Re-Entry After 38 Years

There were three men in the Tuesday night Bible study in the maximum-security unit. A new guy had been invited by one of the other men. All of the men have previously served prison time. One will be released in a few months. The others may be looking at substantial time.

We discussed how the patterns of institutional living carry on even after release. Some guys continue the same breakfast schedule even years after their release.

A New York Times article (You Just Got Out of Prison. Now What?) tells about Roby and Carlos.

Roby started reciting the weekly prison menu, to see if he could still do it. When he got to Thursday — peanut butter and jelly, four slices of bread, Kool-Aid — Carlos, without turning to look at him, chimed in with ‘‘sugar-free gum.’’

Roby went on. (Roby tends to do most of the talking.) The trick, he said, is to save those packets of peanut butter and spread it on your pancakes, the next time there are pancakes. It sounds gross, but it’s not. ‘‘The only way I eat my pancakes now is with peanut butter — because that’s the way I ate them in there,’’ Roby explained.

Carlos understood. He still put peanut butter on his pancakes, too. ‘‘It does have a different flavor,’’ he said.

‘‘Yeah! And you can put it in your oatmeal!’’

‘‘Oatmeal is real good with peanut butter,’’ Carlos said.

‘‘I still do that, too!’’ Roby blurted.

He continued with the menu. After Sunday — eggs, ham, hash browns — he looked at Carlos and said, ‘‘You put it all together?’’ to make sure Carlos knew to heap the whole thing between two slices of toast and squeeze jelly over it. Carlos knew. ‘‘That’s a pretty fat sandwich, right?’’ Roby said.

‘‘Yeah,’’ Carlos said emphatically.

Roby still puts jelly on his egg sandwiches, too, he explained. Strawberry, grape — he doesn’t care. ‘‘People look at me like I’m crazy!’’

‘‘People don’t even know,’’ Carlos said. They were laughing at themselves now. Carlos had done almost 11 years; Roby, close to 12. Now they were free men, sitting outside a prison, waxing nostalgic about prison food.

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We then read our passage for the study:

John 5:1-14 (NKJV)

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda,[a] having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.[b] Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

And that day was the Sabbath. 10 The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.”

11 He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’”

12 Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” 13 But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”

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In many ways the men could relate to the story. The sick man was like someone who had served a 38 year sentence. Every time the water was stirred but he missed out, it was like going before the parole board and getting denied, but then watching someone else get released.

They noticed that Jesus didn’t heal the man without his permission.

How do we answer when Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?”

Do we deny that anything is wrong? Do we consider ourselves doing better than others around us?

The sick man is alone and without resources: I have no man to put me into the pool”

Being alone and without resources is a situation the incarcerated can relate to.

After the man explains his circumstances Jesus does something unusual. He doesn’t tell the man he is healed. Instead Jesus treats him like someone who not only is healed, but is capable as well.

“Rise, take up your bed and walk.”

Even more surprising, the man doesn’t try to argue the point. He owns his new identity.

And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

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But the man is hassled in his recovery. Even being healed by Jesus isn’t good enough. After release these men had experienced the pressure to go back to the way they were. It was assumed that they would go back to the same places, the same patterns of using, the same destructive behaviors.

Afterward Jesus found him in the temple

There was some discussion about this. Was the man in the temple when he was being hassled? Was the church a place of criticism and shame? Or was the man at the temple to try and regain his bearings?

The men were quick to notice that Jesus said, “Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”

The men understood this to be like when you get a second chance – getting sent to treatment rather than prison – but if you mess that up you may end up with an even harsher sentence.

In recovery “it takes what it takes” for someone to break the cycle of denial about their addiction.  Sometimes the “worse thing” is what is needed to convince a man of his need for healing.

I reminded them that the very first thing that Jesus says when he sees the man again is:

“See, you have been made well.”

Jesus affirms his healing.

After being hassled by the world we need to be reassured of our identity, of who we are, and whose we are.

Sin no more” can only come from our identity in Christ.

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Love and the Incarcerated

We had a short discussion on good love and bad love. The men in the study each had parents with chemical dependency issues. Being a child of an addict is not easy. Often love for the drug wins out over love for the child. But the men were able to think of good love when they thought about their grandmothers.

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We read I Corinthians 13 for our study. None of the men recalled having read or heard this before.

1 Corinthians 13 (NKJV)

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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Some recalled what it was like to be the recipient of unloving acts of charity:

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, … but have not love

The “act of kindness” was done in a mechanical fashion. The focus was on the assembly line of distribution, not on the recipient.

There was some discussion about the list of attributes in verses 4 through 6. Some felt that this was a list that describes the attributes of God’s love towards us. They were encouraged that God’s love was long-suffering and patient since each of them had a history of repeatedly trying hard and then messing up. However, one man was adamant that this list of attributes, rather than describing God’s love, was to be used to examine our own love towards others. In particular, “does not seek its own” – how often had each of them used “love” to manipulate someone? For this man the list allowed him to do an examination of step 4 of his recovery program:

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

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This search and moral inventory would be soul-crushing if it is done apart from God’s. Without God’s transforming love we have no hope.

A controversial topic was: “but rejoices in the truth”

Truth is a dangerous thing behind the walls. Knowing a true thing about someone can be used to manipulate them. “Anything you say can and will be used against you.”

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How do you love in a dangerous place among dangerous people? One man’s method of coping was to just withdraw from others. He felt he had nothing in common with them and it was just safer, easier, better, to have as little contact with them as possible.

Another man thought that love could have a transforming impact on the men in the unit. But he acknowledged that this was not without risk. There is no guarantee that love would be reciprocated. All agreed that the men in the unit are hard to love.

Love is risky. Years ago a friend asked God to help him love the unlovely. A month later he was asking God why all these weirdos were hanging around him.

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The reality of love is hard work. Love precedes response.

Romans 5:8 (NKJV)

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

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They Feared Exceedingly

Amusement parks, especially roller coaster and other fast, wild rides are built on the premise of:

FEAR – DEATH = FUN

 

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People like going to scary movies. There have been 12 Friday the 13th films, 10 Halloween films, and 9 Nightmare on Elm Street films.

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For some, perhaps many people, a rush of fear can help us feel truly alive.

Fear can help keep us safe and alive. Children learn early on not to touch open flames or a hot stove. Don’t play in traffic. Don’t try to hug a snarling dog.

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The English language has some nuanced meaning for the word “fear”. In some usages it means a healthy respect. I’m an electrical engineer by training. I can design circuits and systems. I understand the meanings of volt, amp, and watt. I have a healthy fear of electricity in that I know better than to grab onto a live 220V wire when I am standing knee-deep in water.

But fear can also be a liability.

One of the men in the study noted that all the jails and prisons he has been in had a common smell. It wasn’t that they all used the same industrial cleaning products. The scent comes from housing large groups of people who are depressed, angry, and afraid.

Ray Leonardini, Director of Prison Contemplative Fellowship, shares his own observations and experience teaching contemplative prayer in prisons:

People in prison commonly live with a sense of personal failure. Most prisons and jails foster, even amplify, this sense of failure by dehumanizing practices like constant herding and extreme over-crowding. Prisoners’ efforts to cope with these humiliations result in behaviors similar to those identified with veterans as PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder).

The violence in a war zone, like the threat of violence in a maximum-security prison, creates a chronic debilitating state of fight or flight for the individual. To simply cope, the prisoner develops the ability to avoid and numb feelings and represses intrusive memories. This leaves many of them with enormous anxiety and a deep sense of personal shame.

When their basic sense of personal worth is stifled in this way, the sufferers are driven to further extremes of self-loathing. As penal institutions perpetuate a culture of dehumanization, the symptoms of PTSD proliferate. Though they can be visible (angry outbursts, aggressive behavior), they also fester in secret (night terrors), buried in the deep crevices of the psyche.

Experts tell us that the deepest wound of PTSD is a “moral injury,” that is a wound to the soul, caused by participation in events that violate one’s most deeply held sense of right and wrong. The perpetrator or victim realizes how wrong it was. The irony, of course, is that this “disorder” is actually an appropriately normal response to an overwhelmingly abnormal situation.

For tonight’s study we read two versions of the same story:

Mark 4:35-41 (NKJV)

35 On the same day, when evening had come, He said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side.” 36 Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was. And other little boats were also with Him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling. 38 But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow. And they awoke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?”

39 Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. 40 But He said to them, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” 41 And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, “Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!”

Luke 8:22-25 (NKJV)

22 Now it happened, on a certain day, that He got into a boat with His disciples. And He said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side of the lake.” And they launched out. 23 But as they sailed He fell asleep. And a windstorm came down on the lake, and they were filling with water, and were in jeopardy. 24 And they came to Him and awoke Him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!”

Then He arose and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water. And they ceased, and there was a calm. 25 But He said to them, “Where is your faith?”

And they were afraid, and marveled, saying to one another, “Who can this be? For He commands even the winds and water, and they obey Him!”

 

The men observed a few things:

The storm came even though Jesus was in the boat

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Some people think that if they start walking with Jesus then all of life’s struggles will fade away. But here we see that the storm still came. Furthermore, it seemed to the disciples that Jesus was unaware and/or didn’t care about the storm. What the men in the study concluded was that Jesus isn’t “storm repellent”. Storms will still come. But what they can do is look for Jesus in the storm. Some of them men were going to spend time asking God to show them where He was during the incidents that ultimately landed them in jail.

We feel fear and panic when we can’t control the event that surround us

They disciples were powerless over the storm. The men saw how fear was a significant component for some of the crimes that they had committed as they tried to assert control over people and events. And now the men feel fearful regarding their court trials. They cannot control the prosecution, the judge, the witnesses, or the jury.

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Jesus could handle their anger, doubt, and fear

In Mark the disciples didn’t ask for help. Instead they reacted with anger and doubt.

“Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?”

But Jesus didn’t chuck them over the side. You don’t need to hide your fear, anger, and doubt from God. You can be real an honest with God. The men also observed that the disciples still responded with fear and doubt even after this incident. In fact, even after the storm was calmed and Jesus encouraged them to respond with faith, they instead responded with more fear.

But He said to them, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” And they feared exceedingly

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One of the men recalled how multiple times Peter denied knowing Jesus after He had been arrested. Learning to respond with faith rather than fear is a process that will take time, and setbacks are expected. God seems to be in this for the long haul, walking alongside us and encouraging us to exchange our fear for faith.

 

The men lifted up their prayer requests and we closed by singing Amazing Grace.

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Stone City Blog Has Changed Its Name To “INMATE BLOGGER”

Stone City Blog Has Changed Its Name To “INMATE BLOGGER”

Views from inside the walls

Inmate Blogger

Hi Everyone!

We want you all to know that we’ve recently changed our site’s name from Stone City Blog to Inmate Blogger. We have all the same content, but with a fresh new look.

This site is a collection of blogs written by inmates. It serves as a platform which allows them to share their individual stories, opinions, talents, and their inner thoughts. You can lock up a man, but you can’t lock up their mind. We support, understand, and believe that writing can be a great source of rehabilitation, growth, and healing.

Please share our new name with your friends and family:  inmateblogger.com

Be sure to LIKE us on Facebook!

Thank you.

InmateBlogger.com

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Rebuilding Bridges With The Spirit of Love

A view from the inside. Some of the struggles are so different from those on the outside.

Steven D. Jennings

For a while there, my wife and I were at odds with each other. As a result, our blogging stopped.

I take full responsibility for all that. I had my priorities all mixed up. I was more focused on being a millionaire than I was on our own marriage.

I allowed Suzie’s emotional ”love cup” to run dry. As she cried out for help, I ignored her cries and piled more work on her. There were many times when I wasn’t kind or understanding. I saw things from my perspective only!

I went back and read one of my previous posts called, The Bad Husband. And that’s when I got a glimpse of myself and how I’d been treating my wife, the woman I love. I felt ashamed. I was being the EXACT type of guy that I said I’d never be!

After much prayer and meditation, the answer came to me. And…

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Ending One Chapter, Beginning Another

The jail where I volunteer as a chaplain is on a multi-year remodeling project for their facilities. I’d been told that someday I may go up to the unit and find that no one is there.

Today was that day.

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I also knew that it was coming because past few weeks I’d noticed that only about half of the cells in the unit were populated. The head chaplain will find out what unit the guys have been transferred to and I will start serving the men in that unit as best I can.

Transitions like this are a proper time to reflect on the joys and sorrows of standing with those at the margins of society:

“Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate,’ means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.”
― Gregory J. BoyleTattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

I look forward to what will emerge as I start serving in a different unit of the jail as I see this scripture unfold in the lives of the men:

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation—“
Colossians 1:21-22 (NIV)

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First Time Hearing the Parable

The last few times I’ve been to the jail they were on lockdown. Lockdown means no visits, no programming.

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Fortunately, I was able to get in tonight. I guess I am one of the few, rare people who is happy about getting into jail.

I met with “F” again tonight. I mentioned him in Priors. He is counting the days (16) until he is released. We discussed his re-entry plan – where will he go when he first gets out, who will pick him up, where will he stay until he finds more permanent housing, etc.

He knows that he wants to avoid returning to his old neighborhood and friends. He has already seen that that has turned out from the last few times he was released. He says it is time for him to grow up and start acting like an adult instead of an adolescent always looking for a good time. He wants to find a legal way to support himself and his family.

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He would like to connect with his son again, but he recognizes that he has burned a lot of bridges with the boy’s mother. It may take time and a demonstration of responsibility for that relationship to get healed.

For the study “F” and I read the parable of the lost sheep. I’ve written about that study before in What Will You Leave Behind? After we went through the study I asked “F” if he had ever heard the story before.

He had not.

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For those like me who were raised in the church and heard the story since childhood, there is something powerful and refreshing to watch and listen to an adult who is reading and hearing this story for the first time. What “F” saw was something both startling and familiar.

The startling thing is God seeking out, not the one who has it all together and looks good, but rather God seeks the one who has wandered away, who is in danger, the one whose life is in disarray.

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The familiar thing is how God, like a mother, if she had lost her child at the mall, would look relentlessly until her child was found. Nothing less than finding her child would bring consolation.

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The imagery of the Shepherd carrying the lamb back was comforting to “F”.  It meant we were not abandoned to our own devices to try and find our way back. The Shepherd would carry us and care for us.

Stay close to the Shepherd, and let Him at times carry us.

Will we fight the Shepherd, or find rest on the shoulders of the Shepherd?

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