Author: mainjail4a

Breaking Down Racism Behind Bars


Many gangs tend to divide based on race. That carries into the jail system as well.

There are two televisions in the maximum security unit. There is a de facto Hispanic television, and the other the black television. If you aren’t affiliated with either group you will have no say regarding the televisions.

Rival gangs may be housed in the maximum security unit but by and large the two groups are not allowed out at the same time. The exception recently has been for men that want to participate in Bible Study.

This week I had two men, “P” and “A” come to Bible Study. They are of different races and different gang affiliations. Normally they would not be allowed out at the same time, but the COs (guards) have been making an exception for religious services.

An interesting thing happens as the men study the scriptures together and wrestle with how these ancient words apply to their situation today. The barriers of prejudice begin to fade away. That was made clear when, at the end of the Bible Study, “P” said to “A”, “I used to think you were a racist bastard, but it turns out you’re OK.”

Matthew 5:43-44 (NIV)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”

Isaiah 2:4 (NIV)

He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.



I’m no Mary, he sure ain’t no Jesus…

Sometimes Care Giving Stinks

When Joey was a toddler and we were at camp, the thought flooded my head like perfectly heated steam, while the sun poured into my skin like soft lotion. Some distant, bitter stranger, more like a stick-figure with a disproportionate index finger pointing at me was saying “That is blasphemy, you fool and you will writhe in the pit of Godless Hell.” My conscience made no sense of that brittle, screeching thing.

My thought was that Joey was Jesus and I was Mary. Well, not really. It was more like it felt so perfect, that the love was so pure that it had to be the same love. I thought of my other two children. Did I love them less? I loved them as much, no second thought. Immaculate Conception? Did any reader who barely knows me remain in their chair at that thought? Lastly, Joey had never spoken but…

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Forgiveness, Sociopaths, and the Precariat

Seven of us met for the Bible Study in the maximum-security unit of the county jail. It was a different mix of guys since they alternate who gets recreation and programming time early vs. late. One of the guys was new to the unit. He was decidedly a type-A extrovert with lots of energy. He’s the kind of guy that makes coffee nervous. Some of the others had come a few times. Another man was one I’ve known for a few years but had lost track of him as he was transferred in and out of various units in the jail system.

The Precariat

I learned a new word a few weeks ago: precariat

It is a merging of the words precarious and proletariat. It is defined as “a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.”

People who are in a constant state of uncertainty. That is the situation for some of these men as they await trial.



Our opening discussion was on forgiveness – what did they think about it, and how did it apply to them? Boy, did they have opinions. The opening discussion went on for 30 minutes and everyone participated.

The initial discussion was that, in general forgiving someone seemed like a good idea, but the real-life application was often more complicated.

Many agreed that holding onto hurts was like carrying around dead weight. One man described it as turning sour inside. We eventually turn bitter. In one of my favorite scenes from the TV show Cheers Woody tells Sam, “I’m not bitter, Sam. I’m just consumed by a gnawing hate that’s eating away at my gut until I taste bile in my mouth, but I’m not bitter.”


There was a lot of discussion about the benefits of forgiving someone.

Why don’t we forgive?

Then I asked them a question that caused them to pause and silently think.

“With all the benefits of forgiving someone, why don’t we forgive?”

After some time a man from the back spoke up and said, “It’s a defense mechanism. If I don’t forgive them then I’ll stay away from them and I won’t get hurt again.”

We then read our scripture:

Matthew 6:9-15 (NIV)

“This, then, is how you should 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 today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

I asked if verse 15 seemed awfully harsh. They said it actually made sense. We can’t understand and appreciate what it means to be forgiven if we haven’t been willing to forgive when we have been hurt.

Truly Evil People

One of the men said that sometimes you encounter truly evil people. This is particularly true in prison, but truly evil people are also out on the streets. How are we to deal with them?

Should there be forgiveness for the sociopath?

Abusers will frequently twist the concept of forgiveness saying, “If you’ve really forgiven me then our relationship can go back to the way it was.” In this way they manipulate people into being controlled and hurt yet again.


While in many cases forgiveness may lead to a restoration of the relationship, in some cases that is not possible.

  • The person you are forgiving may still be destructive and dangerous
  • The person you are forgiving may be dead


Forgiving means allowing yourself to be healed of the wound. Forgiveness does not mean again handing your abuser the baseball bat they used to beat you.

Forgiveness don’t not change the other person, nor what happened in the past.

Forgiveness changes us.

Forgiveness does not change the past

Paul Boese wrote, “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”

Forgiveness means recognizing the wound is there. It takes far more courage to face our brokenness that to put on a stoic face and claim we have no wounds.

Forgiveness allows the wound, perhaps long denied, to be healed and the burden lifted.

Matthew 11:28 (NIV)

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.


Loving from Far Off

One of the difference between jail and prison is that the prison population is much more stable. The guys you meet in prison will likely be there next week, next month, next year, perhaps even the next decade. The men I see in the maximum-security unit are often waiting for their trial. Once that is adjudicated they will either be released or be sent to prison, or some other program. But even in jail there are sometimes men that I will see consistently over a long period of time.

Consistency In Chaos

One of my “regulars” I’ve known for 18 months. I started visiting with him when the jail was on an extended lockdown so our visits were just through the cell door. “A”’s backstory is similar to other men I’ve met in the unit. He grew up in an environment of drug addiction and violence. His father was a gang member and drug dealer. His mother was an addict until later in life when she turned her life over to Christ, found sobriety, and eventually became a pastor. “A” was in the maximum-security unit until he got into fights with other inmates and was sent to high-max, which is essentially 23-hour lockdown. I continued to meet with him in high-max and eventually he was sent back to max where, although there is little to no programming, at least the men get more time outside the cell and in a common area.

He is still waiting for his trial, but the COs have noticed enough change in him to “downgrade” him and have him sent to a unit where more programming is available. I will miss seeing “A”, but I am glad he now has a chance to take classes and receive more training, life skills, and encouragement. The unit he is in now doesn’t currently have a Bible Study, but one of the chaplains is looking into starting one on the unit.


This week’s study was on waiting, and in God’s ironic sense of humor I arrived on the unit just as pill-call started. The flu has been running through the jail so the nurse was seeing more people and having to check more symptoms. As a consequence I had to wait about 45 minutes before I could go in, and had a chance in some small measure to live out “waiting”.


I had a pleasant reunion with one of the COs (guards) when I got into the unit. I hadn’t seen him for some time because he’s been off training new COs in various units of the jail systems, and recently he’s been working in the high-max units. He was one of the first COs I met when I started volunteering at the jail. Early on I learned that his mother has been leading a Bible Study at a federal prison for a number of years. He has been very supportive of the chaplains.

There were five guys that joined me for Bible Study. We had a range of ages, with some in their 20s ranging up to one man who was a grandfather and had already served several long prison stretches.

For our opening question I asked the guys what they did while waiting:

  • Reading
  • Praying
  • Meditation
  • Writing journals or letters
  • Working out
  • Writing music

For our study we looked at:

Psalm 27:7-14 (NIV)

Hear my voice when I call, Lord; be merciful to me and answer me.
My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
    Your face, Lord, I will seek.
Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations.
13 I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.

I asked the men to listen for a word of phrase that caught their attention as we read this.

For one man it was: Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me as this was his own situation. After years of addiction and getting into trouble, jail, and prison, his parents had severed ties with him.

For another man it was: for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations since he saw that happening at his own trial.

We looked at the last verse:

14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.

I asked them if it was possible to love while waiting. One man said, “we love from far off.” They are separated from their children or grandchildren. They still love them, but they are unable to be an active part of the lives of their family members.


Love is what makes waiting unbearable

One man said, “Love is what makes waiting unbearable. The aching of wanting to be with our family, but we cannot. It would be easier to do time if you didn’t care about anyone.”

Love is what makes the waiting bearable

But another man who had already served a lot of time said, “Love is what makes the waiting bearable – knowing at any time that someone cares about me – that is how I can withstand the waiting.”

I asked them if it was possible to be loved while they were waiting. They agreed that it was and several cited their family members as loving them. All of them struggled with the thought that God actually loved them. One man said he mostly felt that God was disappointed in him. He desired for God’s love, but certainly wasn’t feeling it. The closest he could come was:

Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.

The challenge of being loved during the waiting means that we are loved for who we are.

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 10.14.40 PM


There were seven of us at Bible Study. One man had been part of the group until 8 weeks ago when he was released (Silent, Hidden, Waiting). At that time I’d told him that I hoped he’d be able to stay out, but if he did return he would be welcomed back. I’m glad he felt like he could join the group again.

Our opening discussion was about family history – what did they know, if anything, about their ancestors. One man was adopted and his adoption records were sealed, but he knew the history of his adoptive parents. Another man knew nothing of his father beyond the fact that his father was from New York. One man was from Alabama and knew that his ancestors had been slaves. A few actually had a fairly extensive family history that could be traced back hundreds of years.


I asked them to think about what life must have been like 100 generations ago – about 3000 years ago. I asked them to consider what their ancestors endured – how disease or disaster could have ended their family line, but they were alive today. We are the descendants of those who came through the wars, the plagues, the famines, the mass migrations, the survivors of the slave ships. Our very existence could be called a miracle. Some of the men found encouragement in this. Most are used to hearing what a disappointment they are. They’ve never been called a miracle.

For our study we looked at two different sections in Hebrews.

Hebrews 4:14-16 (NIV)

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Verse 15 was a topic of conversation. By Jesus being fully human He was able to experience life on human terms – knowing our weaknesses and temptations. I asked them to consider if Jesus was tempted by some of the same things they are tempted with. They agreed that He probably was, and yet He remained sinless.

Grace is still an unfamiliar word for the men. In the human world we are all too familiar with “gifts” that come with strings attached. The men are well aware of their own patterns of manipulating people. A gift from God based on what Jesus did, rather than our own effort, is still a difficult concept.


Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV)

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

They are all familiar with witnesses from their court appearances. This scripture seems to refer to friendly, supportive witnesses rather than witnesses for the prosecution. The message is clear: we are not alone.


Running with perseverance means this isn’t a sprint. We are in it for the long haul. This is an ultra-marathon. Staring at our own feet isn’t helpful. The only way we can keep moving forward is to fix our eyes on Jesus, constantly looking to Him.


The perfection of our faith isn’t in our own self-effort. Jesus is the perfecter of our faith.

“Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners”

The One who understands our weaknesses and temptations spent time in a jail cell awaiting execution by the state.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.










Broken Pottery

Due to a combination of health issues and several lockdowns I’d been unable to meet with the guys for the past 3 weeks.

While we were waiting to go in the guard in the unit said he had announced twice for Bible Study, but that no one was interested. As I’d mentioned in my description of serving communion in the jail at Christmas, the guys inside tend to be suspicious of anything that is announced if they cannot see it. Once we got in and set up, once guy came to briefly speak with the other chaplain, and then four guys came for Bible Study.

Our opening discussion was about visits, phone calls, and letters – what is good when they happen, and what is bad when they don’t happen. They or their cellie might have been expecting a visit from someone, but that person never showed up. Maybe they received a “Dear John” explaining that the relationship was over. One man had recently gotten a “Dear John” phone call.

For many of these men, this is not the first time they’ve been in serious trouble. There has been a pattern that has been repeated to the point that family and friends may have said “enough” and cut off the relationship. Some have had no visits, phone calls, or letters since they began their incarceration.

As we read through Psalm 31 the first time I asked the men to listen to a word or phrase that caught their attention.

Psalm 31

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
    come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
    a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
    for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

I hate those who cling to worthless idols;
    as for me, I trust in the Lord.
I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
    for you saw my affliction
    and knew the anguish of my soul.
You have not given me into the hands of the enemy
    but have set my feet in a spacious place.

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
    my soul and body with grief.
10 My life is consumed by anguish
    and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,[b]
    and my bones grow weak.
11 Because of all my enemies,
    I am the utter contempt of my neighbors
and an object of dread to my closest friends—
    those who see me on the street flee from me.
12 I am forgotten as though I were dead;
    I have become like broken pottery.

13 For I hear many whispering,
    “Terror on every side!”
They conspire against me
    and plot to take my life.

14 But I trust in you, Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hands;
    deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
    from those who pursue me.
16 Let your face shine on your servant;
    save me in your unfailing love.
17 Let me not be put to shame, Lord,
    for I have cried out to you;
but let the wicked be put to shame
    and be silent in the realm of the dead.
18 Let their lying lips be silenced,
    for with pride and contempt
    they speak arrogantly against the righteous.

19 How abundant are the good things
    that you have stored up for those who fear you,
that you bestow in the sight of all,
    on those who take refuge in you.
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them
    from all human intrigues;
you keep them safe in your dwelling
    from accusing tongues.

21 Praise be to the Lord,
    for he showed me the wonders of his love
    when I was in a city under siege.
22 In my alarm I said,
    “I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
    when I called to you for help.

23 Love the Lord, all his faithful people!
    The Lord preserves those who are true to him,
    but the proud he pays back in full.
24 Be strong and take heart,
    all you who hope in the Lord.

For one man these verses seemed to echo his own story:

I am the utter contempt of my neighbors and an object of dread to my closest friends—those who see me on the street flee from me. I am forgotten as though I were dead.

The gang member has become the object of dread in his own neighborhood. Yet once he is off the streets he is quickly forgotten.

This verse describes well what it feels like for the people waiting in jail, waiting for a trial to happen that will profoundly impact the rest of their life:

My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak.

Several men keyed in on the word “refuge”.

  • I have taken refuge
  • be my rock of refuge
  • for You are my refuge

They found comfort in the thought of a refuge – a safe place, a shelter.


As we read through the scripture again this time I asked them to look for the action that God was doing.

  • Delivering
  • Listening
  • Saving
  • Leading and guiding
  • Shining
  • Storing
  • Sheltering and hiding
  • Keeping safe
  • Preserving


On the overhead light in the cell where one of the men was staying, a previous occupant had scratched a Bible verse into the fixture. It was a scripture of hope, and putting our trust in God. That is what he sees each night before the lights go off.


The final discussion was about how this scripture applies to our own life.

Many felt that God did love them and could forgive their sins, but they wrestled more with forgiving themselves. Shame was a word that came up frequently.

One man found it hard to trust in God. He had a sense of dread that, at the last minute, God would abandon him. For someone who was raised by two parents who were trapped in their own addictions – where chasing after the drug was more important than the children, it is not surprising that he would have a hard time trusting that someone who was supposed to care for and about him would suddenly bail at the last minute.

The other chaplain encouraged the man to memorize Hebrews 13:5

God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”


Light in Dark Places

A new guy, “I”, showed up asking for prayer. He had just spent the last 15 months in the “hole”. He is seeking God, and answers for his life. As I have observed with other men who have spent a long time in isolation, he spoke very softly, and there were more pauses in the conversion – much like someone who was out of practice with having someone to talk to, and the natural flow of a conversation.


After I prayed with him one of the other men asked him if he wanted to join us for our Bible study, so he stayed and participated.

For our opening question I asked them why they thought light and life were often related. One man recalled the science fair experiment where you start plants growing and then put one set in regular light, and another set in colored or no light. The plants that had better light grew, while the plants that had little light shriveled.


Another man recalled the SHU (Special Housing Unit) in another prison where the light was so dim, if you wanted to read a book, you had to stand by the window in the cell door to get enough light from the hallway to read. It’s hard to flourish in darkness.

We read our scripture:

John 1(NIV)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

We went around each reading a verse. As I read it again I asked them to listen for a word or phrase that caught their attention.

In Him was Life

One man wondered about that phrase. What did it mean?

Another thought it meant that we find our meaning and purpose in Christ.

Someone observed that everything alive in creation was given through God.

The Light shines into the darkness

Light is more powerful than darkness. Light can chase away darkness. Darkness can never chase away light. Some would consider incarceration to be a dark place, but light can transform dark places.


Grace upon Grace

Other translations render verse 16 as, “grace in place of grace.”

I needed to explain what the work “grace” meant in this context. For most of the men the only meaning they had was beautiful movement as in, “she danced with grace.” A few knew it as an alternate term for prayer as in, “let’s say grace before we eat this meal.”

The simplest explanation that I had was that grace referred to gifts we receive from God. We are all presented with the beauty of nature, of colorful sunsets, the rhythm of the ocean waves. Every human has the capacity to be loved, and to love. We can experience joy.


“Grace in place of grace” is another way of saying, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” If you thought those things were great, wait until you experience life in Christ. There is a whole new world of love, joy, peace, and so much more waiting for each of us. Grace that was general now becomes grace that is personal, and so much greater than we had ever imagined.

Out of His fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.