How God Used Two Life Sentences and a Lost Leg to Reveal HIS Message to Me
“If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”
I sat in the middle of a prison dayroom filled with men of all ages playing scrabble with my friend Joe. Loud voices echoing throughout the day room made it difficult to concentrate on the game. The mindless, constant dayroom chatter was filled with nonsensical political views motivated by malice, ridiculous conspiracy theories, one-upmanship about who has the worst record or bragging about their female conquests. Many men would talk back and forth glorifying their past escapades when they lived in the streets as if it somehow proved that they stood for something. Very few overheard conversations considered changes in their lives or anything uplifting for a better future. It was comical for me to hear these men share their theories, wild ideas and false beliefs that governed their lives on the outside. It all sounds the same to me just more self-sabotaging criminal rhetoric. I know because when I was much younger those were my conversations too. All that trash talk and scheming just leads back to crime and more time in prison. If a man isn't head strong in the midst of all of this he could easily find himself caught up in the ignorant rhetoric and wind up sucked back into the drug and prisoner politic leaving a man even more lost than when he first came in.
Joe sat across from me quietly waiting patiently for me to spell out a word. "I think I got it, wait, wait, ok. How about, coaver?"
“That's not a word," Joe replied with a calm look on his face. I knew he was right, and although challenging words is an option in Scrabble he never did challenge me. He always gave me a pass and let me slide with a misspelled word or two. For him it made it more of a game. Scrabble wasn't a game I actually liked until I met Joe. I liked Joe and he liked Scrabble so here I am, spending time with my friend playing his game not realizing that he was teaching me at the same time. I always lost but occasionally I would challenge one of his words to make it interesting. Mainly just to get under Joe's skin but it never worked. He'd slowly shake his head and smile before saying, "You sure you wanna’ loose a turn?"
Joe was the scrabble master of the entire cell block. Old, stubborn and most times grumpy, Joe had this way of explaining things as if he was always doubtful and pessimistic about everything. Eventually I got to know him to understand how he viewed the world. He actually had an optimistic outlook and a positive attitude behind his façade. I always looked forward to spending time with him and our conversations.
It was next too impossible for me to focus on our Scrabble games over the din in the dayroom. Joe, however, seemed oblivious to anything and everything around him to stay focused on the game. He placed words on the board with ease as if nothing bothered him and at the same time sat totally aware of his surroundings. Joe had already served over 30 years of a life sentence and was always up for a good scrabble game. But it wasn't Joe's stunning personality or the scrabble game I looked forward too when I sat down. It was Joe's secrets to his inner strength, peace and will to live that drew me to him. He was over 65yrs old when I met him and had just fought off life-threatening leukemia. He knew that inevitably, one day, he would die in prison but his will to survive was without measure. A life sentence, remission of cancer and the reality of dying in prison would not overcome his will to see life in such a dark place.
When it was Joe’s turn and he was pondering the game board, my thoughts were filled with reflections of how I had taken life for granted most of my life. Joe was a living testimony of how life is precious, how no matter what the circumstances life is still precious. Joe found his purpose in the dayrooms of prison talking to others sharing his life experiences. He had found peace and shared his secrets of how to find my own peace. I may not have been good at Scrabble but I definitely got good at listening to Joe while we played. There was wisdom behind every word he spoke gained from his own life struggles. A desire to live even though he was sentenced to life in prison. To this day the one thing that echoes in my head more than that dayroom cacophony was what Joe said "I might die in prison, but this ain't the end of life.” Even though he was sentenced to life in prison. Joe put up one of the greatest fights I've ever seen. A fight to want to live enough to overcome leukemia and the depression of a life sentence.
I was drawn to Joe by his positive attitude, peace and willingness to share his life lessons with me. I can’t say that I enjoyed always losing our Scrabble games but I definitely found myself grateful for one of the most valuable life lessons I ever learned thanks to Joe sharing with me. He taught me that life is precious, a gift that we are entrusted with. It is up to us to decide what we are going to do with our time and look forward to life everlasting. “…but this ain’t the end of life.”
It’s been said that “In prison you can only exist, never could you experience life."
"So tell me, Johnny. Why do you think there isn't any hope for these men to change," I asked?
Johnny gave me an icy stare over the top of his thick eyeglasses. Switched his tooth pick to the other side of his mouth and said, "Well, Marcel. You gotta’ see it how I see it. A lot of these men haven't found it in their hearts to be brave enough to face change. But for some crazy reason they're brave enough to keep committing crimes and coming back to prison.” During Johnny's time in prison he's seen the insanity of the relentless, revolving door to prison as he watched men return over and over again.
Johnny and I worked together in the prison kitchen preparing and serving meals for the prisoners. During our breaks we would talk about change every day. Changes that make men better people who can be successful when they are released from prison. Changes that can keep a man from returning to prison.
When I first met Johnny I couldn't tell from our initial conversations that he had already been down (in prison) for over 40yrs. I wouldn't have known but he told me so later. Johnny had this inner strength and faith that convinced me that even though he had been down a long while he'd be going home soon. His attitude was different than most cons I've done time around. He had an aura of contentment and peace about him. I never heard him complain and he was always thankful for even the simplest things. During our conversations he always made the point that there's so much to live for that change has to become a way of life not just a way to think. I guess that's why we talked about change all the time.
One day, after discussing life on life's terms, Johnny revealed to me that he was never going home and that he had a life sentence. Right after that he said, "If I only had another chance, Marcel". His attitude seemed hard at times which is common in a prison environment. Hardness embeds itself in your persona especially after a man serves 40yrs. It's an effective tool in prison to push away unwanted company. But what stood out about Johnny more than anything else was the radiant life inside him. Every time I was around him I couldn't help but notice it. A part of him gave off this energy that expressed a life lived as if he was experiencing life on the outside, not locked up in prison. So instead of change being the topic one day I asked "Johnny I gotta’ know. What is it that keeps your spirits so high. What is it that holds you together with such confidence?"
His face went flat as if I caught him off guard by the question. He looked at the floor for a moment then slowly raised his head and said "Love, Marcel. Love is what keeps me sane in here. I don't think I would have made it this far if it wasn't for my wife and my two daughters.”
"So wait minute!" I replied. "You mean to tell me you've had children since you been down?"
"They’re not children anymore. My daughters are grown" he said smiling.
From that point on Johnny shared with me all that life had been for him over the past 40 years behind bars. To my amazement he had been living in this environment among the living dead, those without hope or any faith. Some only motivated by pure hate and anger. Other's completely lost. The scenery stays the same day after day, the days are long and nights are full of reflection. Your name is replaced by a number. A life sentence (L-wop is what they call it). Oddly it's considered the most respected amount of time in prison and lifers are the most dangerous to have a problem with. Almost all lifers die in prison. The reality of a lifer is death inside the walls unless case laws change, that the State laws change granting him relief or the sentencing guide lines change offering time severed for some life without parole inmates. Or to receive the ultimate mercy, clemency, which is not likely for those serving life sentences. Clemency is more often granted to those waiting on death row. That's the reality in prison for lifers or at least I thought it was until I met Johnny who was walking off a life sentence.
Most prisoners don't contemplate change and stay stuck on stupid the entire time they are serving their time. They all come in the way they left the streets, lost, and unfortunately the majority of them go home the same way often worse than when they arrived! Johnny picked up right where he left off when he arrived. His first several years began with hardcore drug addiction in prison. After 20 years of fighting his addictions he finally found serenity. During those 20 years he lost his family for a while. Like all addicts he had to earn back their trust. He started receiving visits, then eventually earned the privilege to receive trailer visits with his wife. His wife became pregnant and they had another girl.
"Man, Marcel. Let me tell ya’. When I held my second baby-girl in my arms and I was clean, I decided right then and there I had everything to live for. When I first got clean I wasn't quite sure about life ‘cause the pressure of doing life in prison always surfaced," he said. I looked at Johnny and could see he was about to tear up but he swallowed his emotion. Then, with a still seriousness, he looked me in the eye and said "I put my wife through hell in and on the outs but she never stopped loving me through it and had faith in me even when I didn't have faith in myself. She encouraged me to live and raised our children. And that's how I was able to hold on to my sanity, Marcel. Support is everything" Johnny said.
Then he stood up and looked back once before disappearing off into the kitchen. That would be our last conversion before I had to quit my job to take up some very needed classes. I missed our deep conversations. I realized that I had had the privilege of getting to know and learn from this man who lives in peace and humility. And though I only saw him in passing after that I'll never forget the impact Johnny’s honesty had on my life. I also found out later that Johnny sends all the money he makes from the kitchen home to his wife and kids. It’s all about love, faith, family and support. "Right Johnny?"
Lawrence Pratt, LP for short, is my personal friend who told me his story, gave me permission to tell it for him and mention his full name. "Tell me that story again LP. When you were on the medical floor in the county jail."
"The medical floor, huh?" LP replied. His eyes angled toward the floor as he sat silent for a few seconds. Then he said softly "Miserable but memorable. That's what the medical floor was like. A part of my life that was undoubtedly a game changer.” he said.
LP had shared with me his reckless past and some pretty intense situations that he had gotten himself into. But there was one in particular that he said seemed to make time stand still. He had attempted to evade the police in a high speed chase but wound up on foot being chased through a small forest. On the other side of this wooded area law enforcement officers were waiting for LP when he ran out of the woods and they gunned him down. Those ten seconds passed in slow motion, the longest ten seconds of his life. When it was over he woke up in the hospital devastated when he discovered his left leg was gone from the middle of his femur down.
"I was in total shock! Emotional, angry and seriously depressed. I had nothing but hate in me," LP said. "At first all I was able to do was wallow in my sorrow in the hospital while morphine numbed my mind and the pain. A month flew by before I knew it. It must’ve been the morphine that kept me more or less unconscious, free of reliving the circumstances and consequences in my head. All that came to an end once I was discharged from the hospital and transported to county jail. That’s when reality seriously set in. My emotions where uncontrollable and I had this constant unexplainable pain in my leg even though it was gone. It got so bad that I started to contemplate suicide. I really wanted to kill myself. I mean who wakes up one day and their leg is gone? Between that and the pain I couldn't handle it. Once I got to the medical floor I laid in my bunk for almost a month before I finally got up and into the wheelchair waiting the whole time next to my bed. I wheeled myself out to the dayroom.”
I thought to myself I can't imagine not having my leg especially in the county jail.
"When I finally came out of that cell I wheeled around the medical unit looking around the day room. Completely devastated, not knowing what to say, I didn't attempt to say anything to anybody. I just sat in that wheelchair depressed. It didn't take long to notice that the medical floor was a real nut house. Even if I wanted to talk to someone there was no one to talk with who made any sense. I mean me, with a missing a leg, was more or less the only sane one there. After a while I understood why they put me there. My mind was all stirred up between losing a leg and being in jail. I had a lot to come to terms with. There were times I just sat there with all these thoughts racing through my mind. How I'd never jump again; never run again; or be seen as a regular person. I felt like a half a man. I felt as if life as I knew it was over.”
"The medical floor was where the reality of being handicapped became seriously evident to me and that my life would take on a whole new meaning. Little did I know that this was definitely a place for me to see the less fortunate. I mean, I lost my leg but it was obvious others had lost their mind. I was in a real nut house surrounded by the criminally insane who we're more a danger to themselves than to others," LP chuckled. Then he paused for moment.
"What's up LP? You good?" I asked.
"Yeah I'm good" he replied. "So there was this youngster who arrived on the medical floor. He couldn't have been over 19 years old. Sharp youngster, well spoken, respectful and surprisingly well educated. While talking with him I noticed he had various scars on his arms. He was in on a possession of heroin conviction so I figured he had a drug problem and the scars were from drug use which is common for the county jail. I took to him without question being that I hadn't had any real interaction or conversation with anybody for about three months. We played cards, chess, and sometimes talked for hours. In some ways he kind of reminded me of myself. To me there were no noticeable signs to suggest why he was on the medical floor and I didn't ask, his company was fine by me. One morning I noticed he didn't come out of his cell. I later found out from an officer that he had been pulled out in the middle of the night for reasons unknown. Two days later he came back but with both his wrists bandaged up. Come to find out he was a cutter. He had found some way to cut himself in middle of the night. We didn't talk that much after that ‘cause he was so doped up on meds. He just slept most of the time and if we did talk it seemed as if he didn't know who I was. Less than a week later six officers suddenly rushed into the pod and ran into his cell. There was blood everywhere. He had fiercely bitten into his wrists ripping his old wounds open," LP said with his face full of disgust. "It was difficult to see someone actually physically hurting themselves and not being able to stop themselves."
I saw something in LP I'd never seen before as he explained the story for a second time. It was a strong presence, a presence of revelation of some sort and what LP said next revealed it all to me.
"Man, Marcel, I don't think I've ever seen a person so helpless in my life who at first he seemed so normal. Every time I go over it in my mind it's like a new, humbling experience. Every time I think back to that time in my life it does something to me. It's like it resets me to be conscious and grateful for my life. It really made me question the choices I'd made with my life seeing that youngster like that. I really questioned whether or not if something was wrong with my mind. I was insane to take my life to such extremes that I lost my leg in the process. It never occurred tom me that my life choices would cost me a limb. After three and half months on the medical floor I was moved to general population. I guess you can say it was meant by God for me to see those worse off than me in order for me to get through my crisis.”
“God is definitely mysterious LP. His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts" I replied. "But one thing you can count on, He's always a God of love and comfort and He always helps us stand even with one leg."
"Amen to that! " LP replied.
I learned a lot about humility from JP. Humility is a divine power source to overcome all adversity. But humility isn't something that is easily learned and is contrary to our nature. Most times it takes harsh life lessons to learn humility. The power behind life's punches can hit so hard that it breaks our pride, arrogance and ego into pieces. Sometimes it takes several life catastrophes for a man to learn humility. Some never learn, never obtain the humbleness that saves. Some die trying to fight it with the delusion of being in control fueled by a self-defeating ego. We rely on our eyesight and what we think we can control and ignore our insight. Inevitably we all, at some point, have to learn humility. Lessons in humility come our way over and over again until humility becomes a way of life for us. Some never learn, stumbling through life never taking responsibility for their actions and never backing down their ego. It is, and always will be the lifesaving power of God that saves us from ourselves. Knowing this we sometimes still choose pride, arrogance and self-centeredness over humility. We are left with the consequences of our stubborn actions instead of gaining the confidence to remain humble and just let God take the lead in the battle. We need to be vigilant against an enemy who uses a false inner voice of independence and self-will to first tempt us and then to destroy us. "Blessed is the one who understands that to lose one's life, is to live,” My question to you is what would you give in exchange for the Almighty life sustaining humility. Or should I say what would you be willing to lose?
God used these three men at times in my life when He knew my heart (the soil) was ready for His seeds to be planted. My heart had been plowed and turned over time and time again by God to prepare me to receive His saving grace. It had been reshaped in so many ways and tilled from stubborn hard dirt to a heart that would finally allow Him to plant the needed seeds (the needed messages) that would grow roots deep enough that my heart would increase in understanding and spiritual awareness. During this time in my life a series of things took place that allowed me to finally hear God’s message. He freed me from myself, that is he released me from all those negative thoughts that dragged me down and away from God and the life He promises us. I received all kinds of awesome revelations from the Holy Spirit that spoke directly to me. One of the most impactful things said to me was “When you get past what's happening to you in life you can receive what God is doing for you.” Every one of my prison experiences had proven to me that God is always working in my life even though I was going about it the wrong way [Romans 8:28]. When I heard “We can choose our own way but we can't choose the results” that's when I realized I'm free to do as I please but I'm not free from the consequences of my choices. So my question to you is “Is that really freedom?” Absolutely not! Every sin has its own consequences. God is not a punisher of sins; God is grace, forgiveness and love. That's why He sent His only begotten Son. [John 3:16]
LP indeed lost his leg but he received humility in such a way that I've never seen. Now God uses LP to testify about His saving grace.
Joe unfortunately has a life sentence and most likely will die in prison but God's will for him to live as a surviving light in such a dark place is Joe's testimony to others. God has built into us the will to live no matter what our circumstances and has given us the ability to overcome adversity, no matter what they may be through Him! [John 16:33]
I'm sad to say Johnny wasn't a believer. Lord knows I witnessed to him daily and shared the Good News with him. But the Bible is filled with stories of how God uses the stubborn, the faithless, the rebellious, the fallen, non-believer's and even a donkey [2 Peter 2:16] to speak to us. It says in the scriptures He will guide and teach His beloved to comfort, counsel, condition, position and encourage us to come and follow Him to set us free of our circumstances. Johnny taught me about humility and although he claimed to be a non-believer, he taught me about love. The kind of love that only comes from God.
I share these stories not to extol prison life or to gain sympathy for what it's like to be in prison but to share them to encourage those who refuse to live but have their whole life ahead of them. To encourage them look towards their Higher Power to free them. This is for those who have all the freedom in the world but refuse to be free in their mind and spirit and for those who think the timing has to be just right to start living. When there are men serving a life time in prison who are still able live in peace and humility relying on God’s promises that should give us pause to reflect on our own lives.
God wastes nothing! And that's what makes these stories so important.
Copyright 2016 by Urban Verve Publishing. All rights reserved.
Scriptures taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.