Month: April 2016

Wherever Two or Three

The unit is still on a more restricted schedule so they are only allowing out 1/4th of a tier at a time, and the men have to choose between Bible Study, or recreation time – shooting baskets and other physical activity. Because they spend so much time in their cells I completely understand why they would opt for physical exercise rather than sitting in a study.

They also had us run two different groups. We had one man for the first group, and one man for the second group. In Matthew 18:20 it records Jesus saying, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” That was definitely true. The other volunteer and I got to talk to each man for an extended period of time. We got to hear each man’s story.

That is why it has taken me longer to prepare this blog entry. I want to preserve the confidentially of each man. What I will share are certain themes that come up time and time again as I’ve walked alongside the incarcerated over the past 16 years.

I was recently at a weekend retreat with Father Greg Boyle so I’ll preface what I’m about to write with one of his quotes: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”
Father Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart



Many of the men have addiction issues. Contrary to what you may have seen in Breaking Bad, most of the dealers I’ve met were also users. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has a number of statistics regarding the percentage of people who committed crimes to get money for their addiction and/or were under the influence when they committed their crime. It is not uncommon to hear a new inmate indicate that they know their addiction is destroying their life AND that if they were released today they know they would immediately go back to using. The first step of many 12 step programs reads
”We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.”


Every man I have ever gotten to know who was I jail or prison has one or (usually) more incidents of profound trauma in their past. I have met weekly with men in prison for years at a time. There would be certain stories of trauma that would come up periodically and repeatedly. These are stories that will break your heart. I’ve found myself simultaneously astounded that one human being could do something so horrific to another, and that someone could even survive such experiences.

I recall a lawyer to observed that many of his clients were self-medicating as a coping mechanism for past trauma. This ties back to the addiction issue.


Trauma and Self Identify is currently a topic of academic research. But consider in your own life, what traumatic events in your past have shaped you into the person you are now? Even the Pixar film Inside Out showed how significant events shaped the main character’s sense of identity.

Consider the impact on a child’s sense of identity who remembers:

  • being abandoned by a father
  • being sold by his mother to a drug dealer to pay for her habit
  • being rejected by an adopting family a month after the placement
  • discovering the suicide of a parent or sibling

There are many others examples that I find far too disturbing to relay.

Mental Illness

A sizable number of men I’ve met have had someone significant in their life with mental illness and/or may have it themselves. Some had a mentally ill caregiver and may have experienced trauma as a result of that. Others had mental illness and used drugs or alcohol. I’ve met several people with schizophrenia who were also meth users. (It’s not a good combination)

Several of the men I visited in prison had schizophrenia. For one man it was well controlled with medication, for another it was not.

In the forward to Jarvis Jay Masters’ book Finding Freedom: Writings From Death Row, Melody Chavis writes:

On the bottom tier of the security housing is a row of cells where the most problematic prisoners are kept. There, Jarvis’s neighbors yell all day and all night, and some have hallucinations in which insects are crawling on their bodies or other people are in their cells. Some do not clean themselves or refuse to eat for fear of being poisoned. If inmates in this condition don’t improve, they are eventually sent to hospital prisons and officially designated as mentally ill. But in the meantime, they can be segregated, as they are in security housing.

I am concerned that, where I live, the largest mental health facility in the county is the jail.



A man’s family can be his biggest obstacle and/or his greatest asset in his desire to change his life.

Some of the men have parents or grandparents who were involved in criminal activity and even as children taught them how to perform certain illegal activities.

Father Boyle tells about one man who had turned his life around and been clean, sober, and gainfully employed for 5 years. He decided to call his mother because, “she’s the only mother I got.” When he called she told him he was garbage. Father Greg asked how he responded. The man said, “I forgave her.”


On the other side, a man’s children can be his greatest incentive for change. Many of these men earnestly desire to be a good father. They genuinely love their children and want to be there for them as much as possible.

The guys who get regular visits, or calls or letters from supportive family members have a much greater chance of transforming their life.

The most consistent pray request form the men is, “pray for my family”.

Family matters.



Another observation is how each man deals with choices. Does he even believe he has a choice? This is where the transformative power of God’s love come in. It opens up the idea that we are not defined by the worse thing we have ever done. Redemption. Reconciliation. Mercy. Love. Watching others who have already seen their lives transformed and hearing their stories give these men hope for today.

Sometimes this is demonstrated tangibly by basic things such as improving reading skills or even learning how to read. One man said he had never read a book before he was incarcerated. He read 40 books within the first year.

Another sign of making a choice is pursuit of education. Some guys get their GEDs. Some programs offer certificates for completion. When we would do Prison Fellowship weekends at a prison we would always had out certificates to each man who participated.

People without hope don’t look for ways to improve themselves.


We are in This Together

What I continue to learn is there is no We vs. They. I don’t bring Jesus to the inmates. Jesus is already there among them.

“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. Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion


Father of the Fatherless

There were two guys from the upper tier in the maximum security Bible study tonight. Then three. Then four. Then five. Then two. (Pill call) Then five again.

Their chance to get out of the cell and get in some physical exercise, such as shoot baskets or do pull-ups, happens at the same time as the Bible Study. It is one of the few choices these men get to make.

Inmate rec time.

The smaller group allows things be a bit more conversational.  I get hear more about their week and how things are going. The conversation and study really flowed well and the COs let a meet for 90 minutes tonight. Normally we are done in 45 minutes to an hour.

The opening discussion was about fathers – what was a good father or a bad father. They had immediate answers for the characteristics of a bad father: he beats you, he teaches you how to do bad stuff, he’s gone all the time because he’s in prison or just abandons you. He cares more about his gang than his family. He’s out gang banging instead of talking care of his kids. Several of the guys agreed that this described them in the past.


They had a bit more trouble describing a good father, but came up with: he’s there for his kids and their mom. He provides for his family. He loves his kids, and talks to them and gives guidance about the important things in life.

For our study we looked at:

Matthew 6:5-15 (NKJV)

“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.[a] And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.

“Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him. In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
13 And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

14 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

For some this was unfamiliar and new. For others this was a prayer they had heard before.

I asked for another way to describe praying to make yourself look good.

It would be like going out with a fine looking woman that you take to the club and all around the neighborhood making sure that everyone sees you with her, because that makes you look important. But you spend more time trying to impress your friends rather than getting to know her. (She’d probably wise-up and leave you)


Does verse 6 mean it is wrong to pray if other people are around? It’s not like these guys can ask their cellie to leave while they pray. The conclusion was that the important thing is for prayer to be between you and God rather than using it as a way to impress people.

They wanted some explanation about verse 7. Some commentators described the practice of saying a word or phrase over and over until the person praying is worked up into an emotional frenzy. Again, the focus of pray is on how it makes you feel rather than about communicating with God.

In verse 8, if God already knows what we want, why do we have to ask? Communication seems to be a key part of a relationship. Learning to listen and learning to speak honestly are important for trust and understanding in human relationships. It would seem that communicating with God works in much the same way.

We looked at verse 9 a work or phrase at a time:

Father: This is the good father, not the bad one. I had them look at Psalm 68:5 A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, Is God in His holy habitation.

Some of these men understand what it means to be fatherless. A Father to the fatherless – the father they never had. They are part of a family

Our: Not my or your, but our. Again, part of a family. We are connected. You ware not alone. You are part of a greater family. Siblings don’t always get along. I certainly had a lot of conflict with my brother until he finally moved off to college, but we were still family. There was still a connection.

In Heaven: Separate and special, not corrupted by the brokenness of this world. One man said at times it has seemed like Hell was here on earth what with the evil the he has seen and experienced. There was comfort in knowing that God wasn’t contaminated by that. That He is still pure.

Hallowed: Holy, special, unlike any other.

Name: What name you use denotes the status of the relationship. During the Bible Study the guys are able to use their first names. There was discussion about what exactly is God’s name.

In verse 10 it is an invitation to take part in the family business. Dick Sheppard (1880-1937) told this story:

There was a man who had an allotment; he had with great toil reclaimed a piece of ground, clearing away the stones, eradicating the rank growth of weeds, enriching and feeding the ground, until it produced the loveliest flowers and vegetables. One evening he was showing a pious friend around his allotment. The pious friend said, “It’s wonderful what God can do with a bit of ground like this, isn’t it?” “Yes.” said the man who had put in such toil, “but you should have seen this bit of ground when God had it to himself!”

Weeds Front-Lawn-Vegetable-Garden-Design

We are part of God’s plan for bringing the Kingdom to earth. That happens as we are transformed by God and learn to the respond to the Spirit.

We see in nature examples of transformation. Redwood trees are common in this part of the country. Redwood seeds are tiny and look nothing like a redwood tree, yet a 150 foot tall tree grows from this tiny seed.

redwood seeds

I told them of Bobby who at age 16 was tried as an adult and sentenced to 15 years for homicide. God used his time in prison to transform him. Released at age 31 he built a life. He’s married with several children, and a ministry to help those who had been incarcerated.

I told them about Doc, an inmate that I met at San Quentin. For 16 years he has been leading a Bible Study. God has transformed him from the man he was. Doc is part of God’s plan to bring the Kingdom here on earth.

Daily Bread: The guys remarked that the bread in jail seems like it left the oven about a month ago.


Debts: Sin, missing the mark. The reason why they are in jail.

As we forgive: It seems hypocritical to plead for mercy for ourselves but not for others. It’s almost as if we limit God’s mercy towards us as we limit mercy towards others.

The unit is still undergoing a lot of transitions. One man asked for patience. We discussed that patience does best when accompanied by hope.




Rivalries, Doubt, and Hope


There were nine guys at tonight’s Bible study in the maximum security unit. The other volunteer was leading tonight.

We just had one group tonight. The COs are still changing up who goes to what programming and when. They are still only letting a portion of a tier out. But tonight was a bit surprising because they had guys from part of both the upper and lower tiers. Remember that most of the guys in maximum security are active gang members, and rival gangs are separated by tier.

Initially 6 men came in from one of the tiers. After a few minutes 3 men from the other tier came in. A guy from the first group asked why they were there – for Bible study. There were some humorous but somewhat serious insults that went back and forth between the two groups before the leader tactfully shut that down. The men seemed to respect him for doing that.


The men are still spending a lot of time in their cells so there was a lot of nervous energy in the room. They were pleased to be out of their cells and get a chance to talk to someone beside their cellie. This made it extra challenging for the leader to ensure there was only one conversations, and that the group was staying on topic.

Tonight’s study was:

John 20:19-31(NKJV)

19 Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22 And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”

So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

26 And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” 27 Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

28 And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.


The other leader uses a simplified Lectio Divina format for the study. This format is very effective in a jail Bible study. He instructed us that we would read the passage twice. The first time we were to listen for a word or phase that caught our attention.  One of the men read and then we went around the circle.

Several of the men noted the phrase, “He breathed on them” and wondered what that was about. A few others didn’t understand why Thomas said, “and put my hand into His side”. One of the men explained that that was after the crucifixion, and gave a summary of the of the passion week and resurrection.

Someone remarked that Thomas said he wouldn’t believe until he had done those things, but he stayed with the disciples for more that a week before Jesus appeared to him. Was the fact that Thomas continued to wait even without evidence proof that he really did have faith?

Before the second reading the leader asked the men to look for evidence of faith. A different man read the second time. Some men were intrigued by, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them”. The concept of forgiveness speaks powerfully to them. Forgiveness and redemption – they don’t have to stay on the path they’ve been on. One man told of an old pastor who had once been a heroin addict. The pastor was living proof the forgiveness and a changed life are possible. The was important for this man because he too struggled with heroin addiction.


Another man talked about some of the stories I have shared with the men, and how it had encouraged him. Gulp. Apparently they do remember some of the stories I have shared.

Other men found comfort in the phrase, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

There was some discussion on how to define the work “faith”. One man talked about the need to stay positive while waiting in jail because there were some many heavy emotions that could pull you down. Another person brought up:

Hebrews 11:1 (NKJV)

11 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.



Hope is a rare commodity behind bars. But hope brings life.

The 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi wrote:

“There is a secret medicine given only to those who hurt so hard they can’t hope.
The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.” 

When God gives hope in a place of hopelessness, when forgiveness is received in a place built for condemnation, then lives are radically changed by grace.


God’s Tattoos


They are letting only a few people out at a time for programming.The COs have asked me to offer a shorter study so they can accommodate two different groups. Basically only ¼ of a tier is out at a time. Frequent and extended lockdowns mean that the guys who are interested in spiritual things have a lot more time for reading the Bible, daily devotionals, and religious books. This also means the guys have less program time available, so they have to choose between Bible study, rec. time, haircuts, or possibly even family visits.

I had two guys in the first group. I also talked with three other guys one-on-one, including the guy who had the medical emergency last week. He is doing much better and appreciates your prayers. There were no participants from the second group.

Mother Teresa said, “God does not require that we be successful only that we be faithful.” I have no idea how God will work. I don’t who among those men might recall any phrase I might utter, or even just remember that I was there. In I Corinthians 3:7 Paul wrote, “So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.”


The opening discussion was about tattoos. Most of the guys are pretty heavily tattooed. The first tattoo was frequently done by a neighbor or cousin what had just gotten a tattoo gun and wanted to try it out. The artwork was not very skillful. The most common first “real” tattoo was for their mother. The longest single session was 9 hours. The highest number of sessions for a single tattoo was 24 — it was pretty elaborate. The most painful area was armpits and ribs. Surprisingly, ear tattoos are not that painful. Having the name of an ex-wife or ex-girlfriend was the most regretted tattoo.


The difference between a tattoo and just writing on yourself with a Sharpie pen is that the ink is inscribed underneath the skin.

I asked if they knew that God had tattooed each of us on His hand. They were curious how I came to that conclusion.

We then read tonight’s scripture:

Isaiah 49:8-16 (NKJV)

Thus says the Lord:

“In an acceptable time I have heard You,
And in the day of salvation I have helped You;
I will preserve You and give You
As a covenant to the people,
To restore the earth,
To cause them to inherit the desolate heritages;
That You may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’
To those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’

“They shall feed along the roads,
And their pastures shall be on all desolate heights.
10 They shall neither hunger nor thirst,
Neither heat nor sun shall strike them;
For He who has mercy on them will lead them,
Even by the springs of water He will guide them.
11 I will make each of My mountains a road,
And My highways shall be elevated.
12 Surely these shall come from afar;
Look! Those from the north and the west,
And these from the land of Sinim.”

13 Sing, O heavens!
Be joyful, O earth!
And break out in singing, O mountains!
For the Lord has comforted His people,
And will have mercy on His afflicted.

God Will Remember Zion

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
And my Lord has forgotten me.”
15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child,
And not have compassion on the son of her womb?
Surely they may forget,
Yet I will not forget you.
16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands;
Your walls are continually before Me.


I asked what parts were hard to understand.

To cause them to inherit the desolate heritages;
“Desolate” – the people and places that others have already written off – those are the people and places where God will transform. The person who was written off as a lost cause is the person that God delights in transforming.


What were some of the words or phrases that caught their attention?

That You may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’
To those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’

God does not forget the prisoner. People can be prisoners even on the outside. God sees the prisoner. God gives new life to the captive.

God remembers those in darkness. Being locked away for 23 hours a day can make you feel invisible. But God sees. You are not hidden. You are not forgotten.

11 I will make each of My mountains a road

The mountain of trouble each of these men sees in their current circumstances can be transformed by God into a road. What looked like a dead end becomes a path. There is a way forward.

For the Lord has comforted His people,
And will have mercy on His afflicted.

One of the guys talked about how God has already provided comfort. He is finding peace with God right now – not dreading the future – but instead thanking God for right now.

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
And my Lord has forgotten me.”

God understands that sometimes we do become consumed with despair thinking that even God has forgotten us. But He gives us His promise:

15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child,
And not have compassion on the son of her womb?
Surely they may forget,
Yet I will not forget you.

Some of the guys have had good mothers, or they may be married to a woman who is a good mother. Some have also seen mothers who, because of their addictions, have abandoned their children in pursuit of the drug. But God is not like a mother with a drug addiction. He will not forget or become distracted.

Over 8.3 million children, nearly 12 percent of all children in the United States, live with an addict.

16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands;
Your walls are continually before Me.

Even the walls that the prisoner sees every day are not blocking out God. We are tattooed on the palms of God’s hands.

Isaiah 49 v 16 hand