in this warehouse of lost souls” – unknown

michprison

This blog contains essays about what life is like behind bars as a prisoner in the Michigan Department of Corrections.  Anecdotal stories and observations about crime, punishment and human nature.  Names, dates, and locations are not included because it was not good for your health to keep records like that in prison.  Even the suspicion that I was writing about my gang leader bunkie, one time, almost got me a severe beating. What is really important are the truths contained in these pages.  I am speaking out for the tens of thousands of others who don’t have the skill or ability to do so for themselves.

It would be easy to be bitter about the years I spent in prison, but instead I have chosen to put aside any personal agenda and use my experience as a professional auditor, a trained observer, to record a firsthand account of what life is like on the inside.  Writing has been both a healing process as I unburden myself, and an education as I compiled observations and facts that are shocking and disturbing in their scope and complexity.

This can by no means be considered exhaustive.  Even a life sentence would not be long enough to experience everything that happens in prison.  This is just my humble attempt to humanize those who have been de-humanized.  To bring to the public’s attention the waste and corruption that runs rampant in a critical branch of state government; and to help those who have loved ones in prison understand a little better what they’re going through.

If what you read is disturbing I apologize.  I tried to refrain from using graphic language except where it was necessary to convey meaning.  Prison is not a country club with prim and proper people.  On the other hand, if you are outraged by the failings of those entrusted with the responsibility of protecting society and are motivated to contact your state representatives in the legislature to demand better, then I have succeeded in raising awareness of an issue vitally important to our society as a whole.

July 2017 Letter

(Excerpt from a letter)

Greetings Brother,

Happy Independence Day. As a veteran I salute you and want to thank you for your service in defending this country and the ideals that it stands for on this day of commemoration of the birth of our nation. I pray that people would take seriously the words of our founding fathers when they said, “with liberty and justice for all.”

Thank you for your letter. I am sorry to hear that they sent you someplace without the programming you need. Hate to think they they’ll move you again. I’ve come to the conclusion that the MDOC is like Michigan weather- wait 10 minutes and it will change: personnel, policy, proceedure, direction, purpose, intension, and goals. It’s always too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, or too windy. It just can’t seem to satisfy anyone and all we do is talk about it.

I’m sitting here on my patio looking at the flowers I have planted, listening to the birds singing, feeling the sunshine on my face and not a soul in sight. Just me and my thoughts. I pray it won’t be much longer and you’ll have an experience like this for yourself. Till then use your imagination to hear the wind chimes and leaves rustling, the smell of grass and flowers, and the view unmarred by fences.

I recently celebrated my 53rd birthday. I went out to lunch with my parents and brother to an Asian fusion resturant. You might say that I’m living the new normal for my life. It’s not my old life and not certainly one I could have expected but it has love, peace and blessings in abundance.

“I do not think that all who chose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sum cannot be put right; but only by going back till you find the error and working afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develope’ into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit.”

C.S. Lewis

This is from the preface to The Great Divorce. Lewis was writing about Heaven and Hell and how we should live on earth. I cannot help but notice that it is a perfect picture of what prison rehabilitation should be. It addresses the importance of not condemning individuals out of hand. It confronts the fallacy that longer prison sentences are a deterent to future crime. It speaks to the need for counseling, education, personal reflection, and recognition of the need for change.

A keen observer of the human condition, Lewis understood the concepts of God’s grace, forgiveness, and healing. His writings spoke to a world torn apart by war 70 years ago, and are yet relavent today. His works are found in libraries and bookstores and should be on your reading list.

We must all take responsibility for our own reformation. No one can reform you, you must want it for yourself. Lewis’ writings provide cogent arguments for why you should want this. It is up to society then to insure that the MDOC provides the right atmosphere in which reform can take place. Society should want this because it is in the best interest of everyone to ensure the safety and security of all its members, including ‘the least of these’ represented by those convicted of crimes against the society. Without this compassionate concern on the part of society, its elected representatives, and those entrusted with the care and management of the inmates, what hope have we of changing ourselves and being given credit for the change if this is not the case.

I pray for you regularly. I pray for your health and safety, that the time goes quickly, and for grace and favor with the parole board.

Your Brother in Christ.

August 2017 Letter

(Excerpt from a letter)

Greetings Brother,

The pastor shared this funny story to open his sermon the other week:

A group of church members got together at the old country church they attend to paint the exterior. The sky was gray and overcast, so they rushed to get the paint on. As they were in a hurry to finish when they ran low on paint, they decided to add water to complete the job. Just when they completed the project the clouds opened up and a downpour caused the fresh paint to run. There was lightening and thunder and as quick as the rain started it stopped. There was a beam of light shinning from a break in the clouds and a voice from heaven said, “Repaint ye thinners!”

Pastor Bob E.

The moral of the story is that we should always do our best and not cut corners. We don’t always get explicit feedback as these church members did, but we know deep down inside when we aren’t giving our all to the task. This includes situations where peer presure is brought to bear on you from others who have choosen to not give it their best effort. Instead these situations are a time where you can shine out and rise above and even it no one applaudes you, you will know you did your best and can live with a clear conscience.

In I Peter 4:10 and 11 it says, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms…If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength that God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” As Christians how we act reflects on God. When we do good God is praised and when we do poorly we are called hypocrites. I know from first hand experience how hard this is in prison. Expectations are low, morale is low, competency is low, productivity is low, pay is low and there are a number of forces at work to keep it this way.

It really boils down for a Christian to realize who it is we really work for: God or man? Man may set the task, the hours, the pay, the work rules but we answer to a higher authority. Doing the right thing in the right way is never wrong. In a dark place you will shine bright when you exceed expectation, do the job without grumbling and complaining, giving your all to the task without counting the cost.

I was a unit porter for two years and I got noticed by the old timers who appreaciated that I actually cleaned the bathrooms. I met people who befriended me and respected me because I wasn’t like all the other porters. I was shown appreaciation and when I left the job to become a tutor so many guys came up to me and told me how much they missed me doing the job. Remember we don’t live for the accolades of man, but on that final day we long to hear the words, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

Remember you are not forgotten. I’m praying for you. Your Brother in Christ.

Fall 2017 News Letter

(Excerpt from the newsletter)

Here is my pastor’s latest sermon opener story:

“Uncle Cletus lived down south, back up in the hills. When he ate is favorite food his foot would swell up. He loved fried pork and his doctor told him he would have to avoid pork because it was the cause of the gout he was suffering from. When Cletus got home from the doctor’s office his wife asked him what the doctor said. Cletus took off his shoes, pointed at his feet and said, “I’m gong to have this problem about 3 times a week”

Pastor Bob E.

We are selective in our hearing and accept only the points we want to. I’ve actually read about this. People tend to accept information that backs up their beliefs. This is why some people like Fox News and others like CNN. The spin put on the news by the political perspective of the commentators either resonates with the viewer or it doesn’t and the viewer responds by saying, “Give me a break” and changes the channel.

Persuasive arguments don’t work because of this phenomenon. Compelling reasons aren’t enough to cause a person to change. They must want it first, then they will be willing to accept the information presented to them. Only by accepting that their’s is a failed system of beliefs will a person be open to accepting alternate truths. You can probably fill a phone book with the names of all the people you know who live by the phrase, “I deny your reality and substitute my own.” And some of them are pretty far out there. We live in an era of relative truth, not absolute Truth. We agree to disagree (on a good day) or simply dismiss other positions. President Trump and his alternative facts and “fake news” are a great example of this.

I think this is why some of the various religious groups attract followers in prison. Out in the world some of these religions don’t receive much attention or attract many followers but they have a much higher percentage of the prison population. When some people end up in prison it serves as a wakeup call that the way they were living wasn’t working. When they come to this realization they begin searching for another way of living.

Prison is a bit like Athens, Greece the way that the Apotstle Paul found it in Acts 17. Paul saw the large number of different religions represented in the city and even spoke to a large crowd at the Areopagus and presented the Gospel. In verse 32 it says the “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of then sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ And in verse 34 it says that “Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.” Some of the people were closed minded and rejected Paul’s message while others were more open minded.

Keeping an open mind is actually harder than it sounds because we are all closed-minded. We must make an effort to be objective and truly hear the other person out. Once we really listen to what another person has to say and carefully consider their words, only then can you have a converstion with them. Like Paul you can expect some who will be outwardly hostile and reject your message, others will want to have more information and some will accept what you have to say. Also like Paul we should use the situation to make our points by taking into account the other person’s belief system in order to reach them in a context that is more familiar to them.

Pretty deep stuff, but it is the heart of communication theory. Think about arguments you have had in the past. Very few are ever actually won. Instead every one is a loser because friendships are broken and enemies simply dig in deeper. It is only when we let down our walls, set aside our opinions and beliefs that have reached the point of dogma in our lives that we are able to have real discussions with others and for the dialog to truly work the other person has to do the same thing.

Know that I am praying for you. Your Brother in Christ.

Winter 2017 News Letter

(Excerpt from the Christmas News Letter)

Greetings Brother,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! The day I mailed out my Christmas cards I got a letter from a guy with a JPay about the new mailroom policy. So I tried again and at least some of the facilities that I write to didn’t like my holiday stationary. I was just trying to bring a little holiday spirit to a place where it is sorely lacking. Oh well. If at first you don’t succeed try, try again. No use for me to complain about MDOC policy, since I know you already hashed it out.

I apologize for not writting sooner. During my absence I want to assure you that you were always in my thoughts and prayers. The most important thing is for you to know is that you are not forgotten, you have worth as an individual, and God loves you. I believe that we must be life-long learners, never satisfied that we know it all, rather humble enough to recognize that there is something to learn from everything that we go through. Either we are learning about ourselves, others or the world around us. Don’t be judgemental, but gracious: treating others as you want to be treated. We all want a second chance, so we should be willing to give others one as well.

Prison may be the worst thing you have ever experienced in life, showed you the worst that humanity has to offer, the most difficult and fustrating bureaucracy, the most insensitive and incompetent authority figures. Apathy and animosity abound, but you can choose to live above the fray, not roll in the mud, and live free, even behind bars.

During this holiday season my prayer for you is that you will have peace. Peace about your past, your present, and your future. Peace over the decisions you can make, and the ones that are out of your control. Peace with yourself, your family, and those living around you. A peace that causes other people to take notice and sets you apart from the crowd. A peace that surpasses all understanding.

Your Brother in Christ.

March 2018 Letter

(Excerpt from a letter)

I know it hasn’t been that long since I last wrote you but since I was sending out my Easter meditation to all of the guys, I figured you wouldn’t complain about getting too much mail. I hope you are settling in well to your new location. Have you signed up for the church and Bible study? They used to have a pretty good faith based program called the HEART program, but I’m not sure what is going on there these days with the new chaplain.

I have been praying for you to have that deep abiding peace that comes from knowing that you’ve done all you can and have fully entrusted the outcome into God’s merciful hands. There really is nothing else like that feeling of surrender to God’s sovereign will. When we give up our own desires and embrace our heavenly Father’s will with complete faith and trust, then the fruit of the Spirit will manifest themselves in our lives like a dam bursting, flooding our souls with a confidence that we’ve never known before.

As I’m sitting here at my keyboard cranking out letters of encouragement I’m listening to a CD of Christian music from Larry Norman, a real long haired Jesus freak from the 1970’s. He once posed the musical question, “Why should the devil have all the good music?” Life isn’t the same for me as it was before, but a few things such as my music remind me of the good times I’ve had. But I’m excited about moving forward in my life, following God, not looking back.

We can’t change the past, but we must take from it lessons and learn from both our mistakes and our successes. Treasure the things that truly matter such as family and friends. Put work in its proper perspective. Seek to live at peace with everyone. Let go of past hurts. Share your blessings. Keep the faith.

May the Lord bless and keep you. Your brother in Christ.

Spring 2018 News Letter

Greeting Brother,

He is Risen! A bold statement made regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ that was echoed by more than 500 witnesses according to I Corinthians 15:6. Jewish law required 2 or 3 witnesses to give matching testimony to establish the facts in a case. At Jesus’ trial the prosecutor had to resort to twisting Jesus own statements in order to gain a conviction since the witnesses could not agree.

So what would it be like to have 500 people agree? People from all walks of life, different social casts, men, women, free, slave all saying the same thing? While some like the disciples could be said to have a vested interest, in a group this large that certainly wasn’t the case for everyone. The modern equivalent would be like 500 people agreeing on a particular UFO sighting. The evidence is hard to ignore, even in the absence of physical proof.

Sitting where you’re at you know better than most the importance of witness testimony. First hand accounts are accepted while secondhand accounts are treated as hearsay and inadmissible in court. Truth is sometimes hard to hear but can’t be denied in the face of overwhelming evidence.

So why don’t people believe you when you share the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Based on the above discussion I think several reasons are obvious. First, after 2000 years we are not even secondhand witnesses, countless generations of believers have passed on their testimony. Many skeptics are quick to discount what you say because they think it is just a fairy tale that has been somehow changed in the retelling so that the factual persons involved couldn’t possibly be responsible for such miraculous occurrences. Like the factual St. Nicholas being morphed into Santa Claus.

Secondly is the content of our testimony. Do we agree with one another? Our greatest testimony is the way we live our lives before men. How often are Christians called hypocrites because our words and actions don’t align with each other, let alone others who call themselves Christians, and even less with the Scriptures?

To be taken seriously let alone believed, we as Christ followers coming from different denominations, walks of life, men, women, free or prisoner must be united. Not just speaking the same words of Scripture, but with our own firsthand account of what Jesus Christ has done for us as our Lord and Savior.

Jesus explained this in the simplest way possible in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.” You are in the darkest place imaginable, so turn on your light so that not only you can see but those around you can see where they’re going.

The ancient church had a call and response that is still used at Easter and I will close with it: He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

You are in my thoughts and prayers. Your Brother in Christ.

April 2018 Letter

(Excerpt from a letter)

Greetings Brother,

Thanks for the notice on your parole board hearing. I’ve marked my calendar and will be praying for you. I know that you have done all that you can to prepare and will interview well.

My thoughts and prayers are with you and your brothers as you prepare for the upcoming KERYX* weekend. What will happen will be life changing for everyone involved. The lost will find what they are looking for. The spiritually hungry will be fed. Servants will get better at serving. Spiritual mentors will meet new disciples. Leaders will have their leadership tested.

Funny how that works. That’s probably why the Apostle Paul cautions those who would aspire to be leaders in I Timothy 3. My observation is that leadership is often a thankless task that involves the arcane skill of herding cats. Christian leaders do it from their knees with their hands firmly clasped together and their heads bowed. While this sounds like a Zen thing it is really a Sinai thing. Moses is the archetype of a Christian leader. His leadership ability was recognized in the Old Testament in Psalms 106, the New Testament in Hebrews 11:23-28, and in the Apocrypha in Sirach 45:1-5. (Yes, I really did reference the Apocrypha.) The characteristics of Christian leadership that he modeled include:

  1. Standing in the gap for your flock.
  2. Speaking only the words given to you by God.
  3. Leading only where God’s Spirit guides.
  4. You will take heat for your leadership from the people, it’s about how you handle the heat.
  5. Leaders are called by God to serve.
  6. Believe in miracles.
  7. Fast and Pray!
  8. Not all leaders will make it to the promised land.
  9. A leaders responsibility is to prepare the next generation of leaders.

Use your final months wisely. Leave your mark on prison rather than letting prison leave it’s mark on you. Even while you are looking forward, don’t forget to keep you head on a swivel.

Your Brother in Christ

*Keryx is a lay-led, non-profit, interdenominational, Christian  ministry using the Cursillo method, designed to be conducted in any correctional institution without substantive change in format or procedure.

The purpose of Keryx Ministries is the Christianization of the correctional institution or community through the actions of small apostolic prayer support groups, trained and encouraged by Keryx volunteers, working within their environment. Through a systematic, structured program, the participants are given the opportunity to experience a religious renewal and to accept God’s call to a life of Christian witness and service to one another .

Keryx has been called the most effective program at changing basic attitudes of the incarcerated currently offered in prisons.  This statement has been said over and over again by prison administrators where the ministry has been active long enough for its impact on the institution to have been evaluated by correctional staff.

Keryx is a highly structured program that promotes solid Christian life-skills.  The program builds a positive and loving environment.  Keryx calls upon a spirituality that has long been dormant in many of the resident leaders within the institution.

keryx.org website

A Meditation on the Aspects of Prayer

(An attachment to the Summer 2018 News Letter)

I don’t often get distracted from listening to the pastor’s sermon while sitting in the church service.  I take notes and engage as an active listener to hear what God has for me as the Word is preached.  However, this week it was the congregational prayer that got me thinking.  As I listened to Pastor Sheila bringing forth specific needs and then leading us to the throne of grace, thoughts began to coalesce and take shape in my mind about the nature of prayer.  In my recent devotions I have been reading the collected works of Andrew Murray on prayer.  According to him prayer is every Christian’s responsibility and that regular, routine prayer is both the sign of a healthy spiritual life and the source of a believer’s power.

Meditation for me is the process by which I take information gathered from various sources and my life’s experience and organize them into a coherent form by which I can understand a topic by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to incorporate the concepts into my life.  As the concepts came to me I jotted them down in the back cover of my sermon notebook.  They came in no particular order and as with all meditations have needed some time to organize and flesh out from bullet points to complete statements.  My initial meditation lasted only 20 minutes and while it was very productive in laying out my thoughts, I know it is nothing compared to those like Andrew Murray who are far wiser than I and have spent their lives contemplating prayer.  But I share it as an exercise to stimulate your own contemplation on what prayer means to you.

As I wrote my reflections I identified 3 major aspects that describe the relational nature of prayer as I’ve experienced it.  Prayer is often intercessory, it is an act of two-way communication, and incorporates both the attributes of humanity and divinity.  For each of these aspects I identified characteristics to describe them.  I am not talking about the actual parts of a prayer, the mechanics of how to pray, or the different types of prayers.  Rather this is a look at the relational aspects of prayer between us and God, us and man, and God and man.

We pray to God on behalf of others (and ourselves), God speaks/acts towards us, and God also speaks/acts towards others.  We have concerns for others and others often ask us to pray on their behalf.  This reflects the way Jesus taught the Disciples in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6.

Prayer is…

A.     An Intercessory Act that encompasses the:

  1. International, national, and local communities we live in.
  2. Public and private aspects of life.
  3. Secular and sacred circles in which we interact.
  4. Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of individuals.
  5. Expression of both spoken and unspoken needs, wants, and desires.
  6. Time frame for actions that are both contemporary and eternal in scope.
  7. First act of hope and the last act of desperation in times of trouble.
  8. Passionate desire and compassionate intent to see God’s kingdom.
  9. Action of man in reaction to situations beyond our control both in the reality of today and our expectations for tomorrow.

B. Two-way Communication:

  1. Between humans and the Divine.
  2. Involving a call and response.
  3. Whether it is cried out loud, spoken in a whisper, or uttered in silence.
  4. That is occasionally eloquent but frequently tongue-tied.
  5. Regarding things asked for and received.
  6. Often asking questions and seeking answers.
  7. In which we remember the past and envision the future.
  8. Of ideas hidden in our hearts and yet already known to God.
  9. Best described as a child speaking to a parent and a parent speaking back to a child.
  10. Acknowledging our weakness and God’s strength.
  11. Expresses our heart broken condition and our heart-felt plea.

C. The intersection between Man’s attributes and God’s character:

  1. Man is broken and downtrodden by the cares of the world. God’s joyful response heals and uplifts us.
  2. Man’s desperate cry for help is heard by God whose peaceful Spirit comforts us.
  3. Man is powerless in his situation and reaches out to an all-powerful God for assistance.
  4. Frequently faithless man needs the reassurance of a faithful God.
  5. Man’s foolishness is often the source of his trouble and wisdom from God is the solution.
  6. Finite man is impatient for answers from the infinite God who is perseverant in responding.
  7. Uncertainty is the way of life for man while God is confident in all his ways.
  8. Man’s ignorance is far from blissful and only God’s knowledge can bring a state of contentment.
  9. Isolated and lonely man craves God’s familial relationship.
  10. Man’s sinful nature can communicate with a perfect God only by His grace.

Prayer is a personal experience, no two people will have exactly the same encounter with God.  Our own experiences change over time as our spiritual health and maturity are not static.  Only God never changes.  Periods of spiritual dryness and silence in response to our prayers is a well-documented fact for even the most devote believers.  But Scripture is clear that this is only our perspective.  God will never leave us or forsake us.  We just need to trust and obey the admonition to pray without ceasing.

Summer 2018 News Letter

Greetings Brother,

It is officially summer so it is time for my summer letter. As the weather heats up I pray that cooler heads will prevail and that there will be peace where you are. The last thing I am sure that anyone wants is to be both hot and bothered by others who aren’t dealing well with the heat. Stay frosty my friend. Staying cool even under pressure never makes the situation worse, only better for everyone.

I just celebrated my 54th birthday. I blew out the candles in one breath. However, there was probably more wax than frosting on the cake. My annual physical finds me in good health. Praise God! I’ve ridden my exercise bike so much this year that I had to replace the ball bearings in the crank shaft and the tension wheel. The bike was so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. It sounded like nuts and bolts in a blender and it got louder the harder I peddled. Now it is whisper quiet. I find great satisfaction in being able to take things apart, successfully repairing them, and then putting it back together.

How often in life have we found ourselves in a place where we can’t fix what we’ve broken? Why can’t relationships be as easy to fix as a toaster? Is it because there is no manual? Actually there is: the Bible. The problem is we don’t study it enough. We also fail to understand that it’s not about fixing others but our own part in relationships. Sure, you can lead others to Christ but you can’t save them. They must enter into relationship with Jesus of their own free will.

The same is true in our relationships with other people. We are only responsible for our part. Whether it is our parents, siblings, spouse, children, friends, coworkers or anyone we interact with, we can’t control them. Control is an illusion. Only God in in control. We have to accept others with the same unconditional love that we ourselves desire.

For Believers prayer is the key to relationships. Every situation and person looks different when seen in the light God’s mercy and grace. So if your cell mate is driving you crazy or you’re having problems on the home front, set the issues before the throne of the Almighty and let Him reveal the answer. Persevere in prayer. The answers may not come automatically. Keep on praying and seek the direction of the Holy Spirit to make sure that you are praying for the right thing. In other words, ask for direction to ensure that what you are seeking is in God’s will. The Bible will provide direction for many things in general and for specific issues listen for the still small voice. The one that can only be heard when we stop talking and truly listen for the voice of God.

Know that I am praying for you and you are not forgotten.

Your Brother in Christ

August 2018 Letter

(Excerpt from a letter)

Greetings Brother,

My pastor has been preaching this summer on the concept of Joy. James 1:3 says, “Consider it pure joy when you face trials of various kinds.” The Apostle Paul wrote a lot about joy too. In Philippians 4:4 he said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: Rejoice!” He wrote these words from prison. He didn’t have a sick sense of humor or a masochistic streak, he truly believed it.

Joy is a feeling of gladness and rejoicing is the expression of that feeling. Trials build Godly character and we should be thankful to be counted worthy. It is thankfulness that brings joy. The problem is that we humans have such limited perspective that when we are going through trials we have a hard time seeing the big picture. We lack the eternal perspective. We just wish we weren’t considered so special. Well, I’m here to tell you that you are special. Like it or not.

Your Brother in Christ