Sitting in a prison visit room recently visiting a friend I was struck by one thought: the power of a choice. Each of the men in that room ended up there because of a choice that was made at some point (an event). Each visitor was there because of a choice that was made at some point (an attitude). Some of the men were much older and had probably been in the system for much of their lives. Some were much younger – like college aged. One was a familiar face from a case that received a lot of news coverage. I found myself feeling most sorry for the older men. Who knows how much more ‘time’ they have left, or if the facility they’re in right now will be the last one for their life – because of a choice. Maybe their choice won’t let them get outside the fence ever again. One was in a wheelchair. Another was on crutches. Others were grandfathers who could only hold their grandchildren under the watchful (and suspicious) eye of a corrections officer. Another was a young father seeing his newborn for the first time. Choices. And consequences. ‘Doin’ time’ as a result.
And then I heard the story of one person not in the room that day but a resident of that facility. He had been in the system since 1984. He’s in for murder. Literally. Rumor has it double murder. He was at Lucasville when the riots happened and he survived. He was locked up in the death house while the riots were taking place (for safety I presume). He has worked his way up to minimum security and one of the most respected inmates from what I was told. And then I heard of a choice this person made. And the long-reaching effect it is having.
This person – at some point – made a life-changing decision to come to Christ. The hardened heart that once took a life softened to let Life in – to be able to live free even while in prison. And not only that but he has made a choice to let God use him inside the walls. This person ended up being the first Bunkie of my friend when he first arrived at the facility a while ago. And a friendship (if such a thing exists in prison) developed. This person almost immediately began talking to my friend about a Kairos retreat – a Christian retreat inside prisons. They talked Bible Study. They talked church. They shared verses. They encouraged each other. And before we knew it my friend had come to Christ in a very short period since his incarceration.
I’ve watched the family of my friend. They’ve somehow managed to make the entire situation something they laugh about. Well – not so much the situation (event) but what they’ve done with it (attitude). As someone told them – ‘they chose joy.’ They’ve had surprise visits, special events, and somehow managed to laugh every time they visited. They began to be known by the corrections officers. Somehow they’ve managed to have ‘fun’ in a prison visit room. I just don’t get it. I’ve heard stories of crying as they say goodbye to laughter resulting in tears. And I just shake my head. It just doesn’t make sense.
And I keep coming back to that one sentence: ‘they chose joy.’ I don’t know how anyone can do that in that kind of environment. How can a ‘lifer’ see his heart softened to openly be used by God with each Bunkie and make some real connections? In a prison?! Full of some long-time offenders! Something defies logic and explanation. I JUST DON’T GET IT!
I hear the Kairos folks talk about how an offender’s loved ones are ‘doing time’ with them. And I think I’m starting to understand that a bit. They may not have the confines of counts and controlled movement (being told when you can go somewhere) and the like….but they’re still ‘doing time’ of their own. That choice that ended their loved one in the prison is the same choice that has landed them in their circumstance of a disrupted life. My friend heard some of what his family is going through and apologized to them for the choice he made that led to it all. And when I left the visit – still thinking about choices – I then started thinking about my choices. What choices have I made – or do I make – that result in me ‘doing time’? My ‘prison’ may not be an actual facility but it might be the prison of fear or negative thoughts or anger or any other type of thing that keeps me bound, holds me back, puts limits on me.
All made a choice that landed them in that facility. All are making choices about what they will do as a result. Some are using that power of choice to better themselves and others. Some are settling in and seeing the folks around them as a ‘mission field’ and are letting God use them, not focusing on the past but living in the present. And then I thought about me. I’ve made a lot of choices that have landed me in prison – an emotional prison. Some are choices about stuff that has happened in my life beyond my control. But what I DO control is my response to the event. That choice is my responsibility. And I confess a lot of my choices have me ‘doing time’ in the prison of loneliness, isolation, fear, anger, confusion and withdrawal. Even as I type I’m being faced with another choice about what I will do as a result of a situation….will I choose to continue to ‘do time’ or will I choose joy? I think I need to follow in the steps of the lifer in for murder and let God use my bad choices for His glory. That alone comes down to a choice: attitude. That one still blows me away.