Visiting with Jesus in Prison
On Holy Saturday morning, I drove the 150 miles to Houston to the Vance prison unit where approximately two hundred prisoners, staff, volunteers, and a handful of dignitaries attended a pre-Easter worship service. The prisoners in attendance were part of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) program that Prison Fellowship runs in eight facilities across six states.
IFI is a spiritual boot-camp, with a schedule that engages prisoners from dawn to dusk and into the night in educational classes, character reformation therapies, and Christian instruction. It’s strictly voluntary and spans the last two years of a prisoner’s sentence, preparing him for release.
IFI radically reduces re-arrest rates among its graduates, as shown by a University of Pennsylvania study. And while doubters like Slate’s Mark A.R. Kleiman accuse the study of cherry-picking the data, those who graduate undoubtedly do far better than their peers, whether one accounts for this on natural or supernatural grounds. Certainly, the program itself wouldn’t exist apart from Christian service and charitable giving.
I wanted to attend the pre-Easter service for two main reasons: I had already written about it in one of my books with Charles Colson, The Good Life, although I had never visited; and Chuck was going to be preaching. He’s done a lot for me over the past twenty-five years and I wanted to show how much I appreciate and value the ministry he founded.
The prison worship service followed the usual evangelical pattern of our day, with rousing praise songs at the top. In this case the “praise team” didn’t consist of women with frosted hair and nasal-voiced Michael W. Smith imitators, but a line of big—and I mean really big—tattooed men in white prison uniforms. They set the place rockin’, while middle-aged, white boys like me tried desperately to locate our funk bones and make an acceptable show of boogeying-in-place.
The last number moved me in a real way—that is, emotionally, as the men sang, “Mary, did you know?” I had only heard this song previously from young women soloists, who often made it sound more like a testament to their own soulfulness than Mary’s painful wonder; but now, gathering its force in a baritone register, it captured the sorrowful ambivalence of the pieta.
Mary, did you know…
This child that you’ve delivered
Will soon deliver you
In the men’s voices I seemed to hear how they were being delivered from the violence that had shaped their lives and gentled by love into true strength of character.
Still, redemption—working out one’s salvation—remains a hard business. My visit opened my eyes to depths of misery I’ve rarely even thought about.
The Carol Vance prison unit ain’t a country-club, for starters. The cell blocks are narrow and dominated by iron bars on every hand. There’s nothing like the open dormitory, educational-facility feel of more recently built prisons.
Many of the inmates in the IFI program have a long climb just in acquiring rudimentary skills and coping abilities. To qualify for the program inmates have to be literate. But many are barely so, reading at a 2nd or 3rd grade level. To graduate from the program participants are expected to pass a GED exam. Imagine trying to cram grammar to high school into 24 months.
While I was there I visited a “Toastmasters” class demonstration. Prisoners learn to give short speeches and respond to the speeches of classmates with constructive criticism. In this way the men learn how to present themselves and respond thoughtfully in a business setting. The chosen speaker for the demonstration gave a very short and very stiff speech, but I could tell how hard he had worked at it. In fact, the effort must have nearly wrung the life out of him, which I confirmed when I shook his hand and found it as cold and clammy as mine are when I’m scared to death.
I also saw a walk-in closet-sized recording studio. There fathers read out children’s books like Good Night Moon and send audio CDs to their kids. In this and other ways IFI prepares for the reunification of families, allowing a man’s children to hear the voice of a father they might not otherwise remember or even know.
Leaving the facility I felt grateful and also powerfully sobered. What would it be like to function without an education, with few social skills, and estranged from one’s family? What if I couldn’t walk into a business meeting and conduct an easy conversation? That’s not a skill—that’s like breathing. But of course it is a skill and one only those with many advantages take for granted. After the visit I could much better gauge just how far down down-and-out can be.
On the drive home I began thinking. I thought about the Cross, Christ pouring out his blood for us. And I thought about a reference in Scripture that’s mostly associated with Christmas, how the Savior will be known as Emanuel, God-with-us. And I realized that the greatest assurance that God is with us consists in God being with us on the Cross. Wherever it is that we’re dying, God is with us. Whether it’s being deformed by lives of violence or ill-equipped to handle the day-to-day or stricken by illness and catastrophe—that’s where God is with us. God is with us wherever and whenever life produces the nails and starts pounding.
Prison Fellowship workers give flesh to this belief in the Vance prison unit and thousands of other prisons across the world. They descend into those unhappy and often hellish places in obedience to the Christ who was himself obedient to the point of death. In this way they and those they serve share in Christ’s resurrected life.
I arrived home in good time, well before the Easter vigil. That night, as the church lay in darkness, before the lighting of the “new” or “sacred fire,” I realized I had made a visit to one of Jesus’ tombs—just the right thing for a Holy Saturday.