Reflections on the criminal justice system from a Christian perspective
As a Christian who is a professional auditor by training and has spent 10 years under the custody and supervision of the Michigan Department of Corrections I have a unique perspective on the criminal justice system which I feel compelled to write about.
International debut of unique UK and US prison art exhibit at Ann Arbor Art Fair.
In the depths of the Covid pandemic lockdown, 31 people isolated in prisons in the UK and US produced extraordinary artworks exploring personal experiences of incarceration.
Artist Faye Claridge sent each participant a letter inviting creative responses to the Warwickshire symbol of the chained bear. She paired two folk art paintings from the two countries1, showing different treatment of captive bears. These, as metaphors, provided inspiration for the remarkable artworks presented in We Bear.
“Incredible artwork – so beautiful, emotional and in depth. The atmosphere is incredible. So much talent.” ~ Exhibit visitor
Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair, Main Street & Liberty
Thurs – Fri, July 21 & 22 – 10am – 9pm
Saturday, July 23rd – 10am – 8pm
The We Bear artworks were made in the most difficult of circumstances, in the middle of a global pandemic, and communicate sincerely a range of experiences of being incarcerated.
They were created for a one-off exhibition in the UK, with Coventry Biennial, and attracted a staggering 52,068 visitors. Engagement from audiences and everyone involved has been astonishing, participants said they grew from the professional feedback and personal development in the opportunity and the results they produced are breath-taking.
In response, Arts Council England has extended project support, allowing We Bearto travel to the US and be showcased at the hugely popular Ann Arbor Art Fair.
The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), based at the University of Michigan, has partnered in the project from conception and is now collaborating as co-curator for the art fair exhibit. Join them, Thursday – Saturday, to experience the entire collection and leave your mark in the ongoing collaborative public art installation at the exhibit’s activity tent. And don’t miss their engaging live events just down the street, thanks to support from The Guild of Artists and Artisans.
The Stage on Main, William & Main Street
Thurs, July 21st – 2pm – 4pm
Friday, July 22nd – 2:30pm – 4:30pm
At the Stage on Main, located at the corner of Main & William in the parking lot next to Palio Restaurant, hear first hand the captivating stories of artists who have created art inside prison, celebrate the spoken words of writers who are currently/formerly incarcerated, and be swept away by musical performances from the U of M Men’s Glee Club.
To engage a global audience, an online event and StoryMap are being created so audiences near and far can experience the project in depth, with behind-the-scenes documentation, correspondence with participants, and additional insights into each of the participants’ artworks.
We Bear is a Coventry Biennial Commission made possible thanks to UK City of Culture 2021, Arts Council England and Art Fund, and Prison Creative Arts Project
1 The two folk art paintings inspiring participants’ responses are Man Feeding A Bear An Ear of Corn (1840, American Folk Art Museum, New York) and Bear Baiting (1830s, Compton Verney Art gallery & Park, Warwickshire).
As a past participant in the Prison Creative Writing Project I have a very high opinion of the work being done by The University of Michigan PCAP to bring attention to the reality of prison as seen through the eyes of the incarcerated. When I was approached about posting an advertisement for the art exhibit on my blog site I did not hesitate. When I got the chance to read my poem at a PCAP event I had the opportunity to view the art exhibition from 2016. The old adage is true that a picture is worth a 1000 words. It may be fair to say that these art works created by incarcerated individuals are worth a lot more. To experience the raw emotion and deep seated pain that is so apparent in the paintings says more than all my blog posts combined about the conditions of confinement. If you live in the Detroit Metropolitan area or in Southeast Michigan I would encourage you to check out this art exhibit. These artists truly belong at the Ann Arbor Art Fair.
While I was in prison, I dreamed of having a room to myself. Having a single room in housing units that had grown to contain twice as many people as they were originally designed for was just that a dream. Except for a very limited number of cells in Level II and IV did I see single man cells, and these contained mainly lifers that needed wheelchairs due to health issues. During the seven months I spent in Level IV there was a total of six weeks where I did not have a roommate. Those were the last days I would be alone for the next seven years. Even in Level IV I was able to get two hours of day of yard time, three trips to the chow hall, weekly trips to the library and religious service. These provided plenty of time to exercise, socialize, and relieve the monotony of being locked down 20 hours a day. I had a TV and a radio, so I never lacked for input.
How very different for those in solitary confinement. While I spent a week in protective custody, it was a two-man cell located in the same housing unit as solitary where people were sent for violating the rules. In solitary meals are served in the cells through a slot in the door and the only way to leave the cell was in hand cuffs, even to go to the shower every other day. No personal property, no TV or radio. No commissary, no phone calls or email. It was not a nice place and one that I didn’t want to visit.
While out walking the track in the big yard I would hear guys in solitary shouting to each other out the tiny window vents to talk to someone in another cell. I would also walk past the cages behind the building where guys in solitary got yard time. The cages were just big enough to pace a couple of steps or drop down and do pushups. Even in wintertime you would see guys in cages that would be shoveled clear of snow by a unit porter. Signs posted on the fences separating the yards strictly warned that we were not to communicate with those in the cages. The signs might as well have said, “Don’t feed the animals.”
This form of punishment inside of prison has been gaining more and more attention in the United States as activists seek to bring this barbaric and discredited practice that is used widely in both federal and state correctional facilities to an end. Articles and videos about the gruesome reality of solitary confinement have been published by many news organizations and prison reform activists including The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Scientific America, Psychology Today, The Atlantic, GQ, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CBC, BBC, YouTube, and Facebook to name a few. Those who defend the practice point to the idea that the psychological effects of isolation from the general population serve as a tool to break strong willed inmates who are difficult to handle-The Wall Street Journal. The reality is that there is no evidence that this works in the way it is intended and instead simply breaks the person making them less controllable in prison and unrehabilitatable.
I recently read an article in Rolling Stone entitled ‘Right Before I Hung Myself’: Prisoners Share Tales of Solitary Confinement in Michigan by Tana Ganeva. First, I would highly recommend that you take the time to read the article because it is professionally well written and brings a national spotlight onto the dark underbelly of the Michigan Department of Corrections. Secondly it uses firsthand information obtained from correspondence directly with those who have experience serving time in solitary confinement. Like my blog the author is providing a voice for those who otherwise couldn’t speak for themselves. But it doesn’t stop with the article there is an excellent website that contains the words and artwork of those whose lives have been forever changed by a practice that is internationally recognized as inhumane and by many to constitute torture. Please check out ‘Silenced: Voices from Solitary in Michigan’ a website where prisoners tell harrowing experiences in their own words.
According to Merriam-Webster a prodigal is a son/daughter who leaves his or her parents to do things that they do not approve of but then feels sorry and returns home. In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells the story of two sons and their life choices. The point of the story was not about passing judgement on the irresponsible son but about repentance and forgiveness on one hand and unforgiveness on the other. I’m not going to focus on the reaction of the older son but on the journey of the younger son and the father’s response as it applies to my own spiritual life journey.
From my teenage years I wanted to distance myself from my family. I went off to college and then further away for graduate school seeking to gain my freedom. I then got married and started my career to establish my independence. I filled my time with what I wanted and only made grudging appearances for holidays. My brother grew up and got married. My parents grew their business and took up square dancing. They had their lives and I had mine. I didn’t live in a faraway land but halfway between my parents and my wife’s parents. Close enough to make the trip but far enough to not have to make it frequently. My focus was on my career, my interests, and my friends. I didn’t have time for family obligations or responsibilities. Even after my daughter was born, I continued to pursue my dreams without any concerns for how this affected anyone else. This is the very essence of being a prodigal.
I didn’t appreciate what my family had to offer me: a stable nuclear family, deeply held religious beliefs, education, strong work ethic and financial security. Growing up my extended family including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins always got together for the holidays. Family reunions happened every year exposing me to an even larger group of family members in which I didn’t take the time to learn who they were or what our family history was. I dreamed of being anywhere but there. With age comes wisdom and only now do I appreciate what I had. My parents will be celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary this year. My family wasn’t perfect, but I was given all the advantages. My time in prison exposed me to people who came from not just dysfunctional but truly broken homes. Growing up on the streets and in some cases literally killing to get what I had.
Growing up, Sundays were all about church. My parents were active members in their church. My brother and I attended church for as long as we lived in their house. Not attending wasn’t an option. Even when I was older, I attended church, but it was more social and cultural than spiritual. My entire life my has been lived in the shadow of the cross. My parents brought me up in church, raised me with conservative Christian values, and sent me to a college founded by our denomination. I knew the hymns, the books of the Bible, and the tenants of the faith, but even though I confessed my faith there were areas of my life that weren’t surrendered to God.
I was a very average student in high school. When I went to college, I became a much better student when I started dating a girl who spent her time in the library. While we parted ways, I still graduated with honors and double majored in chemistry and biology. I went to graduate school and found out how really smart I was by consistently outscoring some of the best and brightest students at one of the state’s most prestigious universities. But academic knowledge isn’t the same as wisdom and the more I learned the more foolish I became. According to Proverbs 10:1b “a foolish son brings grief to his mother.” And I certainly caused my mother a lot of grief.
My pride of life, gluttony, intellectual arrogance, and selfishness kept me from following Christ fully. Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” It was in quiet desperation that I truly called on the God of my fathers when I found myself in jail. Many who find faith in prison point back to someone in their family, like a mother or grandmother who modeled it to them. Those without a model have a much harder time coming to believe.
As a tutor in prison, I was able to use my education to help those who did not have the opportunities that I had. I would encourage my students to look forward to a brighter future that would only be possible by completing their GED. Not because of what education had done for me but what they could do with it to help their families. On more than one occasion I had students tell me that they were determined to get their GED to challenge or encourage their own children to complete their education. Those inmates were the ones that really got it and tried to make the best of their prison experience.
My father earned money by delivering papers when he was young. He served in the military and afterwards went to night school while working and starting a family. While I was still in elementary school, he made a life altering decision and became an insurance salesman. He was consistently one of the top salespeople in his company. He had his own agency for 47 years and did all right. His hard work set the example for me. I worked occasionally for him while I was in high school but knew that I didn’t want to follow him into business. I chose a different path as part of my rebellion. I had different skills and abilities but much of the same drive and work ethic. In prison I encountered those who worked hard at not working. Those who plotted and schemed at making the big score. Always more talk than action. Uneducated and unethical, a far cry from my up bringing.
I had a moderately successful career in the sciences. I worked hard. I worked long hours. I provided for my family. I never really had to worry about money to pay the bills, put food on the table or buy a few toys. A lot of my satisfaction and self-esteem came from my work. I liked getting above average employee annual reviews. I liked my steady advancement up the corporate ladder. And it was gone in the blink of an eye like the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. The barns I had built for myself were gone and life as I knew it was over.
In prison I had plenty of time to reflect on my life choices and the decisions that lead to that low point in my life. I was in a pig sty and my thoughts often drifted back to life at home and how much better it would be to live there. My thoughts weren’t fantasies of some make-believe fairytale life, but of a home that wanted me there as a part of the family. While I was in prison my parents were the only ones who did not abandon me to my fate. I knew very few inmates who had more visits than I did. Approximately every two weeks I got to spend time with my parents who made the trek to wherever I was incarcerated to see me. I received mail and/or emails from them regularly keeping me up to date on the happenings in the family. I talked to them weekly on the phone and was occasionally blessed to call into a family get together were I could talk to my brother. Not once in what was literally thousands of communications, did I hear any condemnation but rather endless encouragement. I got to know about my extended family and all that I had missed out on over the years. I got to hear about what was going on at church, the office, and with their friends. I received postcards from all over the country and even around the globe as my parents traveled. There was no doubt that I would be welcomed home, it was only a question of when.
When I got home, I wept with overwhelming emotions. I had a room of my own. Access to good food anytime of the day or night. I was given the keys to one of the family cars to go out on errands and work. I was given a family credit card so I could start rebuilding my credit and make purchases for the family. I cooked meals, cleaned house and laundry, shopped for groceries, made home repairs, painted around the house, and gardened like Martha Stewart. I did it, not because I had to as if I was expected to pay my parents back for supporting me while I was in prison but rather to express my gratitude for all that they had done for me. I wanted to be fully engaged in the very family life that I had previously shunned. I focused on completing my parole without any violations just like I completed my sentence behind bars without any violations. I wanted to do and be my best because like the Grinch my heart had grown three sizes.
My time on parole flew by. It was quite anticlimactic when I was discharged from parole. The parole officer that had managed my case wasn’t even in the office on the day that I signed my discharge papers, there was no need to say goodbye. I was a free man but running away from home never crossed my mind. My parents are aging and need my help now more than ever. I don’t worry about what I might or might not inherit when they pass. I am secure in my position as a beloved son. I don’t live at home anymore, but I live nearby so that I can stop in and check on things. I have a new job and recently got married so I have more responsibilities too. But they are not a way of establishing my independence again but rather a celebration of the new life I was given. I have confidence that “all things work together for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:28). I never imagined that my life would turn out this way, but the Bible and church history are full of convicts that God called to do His will and I guess that I’m just one more.
As far a prodigals go I would say that my experience is not typical. My parents did more than keep a vigil by looking down the road for my return. They walked with me through my period of incarceration confident that God would make a way for me to return to them. God used them to encourage and sometimes even feed me in a difficult situation. Their faithfulness is what got me involved in the church behind bars and with Keryx. It was there that I truly began to understand about grace, mercy, forgiveness, and repentance. And more importantly to truly appreciate these foundational principles of the Christian faith and how important they are to rehabilitation and restoration of those convicted as opposed to punishment and retributive justice that are the hallmarks of the current criminal justice system. There are far too many men and women behind bars that will never get to experience the celebration of homecoming because regardless of how bad things get in prison they either haven’t come to their senses or don’t have anyone waiting for them. One of the strongest indicators for successfully completing parole is placement back into the family. Prodigals need to be welcomed home whether it is their nuclear family or some other group that can act as a surrogate. I’m proud to be part of a group called Freedom Dreamers Chapel who’s mission is to provide that surrogate family for those coming out of prison who have come to their senses but don’t have a family of their own to return to. We provide small accountability groups, mentors, and worship experiences in a Christ-centered judgement free atmosphere to encourage success while on parole and beyond.
The church behind bars in prisons and jails is alive and well. In a place that most people wouldn’t expect to find humble, faithful servants, there are a surprising number. These are men and women who have hit rock bottom and were saved when they looked up and found God. But they can’t grow and live without community. Lone ranger Christians don’t last long in the hostile environment of incarceration.
Outside ministries provide essential assistance in cultivating and growing disciples in the church behind bars, everything from preaching on Sunday mornings, leading addiction groups like Celebrate Recovery, teaching life skill or spiritual development classes, to Bible studies. The church behind bars benefits from the diversity of religious perspectives brought by the various denominations and independent churches represented. In fact, the demand for professionals and volunteers to go inside exceeds the available pool of individuals.
Responding to the call to minister to those in prison is part of the call that all Christians receive and for which we will be judged by God (Matthew 25:34-40). For those that step forward in faith and enter prison ministry, not only will they have eternal rewards but also blessings from interacting with fellow Christians in the most unlikely places.
For myself I had the privilege of interacting with dozens of people who came to preach, teach, sing, pray, and encourage me and my brothers. They treated me as a human, not a convict; as a fellow Christian, not an outcast; as worthy of redemption, not deserving of condemnation; as a child of God, not the spawn of Satan. They uplifted, edified, encouraged, challenged, and educated me in my Christian walk.
In the overcrowded yet lonely confines of prison I looked forward with great anticipation for the weekly callouts to the Sunday Worship Service, Tuesday night Bible Study, Spiritual Development classes, and Keryx. It wasn’t just something to do in a vast wasteland of monotony. It was an opportunity to chew on spiritual meat, to sharpen iron, and to be renewed in my inner being. All of this was only possible because of the dedication of faithful, Spirit-filled, gifted pastors and laymen; retirees and businessmen. These were missionaries, clergy, and volunteers from all walks of life who have given up much to bring light into darkness, hope to the hopeless, wisdom to the foolish, and the love of God to the least of these.
Saying thank you somehow seems inadequate for these superheroes of the faith. The English language doesn’t contain enough words of admiration to express what these men and women of God mean to me. I can speak of the miracles that have occurred; the lives changed; the tears cried and dried; the power of prayers spoken, and the answers received; and the peace of God imparted, and only scratch the surface of the impact that they have had on my life.
But try to tell them and their humility immediately redirects any praise to God. Certainly, gratitude warms their hearts and expressions of appreciation encourage them to come back again and again. While it was strictly against the rules, I wanted to hug these saints. God used these ministers to prepare me for my own ministry. To place in me the desire to step out of my comfort zone and see the world through Jesus eyes. To speak Truth without cast stones. To be an encourager of the brethren. To write what the Holy Spirit gives me and not one word more.
My heartfelt gratitude, admiration, and loves goes out to these ministers of the Gospel. While we may not cross paths again in this life, I look forward to seeing you again in heaven.
The expression was popularized by US President Harry S Truman to tell someone that if they cannot deal with a difficult situation, they should leave that situation. Somewhat insulting, it implies that the person addressed cannot tolerate pressure and that they should leave others to deal with it rather than complaining.
While on parole I worked in a commercial kitchen. I started out as a dishwasher and moved up to be a prep cook. I can tell you that the kitchen is an extremely hot place to work, especially in the summer. Hot stoves, ovens, deep fryers, and dishwashers coupled with limited staffing, space & time, and combined with high output workloads during meal service creates an incredibly stressful situation that few people can thrive in. At times it felt like it was an episode of Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay berating young inexperienced cooks competing for an opportunity to work in one of his restaurants. High pressure and high stakes, no room for error and no tolerance for the smallest infraction of the rules. Either you learn the most efficient and food-safe method of completing your tasks or risk falling behind and poisoning someone. There were days when I didn’t think I was going to make it, but every day I kept showing up and gradually I got stronger, smarter, and wiser. Unfortunately, working in a commercial kitchen doesn’t pay very well, the hours can be somewhat erratic, and holidays tend to be worked and not celebrate. I look back on my time in the kitchen and appreciate the things I learned that made me a better cook at home. I miss some of my coworkers and how well I ate. I don’t miss the heat, the stress, or the hours.
As I write this article, we are amid a week of 90-degree days and I’m thankful for air conditioning, ice cubes and shade that keeps me calm, cool, and collected. However, most prison housing units in America don’t have air conditioning or even adequate ventilation. The driving factor in prison design is control, not comfort. In some places millage’s to build new jails specifically stated that air conditioning was not included as a way of gaining votes from people who think that inmates don’t deserve it. There is a mentality that says that if some people in the general public can’t afford air conditioning then prisoners don’t deserve this luxury.
True the electrical expense associated with cooling large buildings can be expensive, but this way of thinking fails to see the whole picture. To prevent being an easy means of escape many windows in correctional facilities don’t open and the ones that do are either too small to allow an average sized inmate from climbing thru or have some type of grated cover on the outside. This significantly limits the access to fresh air inside or the ability to create cross ventilation or breezes. Some places compensate by adding commercial sized exhaust fans, ceiling fans, or personal fans to create any air movement. But by and large these in my experience had little effect in hot weather. In the Level I pole barns where I stayed the exhaust fans created such a significant amount of negative pressure that it required a lot of effort to open the exit door, even when all the windows in the unit were open.
Iowa inmates endure summer heat as lawmakers put off prison repairs
The primary construction materials for prisons are brick and steel. These tend to absorb and retain heat in the summer adding to the building heat load. Many prison buildings are over 35 years old, have poor insulation and lack thermal pane windows. I have written previously about how cold it got in my county jail cell with not just frost but ice forming on the inside of the window. Given their inability to heat the cells in the winter in the medical wing, how could they possibly cool them in the summer? Quarantine in the MDOC utilizes part of the old walled Jackson prison complex. Those housing units have 4 galleries of cells facing large windows many with broken or missing panes that let in plenty of light, bugs, weather, etc. They also do little to regulate the heat or cold since they are made of individually glazed divided light single pane glass which comprise roughly 50 percent of the exterior wall.
In many parts of the country including Michigan, climate change has resulted in longer hotter summers that were not a consideration when many prison buildings were designed. I recently read the account of a man who spent nearly 35 years in a north Texas prison. He recalls how during the winter there was occasionally snow on the surrounding fields and that summer had relatively few days where the temperatures went above 90 degrees. However, over time the winters got warmer and the summer heat lasted much longer. The change in weather resulting in unbearable living conditions. In fact, there have been several lawsuits brought against various states and the federal prison system claiming that the lack of air conditioning is cruel and unusual punishment.
Inmates who are elderly, have medical conditions or take medication that place them at elevated risk for heat related illness are particularly likely to have serious and sometimes fatal reactions to building temperatures that can remain 10-15 degrees higher than the nighttime low. The thermometer in one of my housing units would still be in the upper 80s at 11PM on summer nights after the daytime temperature soared into the 90s. It could stay like this for several weeks at a time during July and August. Like most lawsuits brought by inmates they have a difficult time prevailing in the courts and when they do the gains are either short lived when overturned on appeal or simply ignored by the prison administrators without some form of judicial oversight. An aging prison population with a disproportionate number of inmates with chronic health conditions was also never factored into the building design.
How Global Warming Makes Overcrowded Prisons Even More Dangerous
Even as evidence of climate change mounts, little is done to address the problem except when the corrections officer’s union gets involved because it’s not just the inmates that contend with the heat but anyone who has to work in buildings without the benefit of air conditioning. In Michigan prisons the administration, school, medical buildings, and the chow hall generally had air conditioning. It was the housing units that were unconditioned, except for the housing unit counselor’s office. One of the perks of my job as a tutor was spending seven hours a day in the school, where it was relatively cool. I dreaded going back to the housing unit to endure the stifling hot air that left the aftertaste of BO in your mouth.
It was difficult to imagine that due to the efforts of the Humane Society, dog pounds and many livestock barns are air conditioned while prisons are not. I’m all for treating animals humanely but the very term involves the concept of treating other species in ways that we would treat people. Yet the concept of humane treatment for prisoners doesn’t rise to that same level. I wonder if the Humane Society realizes that all the Leader Dog for the Blind and Service Dog training programs that are being run in prisons expose the dogs to inhumane living conditions. Also, there is irony in that prisons are a great place to socialize dogs but do little to socialize the inmates.
In many communities there are cooling centers set up to accommodate people who don’t have access to air conditioning during heat waves. Libraries and community centers welcome people to come in and cool off. In prisons there are also cooling centers of a sort. Places like the chow hall are opened to those who have a potential to suffer from heat related illness to go and cool off. This is only during times when the chow hall isn’t serving food and the inmates aren’t allowed to bring anything with them to occupy their time. No playing cards or books, they can only sit quietly at the tables. They are not free to come and go but must remain there until dismissed back to their housing units. During the current Covid-19 pandemic many prisons aren’t running regular chow hall schedules to accommodate a limited form of social distancing, so using them as cooling centers may not be an option this year. I’m not certain but using the visiting room might be an option at some facilities since visits are currently banned.
I have written previously about the relationship between the hot summer months and the increase in violence and suicides. Hot weather brings out the worst in people and when the worst of the worst are forced to live in hot cramped living conditions things only get ugly. You’d think from a security perspective the administration would want to keep the violence to a minimum and reduce the number of suicide attempts, however it doesn’t appear that this type of rational thinking applies.
Hot and bothered: Experts say violent crime rises with the heat
It ultimately boils down to how inmates are viewed by not just corrections staff, but by the governor, legislature, and the general public. Are inmates to be considered as people with certain human rights that the rest of society takes for granted or are, they somehow disqualified by virtue of their behavior which was deemed as inappropriate? There seems be a dichotomy where inmates are expected to rehabilitate themselves, yet they are treated as being unredeemable. We sentence people to serve time for their crimes in places that are as dystopian as Mad Max’s Thunderdome and then expect them to reintegrate back into society after their release.
Summer Heat Kills Inmates in Prisons, and That Needs to Change
When inmates who are not serving life sentences die in prison, it is common to say that they weren’t given life sentences and shouldn’t have had to die there, which is ridiculously obvious. But the system as it is currently operated doesn’t allow for different standards for inmate care based on their sentences. Medical care is like that of third world countries where there are many needless deaths and pointless suffering. In Michigan for example there is no early release program to reward prisoners for good behavior due to the Truth in Sentencing provisions of the Michigan constitution. Compassionate release programs also don’t have much compassion since most who apply are denied or the considerations are so deliberately slow that the petitioner dies while waiting for an answer. Much of this boils down to a lack of political will, indifference, and outright animosity toward those assigned to their care. So why should something like air conditioning receive any consideration? Because when you can’t get out of the kitchen there isn’t another option.
I first started to write this post in late June/early July when the summer heat was at its worst and the USA was just starting to venture outdoors after a prolonged period of quarantine. My job had just called me back to work and I went from having too much time on my hands to working seven days a week. In fact, my company had placed me into a machine shop where the indoor temperature was routinely in the mid to upper 90s. While it was hot and uncomfortable at work, when I got into my car to go home, I could turn on the air conditioning. It reminded me of how hot and uncomfortable it can get in prison and that for those incarcerated there is no break from the heat. Now that it’s almost spring it may seem out of place, but it is still truth and is something worth blogging about since it will repeat itself in a few months.
This blog is an example of how I could feel that what I had to say might not be all that important at the time that I was writing it. The first outbreaks of Coronavirus that triggered lockdowns in the spring seemed to be easing but by the time I was ready to post this essay cases were on the rise and only accelerated into the fall and winter. I was stunned as I watched infection rates and deaths spiral out of control. Prisons and jails were locked down and conditions only got worse for those trapped inside. It felt trivial and insignificant to write about the heat, but I am certain in the context of the pandemic that the summer heat did add to the misery index.
“When Job’s three friends heard about all the trouble that had come upon him, they met together and agreed to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was.”
As the pandemic unfolded it became apparent that jails and prisons were going to face a horrific situation. Visits and programs were suspended, activities canceled, routines were upended, and lives changed forever. Many individuals were getting sick and dying alone as prison officials were either unwilling or unable to respond to the humanitarian crisis as the conditions worsened and suffering increased exponentially. As I watched the news, scoured the internet, and talked with others involved in prison ministry I struggled to put into words my frustration, sorrow and ultimately grief at what I saw happening in prison. I became like Job’s friends, as all I could do was sit silently in solidarity with my brothers and sisters behind bars.
For ten months I have been unable to write. My prison experience was now so far removed from what the current conditions are like that it was almost as if my experience couldn’t possibly provide useful insight. My words of encouragement while needed now more than ever couldn’t begin to empathize only sympathize with the plight of those incarcerated. My desire to write dried up to some extent and instead I found myself engaging in prayer taking my complaints directly to the throne of the Almighty. While I believe in the power of prayer, I’m not so sure about the effect of complaining. To my understanding God is inscrutable, as His ways are not our ways. My belief is that as Christians we are called to have faith that all things work to the good of those who love Him. Asking “Why” is not the question we as Christians should be focusing on but rather seeking discernment about what our role is in bring healing to a hurting world.
Ecclesiastes chapter 3 famously says in verse 1, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens.” The writer goes on to list the activities contrasted with one another which do not frequently occur together including: “A time to be silent and a time to speak.” I believe that my ability and desire to write are a spiritual gift from God and that the silence I have experienced wasn’t because I didn’t have anything else left to say about Christ, Crime and Punishment, but rather a time for me to mourn, to monitor, and to meditate. The Lord has seen fit to once again open my mouth and I will faithfully trust that my words will honor Him, raise awareness of the plight of those who are incarcerated, and motivate others to likewise demand more from our leaders to address this humanitarian crisis.
As of March 2, there have been at least 386,765 cases of Covid-19 and 2,459 deaths reported among prisoners in federal and state prisons nationwide according to The Marshall Project in collaboration with the Associated Press. There have been at least 25,277 cases and 138 deaths from the corona virus reported among prisoners in Michigan. In the state of Michigan 2 out of 3 prisoners have tested positive, which is 10.2 times the rate in Michigan overall. Michigan was one of the first states to begin testing in prisons and there have been at least 713,430 total tests conducted for prisoners and staff according to the MDOC website. Reporting and testing requirements vary significantly among the prison systems, however it is still clear that infection and mortality rates are much higher than in the general population.
Jails and prisons like other high density housing situations including nursing homes have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Highly contagious diseases have always been a problem. Tuberculosis, norovirus, influenza, and the common cold virus rapidly spread when introduced into confined populations. What is different about COVID is that there were initially no effective treatments and the routine cleaning and disinfectants used in prisons did not work. In prison there are always tradeoffs- facility security and safety versus efficacious chemical use. The best disinfectant available for use in prison is bleach in a dilute form. Unfortunately alcohol that is at least of 70% concentration is the best agent for sanitizing and this is strictly forbidden in prison, therefor no hand sanitizer. Like in the general public it took several months for masks to catch on as a way of reducing transmission. Prisons which use inmates to make garments began to make masks for both the staff and inmates to wear.
There have been many calls for the humanitarian release of non-violent offenders and particularly those who have underlying health conditions that put them at greatest risk. Some states and the federal Bureau of Prisons did make some attempts to grant early and companionate release, while others like Michigan could not. Reducing over-crowding was also accomplished by prisons refusing to accept inmate transfers while at the same time paroling those who have been granted parole. Sick wards were established to quarantine those who tested positive or may have been exposed to the virus. Unfortunately these and many other efforts failed to prevent COVID from burning through prison populations like a western wildfire through dry grass.
While a lot has gone wrong with the pandemic response, a few things have changed hopefully for the better. There will be finger pointing, data evaluation and legislation purposed for some years regarding the correctional systems response. There will be second guessing, arm-chair quarterbacking, and persistent questions of responsibility and accountability for how those in positions of authority managed and cared for those in their care. Job’s friends ended their silence and began to speak after Job gave his assessment of the situation. They made many unfounded, unfair, and unhelpful accusations and turned from supporting their friend. Sometimes it is better to remain silent and to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. I’m going to let the future judge how we as a country handled the pandemic and specifically how prisons did. Pray for those who are incarcerated.
After 15 months of reporting on Covid-19 infection rates in prison the Marshall Project and the Associated Press ended their weekly update because the states and federal prison systems have stopped consistently reporting the data. As of July 1 the count of Covid-19 infections stands at 398,627. That total is a significant undercount. In the early months of the pandemic, testing was inconsistent in many prisons, leading to cases going undiagnosed. Reported cases first peaked in April 2020, when states such as Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee began mass testing of prisoners. Though later waves of the pandemic led to far higher numbers of cases, those initiatives suggested that the coronavirus had been circulating among people without symptoms in much greater numbers than previously known. Nationwide there were 2,715 deaths related to coronavirus reported among prisoners through June 2021. In Michigan 2 in 3 prisoners have tested positive, this is 7.0 times the rate in Michigan overall. 1 in 271prisoners has died which is 1.8 times the rate in Michigan overall. By the end of June, more than 54% of prisoners nationwide had received at least one dose of the vaccine. In Michigan 3 in 5 prisoners has been fully vaccinated and 1 in 3 prisoners has been at least partially vaccinated.
While visiting rooms and programming slowly start back up there have been significant changes. For instant the new rules for visitation make it very difficult for families to have meaning times together. Rapid Covid-19 testing and masks used to reduce the chances of transmission haven’t been successful in eliminating outbreaks associated with visits. A difficult to use on-line reservation system to schedule a limited number of visits during the available times which are limited to 2 hours have made arranging visits harder. Plexiglass barriers separate people and vending machines are not available. Video visits have been slow to roll out and are still not available at every prison. I recently spoke with a family that has had a in-person visit with their loved one and they concluded that regular phone calls were better than what they had to go through to be there in person.
Prison ministries and volunteers report that there isn’t a concrete plan in place to restart programs. In some prisons religious services have begun while in other prisons the chow halls are still closed. One concern expressed by the prison ministries is that after being out of the prisons for 15 months they have no idea how many volunteers will be able to enter. Early information indicates that the MDOC will be requiring that all volunteers must be fully vaccinated. This is something that they can’t even mandate for their own staff. It is also unknown if inmates who previously attended will return once programming is available. MDOC rules have prohibited outside volunteers from communicating directly with their program participants to maintain relationships.
As the pandemic eases and life returns to the “new” normal it is unclear whether the MDOC or any other correctional system has learned anything that will change the outcome of future infectious disease outbreaks. The return to secrecy instead of transparency so quickly in the reporting of Covid-19 infections doesn’t bode well for the future.
I have previously written about celebrating holidays in prison. Now I would like to focus on birthdays. Unlike holidays in an average prison of 1000 people there is probably at least one being celebrated or ignored by at least one inmate every day. Then you add in the birthdays for wives, children, parents, and siblings there are literally hundreds of birthdays being remembered. The separation caused by incarceration is most acutely and painfully felt on these most important days. Missing these milestones in the life of the family cuts deeply into the psyche of those who prided themselves on their ability to provide for their families. Even those that did acknowledge their failings in this area often took pride in the accomplishments of their children. While I don’t have any hard evidence to back it up, I believe that many men in prison would rather celebrate their family’s birthdays and completely ignore their own. I came to this conclusion by listening to how men would talk about their families, even in some divorced or separated situations. The number of photographs pinned to their head board showing wives and children backing up their talk.
The difference between holidays and birthdays in prison is simple: Government holidays mean a break from the normal routine with programming cancelled and special meals served. On your birthday if you are fortunate to have a visit you can eat vending machine food. For those that choose to celebrate their birthdays in prison the occasion will be a low key event that might mean a cook-up of some sort with an associate or two. For those who don’t value their liver, there is spud juice available in just about every prison housing unit. The daily routine is pretty much the same as any other day. Work and school assignments continue as usual. Some luck few will receive a birthday card in the mail from family or friends. I would get books from places like Barnes and Nobles delivered to me from my parents. No surprise parties. No birthday cake and ice cream. No packages wrapped with festive paper, ribbons, and bows. Many might call home if they have money on their phone account or people who would accept collect calls for the 15 minutes just to hear a familiar voice.
Birthdays are a personal event that are celebrated from our first to our last year except for some religious groups such as the Jehovah Witnesses. In the western world they mark the passage of time and our developmental progress. Some have special significance such as turning 16 and getting a driver’s license or 21 and getting to drink legally. When I turned 18 it meant that I was eligible for the military draft. Middle age is generally considered to be 45. The standard retirement age is 65. We often judge our success or failure in life by evaluating our progress on achieving goals by certain ages. Getting married in our 20s. Having children by our early 30s. Having the kids out of the house by our 50s. Having the mid-life crisis in mid-life. If we achieve our goals by some certain age, we feel a measure of accomplishment and peace of mind.
But being sentenced to serve time in prison changes the math for many. When the judge pronounces the sentence, the first thing you do is figure out how old you will be if/when you get out of prison. All of the normal milestones are tossed out the window. Now it is simply a matter of whether or not you will live long enough to see freedom. The calculations are can be radically different, for example: Person A is 17 and sentenced to 5 years and simply shrugs their shoulders, accepting that a few life goals will need to be postponed. Person B is 17 and receives a life sentence and stands in stunned silence, knowing that life is over before it is truly begun. Person C is 45 years old, receives a sentence of 25 years to life and realizes that by the time they are eligible for parole their parents will most likely be deceased. Person D is 72 and receives 5 to 15 years and knows that it could be a death sentence.
I have met all of those people in prison. About 95% of people who are sentenced to prison will be released at some point. There is a revolving door of individuals serving 2 to 5 years for various mostly non-violent offenses. If you are sentenced to serve less than seven years most likely you will do your time in a level I facility. These short sentences for most people, especially those under the age of 30, are just a slap on the wrist which doesn’t do much to change their perspective on life. For some coming to prison for these short periods of time was simply a vacation. Level I facilities have the most freedom and access to the largest number of activities, education, and programing for inmates. Time flies quickly when there is plenty to distract you from counting the years, months, and days until you will be free again. Your life may be on hold for now but when you get home everyone will be there to greet you.
I suspect that those over the age of 30 tend to count even these shorter sentences as lost time. While in the prime of life the disruption to earning power can be catastrophic. It can mean separation from the wife and kids. It can mean the lose of careers, homes, cars, and other items of value to the individual. These losses could be due to having to pay court costs, fines, and restitution. It could be the result of a prison divorce. It hurts and for some they may never recover. When you lose so much of what you identify as part of your self-identity, gaining your freedom again comes at such a high cost that you wonder if it is really worth it to be free. These thoughts can take a person into some very dark places. It is not just the ones who are serving a life sentence that consider or commit suicide in prison.
At age 44 I was sentenced to prison for 8 to 12 years. My career and 20-year marriage ended. I was separated from my life, my family, my friends. I found myself in a very scary place for which I had no prior experience to prepare me for. When I was served with divorce papers while I was in the country jail, the first question they asked me was whether I felt like harming myself. I said, “No Sir” and went back to my cell clutching the divorce papers from my soon to be ex-wife’s lawyer. I cried myself to sleep many nights, all the while hiding any emotion behind a blank facade. I had no interest is spending time in the “Bam-Bam Room” where they took away your clothes and gave you a garment made out of carpet-like material and Velcro that looked like it was designed for the Flintstones, and kept you under 24-hour observation.
After Quarantine I was sent to Level IV. I was locked down, restricted from having many necessities or very many luxuries including privacy, and time just seemed to stop. I had to serve nearly 2900 days to reach my earliest release date. The thought of not being free until I was 52 and then still on parole and not really free was mind boggling. From that perspective it was all up hill, like climbing Mt. Everest by starting your trek from the shore of the Indian Ocean. You can’t even see the mountains, let alone the summit. I had spent 6 years attending college and graduate school but there was no comparison for what I had to endure in prison.
Jails and prisons are specifically designed to break a person’s spirit, their will, their stiff-necked stubbornness. The goal is to control you in such a way that you will be unable to fight back and thereby be more easily managed. While I can’t put an exact number on the percentage, it is certainly in double digits the ones that resist, fight, and struggle against the system defying the officers and rules. They are ones that find themselves serving time in isolation and if/when they leave prison, they are far worse off than when they went in. It leaves me wondering if instead of breaking their spirit’s, it simply broke the person.
The thought of missing X number of Christmas’, Independence Days, or birthdays never factors into the equation when a person thinks about committing a crime and is therefor not a deterrent. There may be however some truth to the idea that it might cause a person to hesitate when thinking about committing another crime. There is also a quality factor to consider in addition to the quantity of time when looking at prison time. Serving time in college to get a degree, while living in dormitories, going to class, the library, the gym or track, and working on campus just isn’t in the same league with doing time in prison. In prison there are only two options: Either you do your time, or Your time does you.
Some of the most well-adjusted inmates I knew were the natural lifers in Level II. When sentenced to life without the possibility of parole you are sent to Level V maximum security and you must work your way down to Level II. They won’t take shit from anyone that would interfere with their ability to enjoy their little bit of freedom and access to luxury goods. They won’t hesitate to put someone in their place, even if it means going up to level IV or V again. They’ve got nothing but time. My level II Bunkie was a lifer. A little old man who had been down since the 1970s. He didn’t care who you were or how much time you were serving, the odds were it wasn’t anything compared to what he had already done. Life was simple for him: Detroit Tigers baseball and coffee. It used to include cigarettes until they took them out of the penal system in Michigan in 2008.
For those whose sentence looks more like a basketball score, prison can be a life sentence by another name. When serving a sentence of 50 to 75 years the odds are against you seeing your freedom again. If you are sentenced as a young adult, it is theoretically possible that you will be paroled but the world and people that you knew will be long gone. I served time with guys who had never used a computer or a cellphone. They only saw these technological marvels on the TV and it scared them. The already knew that they would be lost and unable to adjust to the alien world that awaited them. Prison doesn’t prepare you for life in the free world. There are no classes on how to use the internet to find a job, get services and goods, or look up information. Being paroled at an age that automatically qualifies you for Social Security when you’ve never paid into the system means that you will get the lowest amount possible. An amount that it will be impossible to live on when you have no one left to live with. Once you have lived your adult life as a ward of the state it is impossible to live any other way. I’ve seen grown men purposefully get a misconduct in order to keep from being paroled.
For me, the time I spent in prison was more of a marathon than a sprint. I kept close track of the mile markers. Four months for time served in the country jail; One month in Quarantine; Seven months in level IV- One year down and 7 to go. I worked, I read books, I walked the track and worked out as I could. I immersed myself in religious studies and the church. I set up schedules to ensure that I occupied my time. I counted the missed holidays and birthdays by writing letters home and cherishing the visits and phone calls. I learned what it was like to be lonely even when you are never alone.
I was promoted to level II having served more than six months ticket free in level IV. I might have served longer than seven months but for a chance meeting with the Resident Director who was filling in for the Unit Councilor. Level IV housing is at a premium and when he found out I had been there 7 months ticket free; I was moved the very day that the councilor got back from vacation. I packed all my worldly possessions into a duffle bag, slung it over my shoulder and carried my TV in my arms, clutching my transfer pass to level II.
I spent 2½ years in level II, with the same Bunkie, in the same cell. I was fortunate that we got along so well. From being locked down 22 hours a day or more for the last year to only being confined to my room for count time was a major change. I was able to acquire things like gym shoes and art supplies. I could spend hours outside in the fresh air. After being on the waiting list for a year I got a job as a tutor in the GED program. Time really started to speed up. I still didn’t feel like I could see the light at the end of the tunnel yet, but I felt like I was moving forward. I wouldn’t describe myself as artistic but rather as creative. I began to make my own greeting cards to send home for holidays and birthdays. Each one uniquely crafted for the recipient. The only gift that I could give to my family was to share with them my life, as strange and limited as it was. My prayers and dreams were filled with the past and the longing they expressed to have it back. From my reflections I learned how ungrateful I had been for what I had and vowed that if given the chance I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
One rainy afternoon I was called to the officer’s podium and told to pack up. My bed was needed for someone coming back from the hospital and since I had a bottom bunk detail, they couldn’t move me to a top bunk, so I was being moved to level I. I had hoped to spend at least another year in level II since everyone told me that it was far better than level I. I went from a 2-man room with my own room key to an 8-man cubical in a pole barn. I went from bright lights and a window to a dark dungeon lit but the glow of television screens. I had 4½ years left to my ERD and I found myself in gangland. Where level II was controlled by the lifers who managed to keep a lid on the violence and theft that threatened their way of life, level I was like the wild west.
I still had my job as a tutor, my library and church call outs, but the quality of life decreased significantly. It was like going back to elementary school complete with playground bullies. I found that I didn’t have as much time to reflect on my past because I was too busy watching my back. Some guys couldn’t hack it and would get misconducts just so they could get sent back to level II or rode out to some other prison hoping for greener pastures. When I reached the halfway point of my minimum sentence it wasn’t like a roller coaster reaching the peak of the first hill where the ride would get interesting real fast. I could tell you at any giving time how many months I had left. However, from the trench warfare perspective that I had at the time it didn’t fill me with hope. I still couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I turned 50 in level I. Notice I didn’t say celebrate. Turning 50 is one of those milestones that people like to celebrate. For my 40th birthday we had a party at the Toledo Mudhens stadium with my family and closest friends. I don’t think I even bothered to tell the guys that I associated with that it was my 50th birthday. I don’t remember if I had a visit on my birthday or some other day that week, my parents were very faithful about visiting me so I’m sure they came to see me then. My life goals were no longer attainable, and I had no idea what the future would hold for me. I trusted God had a plan for me. I knew that my parents were there for me and would help in any way that they could. I just had far more questions than answers.
When I reached 2 years left to my ERD I began to think about parole and what would be required of me. I had to take programming that unless it was waved could result in an automatic flop by the parole board. I took all of the self-help programming I could in the absence of the required programming. I even had the help of a consultant who worked with me to prepare for the parole interview. I put together a parole plan which listed my goals for housing, work, and successful reentry into society. That is about the time that I started paying attention to what was happening to others as they went to the parole board and received their decisions. You know what they say about plans, that they never survive contact with the enemy. What seemed like good solid plans with family support, waiting jobs and completed programming would crash and burn in an instant based on the oftentimes seemingly capricious whims of the parole board. They only provide canned language to categorize their decision that wouldn’t explain or justify why you did or didn’t get a parole. Appeals seldom if ever work to get a reconsideration.
After doing all that I could I entrusted my future into God’s hands. And with six months left to my ERD I met with the member of the parole board assigned to conduct my video conference parole hearing. Hearings generally last no longer than 30 minutes but you have to spend hours in the waiting room before it’s your turn. The suspense and anxiety were palpable in that little room crowded with others that also have no idea if today meant freedom or failure. The best you could hope for was when a guy would come back to the waiting room before being sent back to his housing unit and let you know if they thought their hearing went well or not. Parole board members are appointed by the governor to serve a specific term. While I had been in prison there had been two different governors that had made changes to the parole board. Decisions that were made during my plea bargain had been based on the recent history of the parole board at that time, but what I was facing was very different from back then. My representative was herself a prior parole board member from a decade previous and while she felt confident that the hearing had gone well, all we could do was wait. So, I waited on pins and needles to hear the decision that would tell me if the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train.
It takes about a month for three members of the parole committee to issue their decision. It comes to you either from the hand of your housing unit counselor or “under the door”. If it comes from the counselor then it is good news. If the unit officer passes it out with the mail, then it is bad news. Mine was good news and it was like I returned to my bunk by floating on a cloud. After 7½ years my nightmare was coming to an end. There was light and life at the end of the tunnel. But as they say, “it was all over except for the shooting.” Having learned that I had received my parole I wanted to shout out for joy, but I knew better. The day I got my parole somebody else got a flop, and in their anger might try to get you to lose yours. There were also guys that had a long way to go to see the parole board and might figure that getting a misconduct wouldn’t hurt them 3-5 years down the road, so they wouldn’t hesitate to harass someone who now couldn’t afford to fight back. Prison is a twisted place where a lot of inmates would rather rain on your parade than wish you well.
The advice I had gotten from an associate was to not tell anyone there that I got a parole and definitely don’t let them know your release date. So even while the burden has been lifted, I had to keep it inside. While I eagerly made plans with my family and waited for them to be approved by my parole officer, I had to continue living the same life I had been. The only difference was that the time was really flying now. Nearly 8 years of patience, perseverance, pain, and prayer came down to just a matter of weeks, then days, then hours. Believe me, I did the math and kept it current in my head. What started as out as journey that was up hill all the way was finally coming to an end. I had made it. I had reached the door. No turning back, I was going to be free at last. Well, almost, sort of free. I had to serve 2 years on parole, which is the standard in Michigan. I just figured that anywhere was better than being in prison.
I never did understand why guys would rather max out than take a parole. I think they were just afraid that they couldn’t trust themselves to follow the rules and would come back to prison due to a parole violation or catching a new case. Some guys are like that. Given their freedom that they don’t know what to do with they waste it on stupid things and go back like the 10 Israelite spies and give a negative report of the promised land. Serving a flop is tough but serving a parole violation is tougher. Michigan has an indeterminate sentencing system. Most felonies are given a minimum and maximum release date. When you get a flop, it is generally for 12-24 months. Sometimes you will get called back early for another hearing, generally because you’ve completed required programming. When you are returned to prison for a parole violation you will see the parole board and they will make a decision about how long the additional sentence will last, but no longer than the max date. If you are PV-New Bit, then you have committed a crime for which you will have to serve time for that case plus additional time for the parole violation.
Coming back to prison may either serve as a wake-up call to say, “Hay Stupid, what were you thinking?” or self-condemnation, “You are a fuck up and you got what you deserved!” How a person deals with adversity says a lot about their character. When you get knocked down do you get up or give up? Do you re-evaluate your plan and make the necessary changes or do you keep going thinking that it will somehow be different this time? Admitting mistakes is hard for a proud man and prison is full of them. Truly pride does come before a fall.
My 55th birthday was a celebration. I had completed my parole and was discharged from my sentence with the MDOC. After 10 years I could bask in the sun. My life will never be what it was before I went to prison and I don’t want it to be. I’ve moved on; I’ve grown; I’ve healed; and I’ve learned to be content. I’ve got my ministry; a new job, which might become a career; a new relationship; and my God who is faithful. That is truly a milestone.
(While I was at Central Michigan Correctional facility, I was involved with the Protestant All-Faith church and with Keryx. I was never chosen to be a leader of either group, but I was active in supporting roles. For a while I helped run sound for the church and volunteered to read scripture, pray, and give a testimony, or a meditation from time to time. In Keryx I was a small group leader and served on the inside team for several weekend spiritual retreats. Prior to that I had served as the inmate leader for the church in Level IV and as a soundman for the Level I/II church at Cotton Correctional facility.
This article came from my attempts to help when there was a sudden change of leadership because the MDOC rode out the leader and a relatively inexperienced replacement was chosen. I firmly believe that church leaders are called by God and that scripture has a lot to say about the characteristics of church leaders. Different organizations have different organizational charts, some have individual leaders listed while others rely on leadership teams. In reality they are all teams of one sort or another, since no one can do it by themselves and especially in prison where there is no guarantee that you will be there tomorrow. Continuity is a problem when there are not individuals in the church willing to help in the transition or provide support to leaders who are often placed into difficult and chaotic situations. As I have said in a previous article: Being a church leader involves the arcane art of herding cats.)
This article is also a little unusual in that it is not strictly a meditation or instructional narrative. There is also a fair amount of commentary about my experience with the prison church looking back on my time there, which ended nearly four years ago. The church in American prisons is a persecuted church. There are many in prison both inmates and staff that have no respect for the Christian faith. Those who profess faith in prison are often singled out for abuse. Like the early church or those in non-Christian countries there is a different dynamic at work. Many volunteers that come to worship with us commented on the differences they saw between the free world churches they attend/represent and the prison churches. There was a unanimous acclamation that they loved to worship with us because they could feel the movement of the Holy Spirit and the earnest faith expressed by men whose freedom was only on the inside.
Timothy was a young Christian taught the scriptures by his mother and grandmother. He traveled with the Apostle Paul on a missionary tour because the Christian brothers in his hometown spoke well of him (Acts 16:1-3). While they spent time together Paul trained Timothy for leadership. Confident in Timothy’s ability to do the job, Paul left him at Ephesus to deal with the issues of the church plant there (1 Timothy 1:3). We are blessed to have two letters written by Paul to Timothy providing tremendous insight into pastoral ministry.
Paul did not do this once, but at least twice that we know of. Paul left Titus in Crete to complete the task of organizing the church planted there (Titus 1:5). By this we can see that it is a model for preparing young Christian leaders through training in a hands-on way and then mentoring them once they have been appointed to a position.
In modern times, training for ministry has taken on formal academic methodologies in divinity schools in the western world. However, the old model established by the Apostle Paul still works in the third world church and in places such as prisons where it is practical, efficient, and necessary. While every prison has a chaplain who oversees religious programming, it doesn’t mean that he actually runs any specific faith- based programs in a Clerical sense. Prisons rely extensively on outside volunteers from the thousands of organizations from across the country and the religious spectrum to provide religious instruction to inmates. Some of these groups may provide mentoring programs for the inmate leaders of the church, however that was not the experience at the first prison where I was incarcerated. The chaplain there, who I worked with when I served as the inmate leader of the Level IV Protestant All-faith church, did not provide much in the way of guidance, let alone mentoring when it came to how I was to lead my flock. I never heard him preach at any services and do not believe that he was ordained by any faith group. At the second prison the chaplain was an ordained minister and worked with the inmate leaders, but I believe in the MDOC that this was the exception rather than the norm.
To be clear I am not referring to discipleship, I am specifically referring to leadership. Every leader should be actively involved in his own personal discipleship with other mature believers. As the mission statement for a church I attended stated: “We are to be disciples who make disciples.” Any discussion of Christian leadership must begin with the premise that those called and chosen for leadership are earnestly working out their own salvation within the body of Christ.
So, what do you do when you find yourself in a situation as a young inexperienced leader selected for a position for which you have received little training? Do you assume that based on your previous life experience and knowledge that you will be able to figure it out as you go? Do you try to model your ministry based on a TV preacher adopting the affectations and mannerisms you admire? Do you assume because you’ve been appointed as leader you must act the part by being large and in charge? We all like to think we’ve got some new, innovative, or powerful concept we’d like to implement to put our signature on the ministry to mold it to fit our vision and personality. There is no doubt that a lot of thought and prayer goes into the process; but just as there are no Lone Ranger Christians, there can be no Lone Ranger Christian leaders.
As a young leader in the church, who are the Christian brothers you are receiving mentoring and advice from? Even Billy Graham had an inner circle of prayer warriors who he often turned to for guidance. They were always free to speak their minds and faithfully held him up in prayer for every decision in the ministry. If Billy Graham would not operate without a support team, can any Christian leader believe that they don’t need one?
In Exodus, Moses literally needed the support of Aaron and Hur when the Israelites fought the Amalekites. While Moses held up his staff, the Israelites were winning the battle; but when he put his arms down, the Amalekites would start winning. Aaron and Hur made a place for Moses to sit down and then they held his tired arms up to ensure the victory (Exodus 17:8-16).
Moses couldn’t do it on his own. Moses who is listed among the great people of faith in Hebrews 11 needed help. Joshua was in the thick of the battle acting as Moses’ general. Aaron who was high priest and Hur was one of Moses’ aides had accompanied Moses up onto a mountain that overlooked the site of the battle. Aaron and Hur are the ones who diagnosed the problem and came up with the solution to Moses’ dilemma. By supporting Moses’ arms, they ensured that God’s power flowing through Moses would continue until the enemy was defeated.
Even with God’s power flowing through him Moses got tired. The same is true for any Christian leader, after all they are only human. No matter how filled with the Holy Spirit you are, you can’t do it on your own. Burn out is the top reason why many clergymen quite the ministry. Leaders need their strongest laypeople to come alongside them to support them.
These mature believers, operating out of Christian love, prior experience, and guidance from the Holy Spirit are a resource provided by God. They may be former church leaders themselves or possess a lifetime of experience sitting in the pew. These counselors, having a sense of the congregation are able to provide young leaders, especially, with insight or information they themselves may not perceive or possess. Leaders make decisions and these counselors may provide confirmation of a course of action before implementing it or suggest alternate possibilities for consideration. The counselors are not presently called to be leaders but are pillars which support leadership while living in the body.
Everyone, especially those in positions of authority need to be actively engaged in accountability relationships. They must be willing to place themselves into a situation where those who are capable can speak truth to power. These counselors must be able to pray intelligently for the leader by getting to know this person, not in a casual friendship type relationship, but in a strictly confidential, deliberate, honest, spiritual way.
Leadership tends to be an insular position, so it is not recommended that a leadership team serve exclusively as the support team for each other. Experienced members of the leadership team should be actively engaged in mentoring the new members and assist them in establishing their own support teams. This multi-layered approach should ensure that leaders remain in touch with and accountable to the church body which they oversee.
I attended a church for many years near my home where the denominational organizational chart for each congregation called for both a Pastor’s Cabinet and a Leadership team. The Pastor’s Cabinet was comprised of the elected delegates that represented the church at our annual conference. They would meet with the pastor to talk about issues facing the church and served as the team that would work with the conference superintendent when conducting a search for a new senior pastor. These people would serve for several years and would then be replaced by others voted into the position by the church membership during an annual election. The Leadership team was also elected by the church membership to serve for several years to discuss and plan for local church issues and events. There were even several other small groups such as a Worship committee that provided input on specific areas of ministry. With all of these dedicated people advising the pastor you’d think that he would have all the input necessary to make decisions, right?
One wise pastor who served there did something that many of his predecessors didn’t, he put out a call to the congregation for a prayer team. He wanted people to commit to pray for a specific member of the pastoral team. The pastors would then communicate to their prayer partners areas of specific needs both personally and in the life of the church that they needed others to lift up to the Throne of Grace. Like Billy Graham, this pastor got it. It’s not about technical, financial, or theological expertise, it is about the power of prayer. When we follow the admonition to “Be still and know” only then are we able to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Pastors and other church leaders tend to be some of the busiest people I know, and it can be a challenge for them to truly be still. Don’t assume that because they have the title and responsibility that they don’t need specific prayer support. Prison is one of the noisiest places to live. There are only a few hours of the day when it is truly quiet in the housing unit, generally in the dead of night after lights out or during count time. There are also no places where when can go to be alone. Jesus set the example of retreating to a lonely place to pray and in prison it is hard to follow that example. I would use count time, the forced periods of inactivity that happened several times each day to read the Word, meditate and pray. These regular daily times provided me with the power, clarity of thought, sense of purpose, and direction that I needed to write what became the basis for many of the articles posted to this blog. It is what allowed me to redeem my time in such an evil place.
The secular model of leadership often paints leaders as strong, decisive, charismatic, and knowledgeable in their field of expertise. That is not how the Apostle Paul described Christian leadership. Below I have listed 12 characteristics from Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. I have paraphrased them into modern language with the goal of making them practical in a prison setting.
Suggested Qualities for Leadership Team Candidates
A mature believer- knowledgeable in the Word and grounded in prayer – 1 Timothy 1:18-2:4; 2 Timothy 3:10-17.
Sensitive to the needs and concerns of the people – 1 Timothy 5:1-16
Wise enough to know when to get out of the way and let others speak – 1 Timothy 1:3-7
Always seeking to encourage and develop talent- grooming others for leadership – Titus 1:5.
Has a good reputation both inside and outside of the church – 1 Timothy 3:7.
A track record of involvement in available ministry activities; more than consistent attendance – Titus 3:14.
Humble- has a real servant leadership mentality – Titus 1:6-9.
Able to control his tongue – 1 Timothy 3:2-3.
A passion for seeking the lost and teaching those new to the faith – Titus 2
Willing to accept criticism, seek guidance, and work toward consensus as a team member – 2 Timothy 2:14-26.
Willing to place himself into relationships where he can be mentored by those more senior to him in leadership, to develop his leadership skills – 2 Timothy 1:13-14.
Willing to place himself into relationships where he can mentor those more junior to him in leadership, to develop their leadership skills – 2 Timothy 2:2-7.
There are many other characteristics that could be mentioned, but the point I’m trying to make is that God uses us whether or not we feel that we are ready, if we are willing to make ourselves available to be used as a vessel for the Holy Spirit, which is the one doing the work through us. We will make mistakes, but the best leaders are the ones who can admit their mistakes, learn from them, and continue to move forward.
The last observation I want to make is that Christian leaders have a bullseye painted on them by Satan. He works extra hard to bring down those who are in authority, because he thinks it undermines the message of the Gospel. All throughout Paul’s ministry he encountered opposition. An example is recorded in Acts 19:23-20:1 where there was a riot in the city of Ephesus, because the local silversmiths felt that Paul’s preaching of the Gospel was hurting their business of making idols of the local goddess Artemis. Paul had to leave Ephesus where he was having a tremendous ministry because of this and left Timothy to take over the ministry. Which takes us back to the beginning. A young leader finds himself in the position because the previous leader was ridden out. The very issues that the previous leader was dealing with will become your issues. Satan will come at you hard right out of the gate in order to stop you even before you’ve had a chance to get started. Paul reminded both Timothy and Titus about this in his letters. It will happen and you’ve got to be aware of it. The only protection you’ve got is prayer. James 5:16 says that “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” So, find some prayer warriors to go into battle with you because “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).
In closing I want to mention the second half of the title for this article. ‘Who is the Timothy to your Paul?’ If you are a seasoned ministry leader, who are you bringing along to lead after you’ve gone? Moses had Joshua to lead the children of Israel into the Promised land. Eli the High Priest mentored Samuel. The prophet Elijah mentored Elisha to be his successor as prophet to the nation of Israel. Jesus had the 12 disciples to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Don’t get so caught up in the daily struggles of ministry that you forget the future. Use the talents God has entrusted you with to multiply. Invest in the individuals whom God brings to you to grow and expand the ministry by teaching them the ropes and when the time comes delegating authority so that they can experience leadership while there is still someone there to guide them and answer their questions like Paul did.
(I presented this at the All-Faith Protestant Tuesday night bible study at Central Michigan Correctional Facility on March 1, 2016. The inmate leader of the church had previously called for others in the pews to step up and bring the word of God, so I did.)
The book of Jonah is found in the Old Testament near the back in a section referred to as the “Minor Prophets.” These books are called minor, not because they are unimportant, but rather because the ministry of the prophet was often of short duration and their impact on the nation of Israel was less than the major prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel. Often little is known of the lives of the minor prophets, but their messages from God to the people of Israel and the surrounding countries warning of God’s coming judgment were both timely and true.
The book of Jonah is a little different. Jonah was a prophet to the northern kingdom around the time of Jeroboam II, who reigned 41 years from 793-753 B.C. Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 regarding a prophecy he spoke about the king recapturing territory, to restore the boundaries of the kingdom. But the book of Jonah does not contain this prophecy. In fact, it contains only one prophecy that is eight words long in the English translation, regarding the capital city of the country of Assyria.
The book of Jonah instead focuses on the prophet himself, and his response to God when he received his commission. Unlike most of the prophecies that God gave to the prophets to speak to foreign nations, God wanted Jonah to go and deliver it in person, rather than send a letter. Jonah who was already serving as a prophet, was now being called as a missionary. But Jonah, a man who had a relationship with God, who heard His voice and saw God work was now being asked to step outside his comfort zone. I believe that the book of Jonah is real, that all the miraculous events recorded in it really happened, even it they can’t readily be explained. And that many Christians today can relate to Jonah because they see themselves in this man of God who lived nearly 3000 years ago. What I would like to do is read to you the book, only 48 verses long, and along the way share with you my observations and insights about the Christian life from it. The book of Jonah isn’t about an ideal or perfect man that is setting up some impossible standard, instead it is about how God can use a man to do great things in spite of his imperfections, rebellion, and selfish desires. I’ll be reading from the NIV, beginning in chapter 1 verses 1 through 3:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because it’s wickedness has come up before me.’
But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port.”
Nineveh was one of the ancient capitals first mentioned in Genesis 10:11. Later it became the capital of the Assyrian empire. Modern archaeology has confirmed how cruel and brutal the Assyrians were. Documents and paintings discovered in the ruins of Nineveh detail how one king would torture his victims by tearing off their lips and hands, and how another flayed captives alive and made great piles of their skulls. They were a war-like people set on conquest during the time of Jonah. They had warred against Israel during the reign of King Hoshea, capturing the country and deporting some of the people to Assyria and both Jehu and Jeroboam II paid tribute as vassal states.
So, Jonah was familiar with the Assyrians and when God called him to go to Nineveh, he did what many of us would have done. He went running in the other direction as fast as he could. Nineveh was about 500 miles northeast of Israel. But Jonah went to Joppa, the nearest seaport on the Mediterranean Sea with the intention of sailing to Tarshish, which was a trading outpost in Spain, about 2000 miles away.
How many when faced with what we believe to be a dangerous or unpleasant task have tried to get out of it? Jonah didn’t bother to argue with God like Moses did saying send someone else, or that he didn’t have the necessary language or skill set. Instead he tried to run from God. How many of us have tried to run from God? I know I have. There was a time in my life when I was afraid God was calling me to the mission field, so I ran the other way. I choose a secular profession, got married, and stayed busy. However, because of my disobedience to God, the spiritual power and fervor for the Lord diminished in my life. Picking up in verses 3 through 6:
“After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to breakup. All the sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, ‘How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.’”
Jonah thought he was through with God. In fleeing from God, he thought he could avoid his call as a missionary. But you can’t run from God. Psalms 139:7-10 says, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” Jonah should have known this. I believed he panicked, his fight or flight reflex kicked in and he chose to flee. But it is a long walk to Joppa, and he would have had more than enough time to think it through. So, it became a deliberate act of disobedience to continue and buy his ticket, get on the boat and sail away.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Don’t we do the same thing? Sometimes we run, sometimes we get angry and dig in our heals on some subject that in the grand scheme of things is relatively minor, but we chose to make a big deal out of it, like it is the end of the world. Sometimes we slow down or cool off, think better of it, and do what God asks, and other times we keep on going, stubbornly refusing to obey.
But the story doesn’t end there, God wasn’t through with Jonah. God loves his children too much to leave them the way they are, in their disobedience and sin. Proverbs 3:11-12 says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”God permits adversity to come into our lives to get our attention and call us back into obedience, to serve as a wake-up call. How many of you have experienced difficulties in life because of disobedience? Since we’re all here, we all have. How many of you have taken this experience as a wake-up call? I hope you all have. Moving on to verse 7 through 10:
“Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.’ They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.
So, they asked him, ‘Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?’
He answered, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’
This terrified them and they asked, ‘What have you done?’ (They knew he was running away from the Lord because he had already told them so.)”
Now this would have been an experienced captain and crew to be undertaking a long sea voyage and would have no doubt been familiar with the weather in the Mediterranean Sea. But this was a supernatural storm that God sent for Jonah’s benefit. The sailors did the routine storm survival activities; dropped the sail, let out the anchors, and lightened the load, but it obviously wasn’t enough. They were truly afraid for their lives.
It’s true what they say, ‘there are no atheists in fox holes.’ When faced with serious life and death situations men will call on their gods. They call on the gods they know, in the ways they know how. Sailors are not known to be a deeply religious bunch and the same was true 3000 years ago. Each man called on any god he knew from his childhood, in the hope that one of them would listen and save them. The method of determining the will of the gods was to cast lots, today we would roll the dice or draw straws.
How often do people seek to find someone else to blame for the problems they face? But a Christian needs to take responsibility. Jonah didn’t deny who he was. When confronted he didn’t do like Peter and deny Christ. In our lives, even when we have disobeyed God’s direction for our lives, do we acknowledge our relationship with God and the reason for the adversity we face? Picking up in verses 11 through 16:
“The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So, they asked him, ‘What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?’
‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea,’ he replied, ‘and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’
Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased.’ Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to Him.”
Rather than jump overboard and commit suicide Jonah had the sailors throw him overboard. Jonah knew the storm would calm and thereby save everyone else by his sacrifice. Christians will often sacrifice themselves to save others and this selfless act can bring glory to God. And verse 17 says:
“But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”
G.K. Chesterton said, “the incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.” While Jonah may have thought it was the end, it was only the beginning of a second chance. The timing was perfect, God placed the great fish in the right place at the right time to rescue Jonah. It may be baseless speculation on my part, but I believe that if Jonah had not taken responsibility and acknowledged his disobedience, the story would have ended right here with Jonah drowning. Many people who have once served God have died unrepentant and unreconciled to Him because they didn’t accept the Lord’s discipline. Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
In my own life I have learned that when I accept the Lord’s discipline, even during the storm I experience the peace that surpasses all understanding. His grace and mercy return and once again I can live life with power.
Note that each chapter in this short book represents a different scene with Jonah experiencing different situations which bring out different emotions, different aspects of his character and different spiritual conditions. This is the same thing that we as Christians experience in our own journey through life. Some situations bring out the best in us while others bring out the worst. We are works in progress, don’t think for a moment that we have reached perfection, but rather we are being perfected by God as He works in us and through us.
From the inside of the fish, Jonah prayed to the Lord God in Chapter 2 verses 1 through 9:
“’In my distress I called to the Lord and He answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help and You listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight, yet I will look again toward your holy temple. The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you Lord, and my prayer rose up to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
The only thing recorded about the time Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish is a prayer. A prayer of Thanksgiving that sounds an awful lot like the Psalms that David prayed when he was in trouble and fearing for his life. Jonah acknowledged his situation, but rather than ask God to rescue him from the newest disaster he thanked God for saving him from the sea and renewed his commitment to serve God.
Going through trials is one of the best schools of prayer. When faced with dire need many Christians call on the Lord with truly profound prayers. Helplessness not hopelessness leads to complete dependence upon God. So don’t despair, state the facts of your condition and steadfastly cling to your faith in God and trust in Him by obediently submitting to His call and let God bring about the miracle because He can do more than we ask or even imagine. And verse 10 says:
“And the Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”
God is large and in charge! If He can tell a fish where to go, when to be there, and what to do then He can, in his perfect timing rescue you from your trouble and open the door and set you free, when we have fully submitted to Him. Scripture doesn’t tell us where the great fish dropped Jonah off along the cost. I have visions of a stunned Jonah standing there soaking wet on the beach probably smelling like dead fish, looking back out to sea searching for any sight of the great fish, then looking up to heaven for a sign. Can you imagine how really confused the first person that he meets would be when he asks them where he is, and Jonah then tries to explain what has happened to him?
Scripture also doesn’t say how much time if any passes between chapters 2 and 3. Continuing on in chapter 3 verses 1 and 2:
“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I gave you.’”
Our God is the God of second chances. When we stumble and fall, we get back up by the grace of God. He doesn’t say, “My bad, I gave you more than you can handle. Let’s try something else.” No, he calls us back to service because he has faith in us. He will never give us more than we can bear. Moving on to verses 3 through 5:
“Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city- a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city and he proclaimed, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’ The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast and all of them from the greatest to the least put on sackcloth.”
Nineveh was a large city the walls of the ancient city were 7 3/4 miles around. The population was approximately 600,000 or more, and the greater metropolitan area was 30-60 miles across. The people of Assyria were a superstitious people who believed in magic and looked for signs and wonders to predict the future. Dagon was one of the ancient Assyrian gods who was part man and part fish. What better divinely sent messenger than a man who had been thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish? So, when this foreign prophet shows up with a message of disaster, the news spread like wildfire throughout the city. And the people believed.
Jonah didn’t have to set up a big tent and hold revival meetings every night for a month, with an alter call, singing endless verses of “I Surrender All.” He simply spoke to the people he encountered the message God gave him and God did the rest. Going on to verses 6 through 9:
“When the news reached the king of Nineveh he arose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation to Nineveh:
By decree of the king and his nobles: ‘Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let every man and beast be covered in sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish?’”
The Assyrian king was also the chief priest of their religion, so when he called a fast it had the effect of being law. In the archaeological records of Persia there was recorded a funeral for a general in the army where all the horses were covered in sackcloth. Sackcloth was the way people showed that they were in mourning. Even today, in a military funeral for the president of the United States, the horses drawing the carriage with the casket will have a blanket covering their backs, which represents sackcloth.
So, when the king and people put on sackcloth, they were humbling themselves and acknowledging their condition. Notice that the king commanded the people to urgently call on God. Jonah told them exactly how long they had before God would destroy them. I imagine that on the second day of Jonah’s visit he would have said, “only 39 more days!” The clock was ticking. And the king and his people repented. Verse 10 says it all:
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”
True repentance results in salvation. God’s word never returns empty. Isaiah 55:10-11 says, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth. It will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”All we must do is speak the words of the message God wants us to deliver and He will take care of the rest.
There was a period of over 100 years between Jonah’s time and that of Nahum who prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in 612 B.C. Conversion is always an individual decision and never inherited. While Jonah’s generation turned to the true God, that didn’t mean that their successors could not fall back into idolatry. Just look at the history of the Israelite kings.
Ending the story here would have a happy ending for all concerned, but there is still one more chapter to consider and the real point of the book. Chapter 4 verse 1 says:
“But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.”
Even after all he had been through, seen the mighty miracles God performed to save his life, had experienced God’s grace and mercy for himself, Jonah got upset with God. Why? Because he lacked compassion and harbored bitterness in his heart. Remember the Assyrians had attacked Israel, dragged off some of the people as captives and imposed a tribute on the Israelite kings who would have raised the money to pay it by raising taxes, which made life difficult for the common man. Most people love to see their enemies get what they deserve. But God spared Nineveh because by heeding the warning, the city qualified for mercy. Continuing in verses 2 through 4:
“He prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I know that you are a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love; a God who relents from sending calamity. Now O, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
But the Lord replied, ‘Have you any right to be angry?’”
Have any of you ever prayed an angry prayer to God? When you compare this prayer to the prayer in chapter 2, you’d think it was a different person. What happened to the beautiful language? The humility? The reverence? The acceptance of God’s will? Instead there is self-justification, accusation, and demands that are clearly not within the will of God.
How could the prophet who had just been a part of one of the greatest revivals in history be so disappointed that he would rather die than live? How could Jonah fail to be happy? How many of us today try to justify themselves before God? We know the truth, but we just don’t get it. We argue with God, demanding our own way even when we know it is contrary to the will of God.
As with many of us today, Jonah lacked peace, because although he obeyed God, he was not wholly reconciled to the will of God. True Peace comes only from full submission to and acceptance of the will of God in everything. Nothing saps spiritual activity more effectively than hidden rebellion against the divine will.
Consider a parallel from the life of Elijah. After his tremendous victory over the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18, the great prophet ran away from Jezebel, the evil queen. In 1 Kings 19:4 he prayed to God to end his life. How can Elijah go from seeing the power of God work in such a miraculous way as to send down fire from heaven to consume a water logged sacrifice, and then being filled with the spirit of God, kill all the priests of Baal, to such despair over a death threat from the king’s wife that he tells God to take his life? To go from a spiritual high to a spiritual low in a matter of a few minutes. How does this happen? Because we are human.
As Christians we are not to let our emotions rule us. We are to take captive every thought and make it obedient to God. To walk by faith and not by sight. To crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. To put off the old man and put on the new man in true righteousness and holiness. We don’t have the right to be angry with God, we can’t presume to judge God and his motives. Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thought.’”
When God responded to Jonah it’s a lot like when he responded to Job in Job 40 when God asks, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?” Job’s response in chapter 42:1-6 is the response that we as Christians should make. “Then Job replied to the Lord, ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You ask ‘Who is this that observes my council without knowledge? Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you and you shall answer me. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
But what did Jonah do? Verses 5 through 8:
“Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’”
Jonah was like many of us. He was stubborn and prideful and let his anger get the best of him. He pulled up a front row seat to watch the destruction of Nineveh. He pitched a tent on the east side of town, so he was facing west. He would have had morning shade, but full sun during the hottest part of the afternoon. You ever notice that when you’re angry you don’t make the best decisions? It’s like he’s throwing a temper tantrum trying to coerce a parent into doing what he wants. But God doesn’t give in to his demands, instead he provides Jonah with another teachable moment. He grew a plant to provide shade from the hot afternoon sun and it made Jonah incredibly happy. But then just as quickly God took the shade away and Jonah gets angry again. An emotional roller coaster and again tells God he just wants to die. First, because God didn’t destroy Nineveh, now because he lost his shade, just a downward spiral of emotions.
Compare this to how Job handled all the adversity that came into his life. In Job 1:21 Job said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” If anything, Job’s wife responded to adversity more like Jonah when she said in Job 2:9, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” And Job’s response was, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” So which character are you? Are you a Job or a Jonah? Do you handle adversity well or are you an emotional basket case? I know which one we are called to be, God wants us to be men of integrity like Job.
Concluding chapter 4 verses 9 through 11:
“But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?’
‘I do’ he said. ‘I am angry enough to die.’
But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about the vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up over night and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who can not tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Shall I not be concerned about that great city?’”
How many of you have received an unexpected blessing only to lose it shortly afterwards? Something that you got that you didn’t have to work for, but it was stolen or taken away? Did it make you mad to lose it? I bet it did. It didn’t cost you anything to get it, so why are you so upset? We grow attached to things very quickly don’t we? We value things that cost us nothing. God’s object lesson to Jonah is about what has more value from the kingdom perspective – the shade plant or the city with 120,000 children in it. Jonah walked through the city, he interacted with the inhabitants, he saw the repentance that took place. A repentance that far exceeded anything ever done in Israel, and yet he was unmoved.
In Luke 19:41 as Jesus was approaching Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it says he wept over it. He had compassions for the people who were shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” and Jesus knew a week later they would be shouting “Crucify Him!” And yet Jesus was willing to die for them. Jesus knew his Father’s will and acknowledged it by saying “Thy will be done.” It wasn’t easy. The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane spoke of his anguish, his earnest prayer, how his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Jesus was more than obedient to the Father’s will. He not only accepted it, he gave everything he had to see it carried out, and in the end said, “It is finished.”
That is what we are called to, nothing less, obedience is only the first step. Don’t be like Jonah who tried to avoid the call on his life and then only did his job grudgingly. We need to be men of integrity, accepting what the Lord gives us and completely surrendering to the will of God. Then you will have peace, then you will have power, then you will have wisdom and knowledge. Then you will hear “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
We thank you for your Word, for the Truth that it contains. You have called us to be obedient and because of your love, grace, and mercy we want to be obedient. But as we’ve seen in the book of Jonah, that is not enough. We not only need to accept your will Father but work to see your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. To accomplish this, help us to surrender our foolish pride, our personal agendas, our right to retribution against our enemies, and instead have compassion, as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ had compassion.
Forgive us Father, for our disobedience, help us to say “Yes Lord” the next time you call us into ministry. Through the power of the Holy Spirit lead us deeper into relationship with you, to trust you more, to not rely on our own understanding, but to walk by faith. We acknowledge the discipline you have sent into our lives we accept it and commit ourselves to learn from it and not despise it.
Lord, plant these lessons from the life of Jonah into our hearts and minds to encourage us to speak boldly the message you would have us speak, to get ourselves out of the way and praise you when it returns a harvest of righteousness and salvation.
During the Corona virus pandemic many states, including my home state of Michigan, have issued some form of Stay Home order for the general public and specifically request that people with Covid-19 or think they may have been exposed to it, to self-quarantine for some period of time. When this first started, the news was full of dire warnings and bleak statistics as the virus spread far and wide throughout the world. Over time as the news started to become more hopeful sounding with signs of flattening the curve and progress toward a vaccine and effective treatments the natives, as they say, are becoming restless.
The federal and state governments have been working, sometimes together and sometimes at odds to manage the crisis. Everything from trying to ensure that there is enough PPE for first responders to sufficient hospital beds and ventilators for the critically ill to emergency economic funds to help out individuals and business are being organized, implemented and communicated to the people to ensure the wellbeing of our nation. Not everything has gone smoothly. Mistakes have been made. With this novel coronavirus much is still to be learned about methods of transmission, who is at greatest risk and how best to protect them. Information, opinion and fake news has come from many sources to cloud the issues, second guess the experts and mislead the public about every aspect of this situation. People following the verbal ramblings of the president and other charlatans have tried unproven and dangerous treatments, which have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths.
Every day there is more bad news about the economy, job losses, and the effect that the shutdown is having on businesses and individuals. The difficulties of finding basic supplies like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies coupled with social distancing requirements have made shopping a chore. Add to this the boredom that comes from running out of projects to work on and having caught up on sleep and your favorite television programs. The insanity of trying to work from home while home schooling the kids and worrying about friends and loved ones. These difficulties combined with the improving weather of spring and the social tendencies of our species have turned the occasional grumble regarding the inconvenience of the whole situation into a growing chorus of displeasure. Often the focus of this complaining is the very government which was elected to handle these types of situations if/when they occur.
Protests have been organized across the country by those who think that government has overstepped its authority by temporarily closing businesses, banning public/private gatherings, and limiting freedoms that the protesters hold near and dear. Social media outlets have been asked to police themselves regarding event notices that might be encouraging activities that are illegal during this period of declared state and national emergency. Protesters waving flags of various origins, toting assault rifles, and flaunting the social distancing advisories march in the streets exercising their rights of assembly, free-speech, and to bear arms. As the SNL skit about Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s response to the protests in Lansing said, “It’s live free or die, not live free and die.” What does open carry of assault rifles have to do with Covid-19? As one pundit said, “You can’t shoot the virus.” Any display of force is by its very nature coercive and there is no place for it in a democracy.
As with any crisis there are people trying to take advantage of the situation. While the number of major crimes decreased during the initial weeks of the pandemic those numbers are increasing again, especially as thieves target closed stores. Police departments like most first responders have been hit hard by the virus and many officers are either sick or in quarantine. This puts a strain on the police to maintain patrols in areas of high crime and respond to calls for aid by those experiencing the life-threatening symptoms of Covid-19. Police chiefs from the across the country are seen nightly on the news pleading for people to stay home, obey traffic laws, and behave themselves, sometimes to no avail.
On television the trend for talk shows is for the personalities to do their shows from home. The late-night comedians spend their time lampooning the president, life in quarantine, and the idiots who have earned their 60 seconds of infamy. The daytime shows continue to pander to celebrity, as if those who can most afford not to work can really relate to those who can’t even file for unemployment due to the overwhelming number of people applying. The poster child for this may be Ellen DeGeneres. She made a joke on her first show back after 3 weeks off that those of us who have been there found to be in unbelievably bad taste. She compared coronavirus self-isolation to being in jail. “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days, and everyone here is gay.” She has a beautiful, spacious mansion in sunny southern California, with her own green space. Social distancing is not a problem, she hosts her show from her comfy chair and her guests are all virtual.
The real situation in jails and prisons across America is slowly being revealed by investigative journalists following up on first and secondhand accounts of what life behinds bars is currently like. Every day I read at least a half a dozen articles from the Marshall Project, the New York Times, Huffington Post, USA Today, Detroit News and Free Press, The Atlantic, and the LA Times just to name a few, that clearly show that neither Ellen nor any other person not currently incarcerated live under conditions even remotely similar to those found in even the best jail. The picture that these articles paint is very bleak. Our correctional institutions were not prepared for coronavirus. Not only that but the system which they are a part of has failed to respond in a timely manner to things like the implementation of CDC guidelines on the control of infectious disease, governmental and court ordered population reduction strategies, and conducting sufficient testing to determine the true scope of infection.
Infection rates in some facilities now exceed 50% of the inmate population. In some regions, the jail or prison is the hot spot responsible for the spread of Covid-19 throughout the community at large, because of the infection rates among correction officers and staff. Prisons are typically not located in large metropolitan areas with access to hospitals capable of handling more than a few intensive care patients. The result is that inmates are filling up the ICU so that people from the community must go elsewhere. The notorious prison medical system has exacerbated the situation through callus and unsympathetic care that has resulted in the deaths of prisoners in their cells, which they claim never reported any symptoms to staff. Inmates report that medical staff do not change gloves between patients; sick inmates are not segregated from the general population immediately; and inmates with mild to moderate symptoms are told to suck it up and sent back to their cells without medications to ease their discomfort.
Attempts by the MDOC to quarantine sick/recovering inmates by setting up quarantine units in several prisons to isolate them from the general population has resulted in the spreading of Covid-19 from one prison to another which had previously been virus free. The only staff overlap between the quarantine units and the rest of the compound was the medical staff. There have also been reports that inmates working as cleaning porters have been forced to clean up after infected inmates without any PPE. The spokes person for the MDOC has repeatedly denied allegations regarding conditions inside of prisons, the same as they have for every other inmate’s complain. The response as always is that the inmates are lying and that the MDOC has everything under control. This time he will have a harder time explaining the body count.
Ohio is the only state so far that claims to be testing all its prisoners at all its facilities. Michigan to date has completed testing at one facility and is now conducting comprehensive testing at a second facility. This however does not include the correction officers or staff. At other facilities only those inmates who meet certain criteria are tested. Since this virus presents itself with such a wide range of symptoms and levels of severity, including asymptomatic infections; only complete testing of inmates and staff can identify the true number of cases. Given the scarcity of test kits available, it is not surprising that more testing has not been conducted. Unfortunately, prisoners comprise one of the most vulnerable populations alongside nursing homes and should be a priority.
Compared to the “real world” prison is a place where reality: including things like common sense, empathy, manners, personal hygiene, health care, personal space, and access to PPE is extremely limited or non-existent. ICE detainees have gone on hunger strikes for more soap and toilet paper. The federal Bureau of Prisons failed to follow the Justice Departments mandate to reduce prison populations by sending thousands of eligible prisoners home to serve out the remainder of their sentences under house arrest. Juvenile detention facilities likewise have been slow to release minors who have been deemed to pose no threat to society. Advocacy groups have been bailing out people who couldn’t afford bail and have been in jails awaiting trials, which have been postponed because the courts have significantly reduced case loads while conducting hearings remotely. In some states, even after prisons and jails went into quarantine mode, inmates were sent out on work assignments where they risked either catching the virus or spreading the virus into the community. For example, until just a few days ago inmates from the Rikers Island jail in New York were used to dig graves in a cemetery for the city’s poor.
Directions to inmates from the MDOC regarding how to protect themselves from the coronavirus have been described as confusing, contradictory, inadequate and/or misleading. The MDOC instructed MSI, its prison factory service to begin producing cloth face masks for staff and inmates. It then began to issue 3 masks each to inmates with directions to wear them whenever they leave their cells, but only at facilities which have had a positive case diagnosed. Even after the pandemic was known to be circulating in prisons, inmates are still being released on parole or probation without being tested to see if they are infected or being instructed to self-isolate for 14 days. Inmates being paroled can’t find access to critical services that are usually provided by governmental or non-profit agencies to get started in their community placement.
In March when the first signs of community spread of the virus were reported, the MDOC like most other jails and prison systems closed their visiting rooms and banned outside volunteers and program instructors from entering the facility. Internal programs like GED or mandatory programing continue with fewer inmates allowed to attend each class. Fewer inmates where allowed to go to chow at one time to promote social distancing. In the level 1 facility where I was housed, in the chow hall we had 4-man tables which barely had enough room for 4 trays. Even cutting the seating in half leaves you eating face to face with another person. In some places where the infection rates are highest the chow halls have now been closed and the food is delivered to the inmates in their cells.
To allow inmates to communicate with their family and friends prison phone companies like Global Tel Link are providing weekly free 5-minute calls to inmates. Email services like JPay have given inmates free electronic stamps to allow them to write home using the kiosk located in the housing units. This sounds like a nice gesture from companies who have made millions of dollars from selling overpriced services to inmates for years. The reality is that phones and kiosks are used by dozens of inmates daily and the limitation on the types of cleaning/disinfectant products allowed means that inmates who uses these devices put themselves at risk. Sanitizers and cleaning products containing 60% ethanol, or 70% isopropyl alcohol have been shown to be the most effective against the coronavirus however, only dilute bleach is allowed. The old technique of putting a sock over the phone may not protect you from contracting the coronavirus when you put the handset to your face.
Approximately 95% of all inmates in the US will be released back into society when they complete their sentence. Unfortunately, Covid-19 does not discriminate in who it infects. There have been numerous tragic stories reported in the news of inmates within days, weeks or months of being released who have contracted the virus and died. One of the saddest was the case of a women in jail who gave birth while on a ventilator and later died without ever getting to know her child. Another involved a man who had been incarcerated 44 years. He was convicted of murder at age 16. He had turned down parole earlier in the year, intending to ‘max out’ his sentence and leave prison a free man. Having reconsidered that decision after the pandemic started, he was scheduled to be paroled in a matter of weeks when he passed away from the virus. Technical parole violators who have been sent to jail or returned to prison have gotten sick and died.
Jails and prisons are like petri dishes which culture microorganisms. Even in the best of times they are unsanitary places full of unhygienic people. When I was in jail awaiting my court hearings there was no warm/hot water available in my cell, only cold water from the sink and shower. The soap provided was so poor that it did not foam or suds making it difficult to wash after using the bathroom or before meals. Very few people are incarcerated in single-man cells, most are crowded into dormitories with a hundred other people. Social distancing is just not an option so when one gets sick, many get sick. Getting a cold or the flu in prison is miserable, getting Covid-19 for many could be a death sentence. Knowing this, the level of fear among inmates is running extremely high.
Incarceration is a stressful situation in the best of times, now it is nearly at panic levels. Around the world and even in the US there have been prison riots over fears about Covid-19 and what it could do inside the walls. Video from a cell phone that had been smuggled into the Wayne County jail in Detroit showed inmates with their tee-shirts pulled up like masks over their faces pleading for help. Pictures of the Cook County jail showed a window with a message spelled out in toilet paper calling for help. In addition to the non-profit organizations that were bailing people out of jail, others have begun to supply soap free of charge to inmates that were not getting it otherwise. While gestures like this are appreciated, they do not address the underlying issues that are putting so many people at risk.
Since the early 2000s prison populations in many, but not all states, have been slowly but steadily decreasing. Violent crime rates with a few exceptions have also been decreasing during this time according to FBI statistics. According to a recent report from the MDOC the prisoner population in 2019 was at 96.9% of capacity. There was also a reduction of 445 beds due to prison closings that resulted from the decrease in population. What they are not telling you is that the current prison capacity is double of what they were originally designed for. I was in two different prisons with level 1 pole barns that had originally been equipped for 80 men. There were 4 men assigned to each cubical. Now there are 160 men in the housing unit and 8 men to a cube. When I was in level 2 and level 4 the cells were two-man rooms. While level 2 was designed that way, level 4 was not, they were supposed to be one-man cells with their own toilet and sink. Instead of addressing the overcrowding issue by keeping prisons open with fewer inmates the MDOC decided to maintain few prisons in order to offset cost increases while keeping its $2 Billion budget flat.
It is not a case of Monday morning quarterbacking to say that this was a fatal mistake. Many people have been speaking out about this problem for years, yet the MDOC ignored the warning signs such as outbreaks of norovirus that have resulted in prisons being quarantined on a regular basis. The sad thing is that unlike the Flint water crisis there will be no Attorney General investigation, no one will lose their jobs, and no one will be held responsible for the criminal negligence that has led to the unnecessary loss of life that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
Having said all of this, I hope I have made my point that self-isolation at home is not like being in jail.