Sadness and hope behind bars

The size of a prison cell shocks the brain on first site. Nothing in TV and movies prepared me for that simple shock the other day when I visited a prison for the first time. I’ve seen much bigger closets. What does living in a cage do to a man? Many, if not most, of the men probably behaved like animals in the first place in order to end up in such a place. So they surely earned their punishment, assuming they received justice through our courts. But it still hurts to see human beings living such inhuman lives.

Another jolt to the system comes in seeing the old men. One assumes that the older inmates have probably grown old behind the bars. For those of us on the outside, life seems to move so quickly and ends up being so short. I wonder if it is the same for the long incarcerated.

The Texas prison I visited, however, is not all sadness. I visited with a couple of prisoners in regular cells who are Christians. Their eyes look different from the others. There is hope.

Then I visited a faith-based dorm where I saw more than one man not just reading, but studying his Bible and taking notes. These men don’t have to live in the closet-sized cells because they are not a threat to one another. Each man has his own small cubicle with a bed that can double as a couch. The expressions on their faces are different from the others. Some still have the body paint so prevalent elsewhere in the prison, but they are different. These men are being changed from the inside out.

I met one young man named Michael. It doesn’t take long to see that Michael is a man of intelligence and leadership ability. He is articulate, and his eyes are alive even though a tattooed tear is affixed below one eye. He is a believer, and you get a sense that this man has the potential to do great things for God – in prison for now and someday on the outside. And the prison staff was great. A number of them are believers, and all seemed competent, efficient and serious about their business. They have tough jobs made necessary by the behavior of the men now behind bars. And I found myself with a profound appreciation for these men and women.

The prisons and jails of Texas present an amazing mission field for us to consider. When you take into account offenders, their families and the officers who guard them, you are looking at about one-fourth of the population of our state. And this is a population with a lot of hurts and not enough hope. There are many believers among that group, but there are so many more who need what Christ has to offer.

Every year, 72,000 offenders are incarcerated and another 72,000 are released. This in-flow and out-flow has unique needs and present a special opportunity for those of us who follow Christ.

Jesus himself made it clear that his disciples will care for the prisoners , the orphans, the widows and others in need. Lots of us, I think, could be better disciples.

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