Man of the Tombs

From time to time I’ve met with men in jail or prison who have had struggles with mental illness — depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia. Probably six years of my weekly visits were with men who heard voices. Some chose medication to help them deal with it, others did not.

At times I’ve met with men who were having  a major mental health crisis. In those times I am keenly aware of my own inadequacy.

  • I can listen
  • I can speak words of comfort
  • I can pray
  • I can let the staff know if someone is expressing thoughts of harming themselves


But ultimately my own abilities are quite limited. These interactions can be quite unsettling. At times like that I take comfort in the song lyrics written by Bob Bennett.

I invite you to read through the lyrics and think of the men and women who are incarcerated and struggle with mental illness.


Words & Music: Bob Bennett, © 1989 Matters Of The Heart Music (ASCAP)
Man of the tombs
He lives in a place where no one goes
And he tears at himself
And lives with a pain that no one knows
He counts himself dead among the living
He knows no mercy and no forgiving
Deep in the night he’s driven to cry out loud
Can you hear him cry out loud?
Man of the tombs
Possessed by an unseen enemy
He breaks every chain
And mistakes his freedom for being free
Shame and shamelessness equally there
Like a random toss of a coin in the air
Man of the tombs, he’s driven to cry out loud
Underneath this thing that I’ve become
A fading memory of flesh and blood
I curse the womb, I bless the grave
I’ve lost my heart, I cannot be saved
Like those who fear me, I’m afraid
Like those I’ve hurt, I can feel pain
Naked now before my sin
And these stones that cut against my skin
Some try to touch me, but no one can
For man of the tombs I am
Down at the shoreline
Two sets of footprints meet
One voice is screaming
Other voice begins to speak
In only a moment and only a word
The evil departs like a thundering herd
Man of the tombs, he hears this cry out loud
Underneath this thing that you’ve become
I see a man of flesh and blood
I give you life beyond the grave
I heal your heart, I come to save
No need to fear, be not afraid
This Man of Sorrows knows your pain
I come to take away your sin
And bear it’s marks upon My skin
When no one can touch you, still I can
For Son of God I am
Dressed now and seated
Clean in spirit and healthy of mind
Man of the tombs
He begs to follow, but must stay behind
He’ll return to has family with stories to tell
Of mercy and madness, of heaven and hell
Man of the tombs, soon he will cry out loud
Underneath this thing that I once was
Now I’m a man of flesh and blood
I have a life beyond the grave
I found my heart, I can now be saved
No need to fear, I am not afraid
This Man of sorrows took my pain
He comes to take away our sin
And bear it’s marks upon His skin
I’m telling you this story because
Man of the tombs I was

Bring You Back from Captivity

As I mentioned earlier, the format has changed in maximum security. I now meet with the men one-on-one instead of in groups. Even in this setting the men will be in handcuffs locked to a waist-chain.


In order to protect their privacy I will do less blogging; and when I do write it will be composites of discussions over a period of time rather than weekly discussions with individuals.


This is the scripture I’ve been sharing recently, written to a people in captivity. Consider if you were incarcerated, what would it be like to read these words?

Jeremiah 29:11-14a (NIV)

11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity….”

How would it be read by someone in jail who is getting released to a drug treatment program in a few weeks?

How would it be read by the man who has never been to prison, but has just now been sentenced?

How would it be read by the man is going back to prison, but this time as a lifer – life without parole?



Scriptures and Shackles

Scriptures and Shackles

There have been some changes in the maximum-security unit. The population has now been split between two similar units.


I went to the first unit and was glad to see two of the COs (correctional officers) that I’ve known since I first started volunteering at the jail. They know the processes for handling a population like the guys in max, and they understand that de-escalating a situation if far better than the alternatives. Early on I learned that the mother of one of the COs is also a volunteer leading a Bible Study in a federal prison. The COs are supportive of the work that I do because they have seen it make a difference for some of the men. We talked about best days and times for me to come to this unit.  It may be that I’ll just be doing one-on-one visits, which is fine since I’ve spent at least 10 years doing one-on-one visits in prison and jail settings. The COs checked with the men that were out for programming to see if anyone was interested in a visit, but there were no takers.

More about the new structure, these new units are run more like high-max units with the exception that there may be two men in a cell whereas high-max only has one man per cell. However, under the new structure there are fewer men out at a time, and greater security when the men are out of their cells. For example, the men are in handcuffs behind their backs when they move between their cells and the recreation area – which is essentially an oblong concrete and cinder block room with a basketball hoop. Once they are in the rec area each man will present his hands up to a slot in the door where the CO will remove the handcuffs. Then their hands are unencumbered when they are in the rec room. But when it is time to go back to the cells the process is reversed. Each man presents his hands to the slot where a CO will apply handcuffs. Only after everyone has been handcuffed will the door to the rec room be unlocked and the men are directed back to their cells.


As it turns out, the guys who had been my regulars were all in the second unit. Again, I spoke to the COs in the second unit to get their input on how the process should work for the men who want Bible Study or a chaplain visit. I expect things to be in flux for the next few weeks until there is clarity on the new structure.

I had one man who wanted to meet with me for Bible Study. Under the new system it means he is handcuffed and shackled while he is meeting with me. But his hands are handcuffed in front rather than behind his back so he can still hold a Bible.


It was so very humbling for me that he was willing to submit to handcuffs and shackles just to meet for Bible Study and prayer.

Would I be too proud to submit to that same treatment? This man’s hunger for the Word and for fellowship was greater than the “inconvenience” of handcuffs and shackles.

Our study was about the Transfiguration in Matthew 17.


This man is preparing to transition to prison. He has never been to prison before. The words of the study that brought him hope and encouragement were:

 Matthew 17:6-8 (NIV)

When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.




Who cares for prisoners’ carees?

Sometimes Care Giving Stinks

A friend who visits prisoners shared this piece that crosses into both of our areas of concern.

state penitentiaryA view of the South Dakota State Penitentiary, Sioux Falls

Care giving tends to be accepted rather than sought out.  It lands on many of us more like a meteor than like Santa sliding gently down the chimney with gifts.

Spouses, grandparents, foster families and others care for the dependents of people in prison.  They accept difficulties that none of us would choose:


Financial problems are extremely common for caregivers. Consider these key factors:

  • Family income averaged over the years a father is incarcerated is 22 percent lower than family income was prior to the father’s incarceration. (Western and Petit)

  • Seventy percent of children’s caretakers are over the age of 50. About 55 percent of children live with a caregiver who doesn’t have a spouse. And 19 percent live…

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“Hospice program is extreamly rewarding, spending time and learning about life with Mr. Kelly” By Paul Stotts

Caregiving from behind the walls

Inmate Blogger

This is my second week working in the Hospice program here at Lansing max/med. security prison. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but mostly rewarding.
My Hospice patients name is Mr. Kelly. He is 68 and serving 40 months for possession of less than one gram of meth. Nonviolent offender, but does have past criminal history. He looks healthy, talks fine, but feels weak. He has stage four cancer of the liver. It has traveled throughout his body and at this point too troublesome to treat with his health.
I basically am going into this with little to no training. I’ve gained a “Human Services” certificate from Louisiana State University which consisted of taking 15 credit hours in service related classes, so I have that eduactional experence. (That was actually one of my first long term goals I accomplishes in prison. When I got that cerficicate, I was working as a…

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Stall Tactics

I arrived on the unit and set up while the guards announced that Bible study was available.

No one came.

I waited a bit longer and prayed. I acknowledged to myself and to God that this study wasn’t about me. Where do I see God in the maximum-security unit at that very moment? I look around and wait in the moment: now, here, this.

Eventually one of the regulars came into the room.

Then another joined him.

And then another.

Finally, there were 11 guys that joined me for Bible Study in the maximum-security unit – a mix of guys from rival gangs meeting together to seek God.


Our opening discussion was about stall tactics – what do we do to put off doing something?

Some phrases that came up were:

  • Ask me again when this show is over
  • Just give me 10 minutes and I’ll get to it
  • I’m busy now, I do it later
  • What? I didn’t hear you.
  • I don’t understand. Can you explain it a different way?

Some other tactics:

  • Incomplete – if the request was “take out all the garbage” then just take out the bathroom garbage
  • Do a poor job so they won’t ask you again – leave big streaks if they ask you to wash the windows
  • Do it wrong – mix whites and darks when doing laundry; give the kids ice cream for breakfast; bring home the wrong items from the grocery store


I asked if lawyers ever used delay tactics. A collective groan arose from the group. They were all too familiar with this. One man mentioned a lawyer whose goal was to always put off going to trial because, “You haven’t lost the case yet if you haven’t gone to court.”

Another man asked his defense attorney how soon they could get a court date. The attorney said, “But if we have the trial sooner it just means you’re going to prison sooner.”

I asked about stall tactics that we use with God. The most common one was, “God, how do I know it’s really You?”

That was a great lead-in to our scripture. But before we read it I gave them some background on Gideon and the situation at that time. Then we saw how God’s angel had a sense of humor.

When Gideon is first introduced he is hiding inside a winepress trying to process grain. The angel says, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12b)

It’s a modern-day equivalent to hiding in a coat closet and covering yourself with a bunch of old boots and shoes, and the angel saying, “My, my, aren’t you one bad-ass gangsta’!”


As the angel describes how Gideon will be used by God, Gideon’s response, albeit politely, is to question and delay:

  • Pardon me
  • but if
  • Why?
  • Where?

Even after the angel responds Gideon persists:

  • Pardon me
  • How?
  • My clan is weak
  • I am the weakest

Then Gideon takes delaying to the next level:

  • give me a sign that it is really you talking to me
  • wait until I come back

Even after God uses him, Gideon still further delays by asking for more and contradictory signs.

Judges 6:36-40 (NIV) 

36 Gideon said to God, “If You will save Israel by my hand as You have promised—37 look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You said.” 38 And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.

39 Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” 40 That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.


Frequently my role in these studies is to provide space and a scripture, and then to step back and listen to how God has already been speaking to and through the men. This was one of those nights where I didn’t have to say much.

As they observed Gideon’s delay tactics and compared it to their own techniques, they wondered about how Gideon eventually became yielded to God. In their own lives many have made promises — “God if you get me out of this I’ll turn my life around.” But as soon as they are released they go back to their old ways.

They began discussing the idea of true repentance. Some of these men long to break the cycle of addiction, violence, and incarceration.

They wrestle with God’s capacity for forgiveness. Some felt they had to plea-bargain their sins with God, that if there were extenuating circumstances, perhaps they could be forgiven, but there was no forgiveness if someone murdered out of greed, or killed several people, or hurt a child. Several men knew a guy at a nearby prison the was serving life without parole for killing four people in drug deal gone bad. But this man was now serving God even in prison. There was forgiveness for him.

Another man found himself abusing God’s forgiveness – “I can do anything I want because, in the end God will forgive me.”  But he was seeing the emptiness and futility of that lifestyle.

As the study wrapped up I explained how God didn’t kick Gideon to the curb because of his unbelief. He met Gideon where he was, and it transformed Gideon’s life.