Last Easter, Prison Fellowship Ministries® President and CEO, Jim Liske, visited the Central Florida Reception, a large prison camp with different wings for prisoners who need hospice care or are too young to be housed with the general population.
In the chapel, Jim preached about Timothy, who grew up without a father, and told the young men, “No one is disqualified from God’s grace.”
Jim spent some time with men in the prison’s infirmary, where seriously injured and terminally ill prisoners serve out their sentences. One prisoner named Michael wore a helmet to prevent further injury to his brain. Weighed down by unthinkable guilt, he was serving 40 years for a drunk driving accident that killed his best friend.
Michael broke down in tears at Jim’s message of grace. “I’m the one who should be dead,” he cried.
Jim explained that the Lord had a purpose for keeping him alive, and that through God’s sacrifice of His Son, Michael could have the life-changing gift of forgiveness.
What an amazing discovery: Michael heard the Gospel message and realized God still loved him despite his past!
“If you could have a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?”
This is the question a photography team sent to hundreds of prisoners in federal penitentiaries all around the country. The prisoners who received the question have two things in common; they are all originally from the D.C. area and were all convicted of crimes when they were juveniles.
Upon receiving answers from prisoners across the U.S., students from Duke Ellington School of the Arts and George Mason University traveled around D.C. photographing the locations the prisoners requested. Then they mailed the photographs to each prisoner as a way to help them “bridge the distance” between their cells and their homes.
“The project begins with an idea, that becomes a photograph, that when enlarged, creates new social models that blur art, education, and activism,” the project’s website reads.
Locals to the D.C. area can view these photos and letters printed on 12-by-9-foot banners on the Fairfax, Va., campus of George Mason University through April 21, 2014.
Below is one of the photographs and corresponding request letters. To see more “Windows From Prison,” please visit the exhibit website.
A prisoner I’ll call Jared is getting ready to be one of the first graduates of a new Prison Fellowship pre-release unit. This is his third time behind bars. He has spent most of his life as a drug dealer and a petty thief, governed by that troublesome four-letter word: self.
Jared admits that he only started the Prison Fellowship classes to ‘game the system.’ He wanted to have something positive on his prison record and to get out of his cell for the day. If he could convince prison officials that he was changing, he might even get out of prison early. But it was all another scheme.
That something unexpected started to happen. As Jared studied the Bible and received the love of Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers, he became interested in Jesus. Finally, he gave his heart to Him! Now, Jared is a changed man. He has a new vision for his life, a vision that has nothing to do with his old routine of hustling on the streets.
Through lessons on money management, parenting, anger management, and life planning – all based in the Bible – Jared says he feels, “more ready to go home and change [his] life” than ever before. Over and over again, he told me, “I have hope.” That’s a four-letter word we need to hear more of behind bars!
The love of God changes hearts and produces hope – the joyous expectation of God’s good gifts – where none existed before. How will we respond to that love? Will we let it shine through us for all to see? Learn how today at prisonfellowship.org.
Hank Green, half of the of the popular “Vlogbrothers” video blog team, was recently asked by a viewer, “If you could do a high-quality animated video about any issue in the world, what would you choose?” Green’s response? “I went with incarceration in America, because it is messed up.”
Cue the video.
What advice would you give to a younger you? If you could give yourself a warning, or point a juvenile version of you in a particular direction, what would you say? Would it make a difference?
The question became painfully real to Trent Bell, an architectural photographer in Maine, when a longtime family friend was convicted of a crime and sentenced to over 30 years in prison. He wondered what his friend would have told himself if he had the opportunity. He also wondered what stories other inmates would want to tell their former selves.
These questions were the impetus for “Reflect: Convicts’ Letters to Their Younger Selves,” a photo project featuring portraits of prisoners of the Maine State Prison set on a backdrop of their own, handwritten notes to their adolescent versions.
The stark portraits of the inmates in prison-issued uniforms effectively reveal the consequences of advice not taken, of poor moral choices, and of poorer acquaintances made. The words penned are as honest and touching as they are haunting, and are spoken with a wisdom that only comes from lessons learned the hard way.
One of the cruelest facts in criminal justice is that more than 40 percent of ex-prisoners end up being sent back to prison within three years of their release. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right guidance before and after they complete their sentences, former prisoners like Duane can build successful lives on the outside.
As the bullets whizzed by, Duane felt his blood run cold. That should have been enough to put him on the straight and narrow, Duane says, but it wasn’t. The lure of life in the fast lane was too strong.
Urban streets have no mercy. But God did.
Duane says, “He protected me over and over.”
Finally, two years after the night that he almost died, Duane realized that his life was headed nowhere, and he gave his heart to Jesus Christ.
In this special Easter edition of the Frontlines video series, Prison Fellowship Ministries President and CEO Jim Liske recounts his recent visit to teach at a church where an inmate choir led the congregation in worship, sharing a beautiful picture of the unity of God’s Kingdom inside and outside prison walls. Hear how lives and hearts are changed through the message of the Resurrection, and hear how you can be a part of Prison Fellowship’s ministry behind bars this coming Easter.
It was like a prison from a Hollywood film set: thick limestone walls pocked with small windows; dark, oppressive cells; and narrow corridors full of musty, unmoving air …
As I passed through many layers of security and entered the cell block, I could feel the oppression of hopelessness surrounding me. But in the heart of all that darkness, a light was shining. I went through a door into a simple chapel, where 60 men were worshiping Jesus. Their voices were deafening as they smiled, clapped, and sang. The setting was still dark, but it was brightened by the joy these men had deep in their souls.
Were these men joyful because of impending freedom? No, most were facing decades more behind bars. Their joy came from the Good News: God’s gift of salvation in Christ. Their happiness burst forth because they had allowed God to be in control and trusted in His great love. Through them, God is changing the prison!
I always leave prison visits like these feeling encouraged and humbled. Prisoners teach me how to rejoice always. They show me what simple faith is – faith that moves mountains.
I am always anxious to go back “inside” to worship with my brothers and sisters in prison, because there I can see Jesus and meet Him face to face. He is true joy. He is true freedom.
Will you join us behind bars, too? I promise – you don’t know what you’re missing! Learn how at prisonfellowship.org/get-involved.
Cassandra Bensahih spent four months in jail because of her drug addition.
When she was released, things didn’t get better. She couldn’t find a job or an apartment, she started using drugs again, and her kids were taken to foster care. Realizing the turn for the worse her life had taken, Cassandra enrolled in a rehabilitation program. She stopped using drugs and started down a better path for her and her family.
But Cassandra’s determination could only do so much for her. A little check box stood in her way. “Have you ever been convicted of a felony or a crime?” all her job applications read. Checking that box meant losing any chance of an interview. Time after time, opportunities slipped away as employers didn’t give her résumé a first look.
Cassandra began volunteering for the Massachusetts-based group, Ex-prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA), which she learned about through her rehab program. EPOCA, along with the Boston Worker’s Alliance and Neighbor to Neighbor, worked to help pass a state law in 2010 that kept employers from being able to ask about criminal records in or before initial interviews. The groups also helped pass a state law that seals all criminal records after 10 years, so ex-prisoners really can have the chance to leave their pasts behind and start anew after some time has passed.
Now Cassandra works as a community organizer for EPOCA. Her children live with her again, she has a good place to live, and she’s five-years sober. Her record will be sealed in 2018.
When Chris Padgett was 14 years old, his sister was diagnosed with cancer. Exactly two months before she passed away, Chris watched as a minister visited her in the hospital and led her to the Lord.
A few months later – with a softened heart from the loss of his sister – Chris accepted Jesus into his life, too.
Chris went on to attend college and serve in the Missouri Army National Guard for six years. After, he took a job as a security guard at a hospital. He recalls several times when he stopped to pray with patients who were hurting.
“I was truly compassionate,” he remembers.
But soon Chris began working as a corrections officer in a medium-high security prison, and he started to feel himself changing – slowly losing his compassion for others.
“It’s a hard field if you don’t guard your heart,” he says.
It wasn’t long before Chris found himself snowballing into an eight-year lie that would land him on the other side of the prison bars and, at the same time, propel him into a journey toward spiritual freedom.