Cindy Sanford is the author of Letters to a Lifer: The Boy ‘Never to be Released.’ Visit her website at letters2alifer.blogspot.com.
“Javier,* what has happened to your heart?” I asked. I brushed tears from my eyes as I glanced away from his tightly cuffed wrists. Javier had been in solitary confinement going on five years now so our visits were always behind glass and we had to speak through a microphone. But from the shy, pleased smile he gave me, I could tell he understood the reason for my question.
Up until about 7 months ago, Javier was one of the worst behaved inmates in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Perpetually angry and depressed, he relieved the intense boredom and loneliness of isolation by engaging in shouting matches with other prisoners who enthusiastically exchanged insults with him from behind the doors of their cells. As a prison volunteer, I often heard prisoners in restricted housing units “gang-warring” with each other and it always depressed me. What did they gain by wasting their time this way? Why didn’t they support or encourage one another?
Thankfully, Javier gave up most of his negative behaviors about six months ago. I will never forget the look on his face when I told him how proud I was of the changes he had made. I’d been proud all right, but after what he’d just told me, I was literally in awe.
“Do you see what God is doing to you, Javier? He is definitely changing you. Your heart has become so sensitive, you could not bear to have this lie on your conscience, even though no one was harmed by it!”
While Javier talked about the blessings he’d received after he committed himself to the Lord, I marveled over what he’d just told me. A few months ago, he was given a job as a block worker to reward him for the dramatic improvement in his behavior. A week before our current visit, while he was out cleaning, Javier learned that a man on his pod was on a hunger strike. Concerned, he stuffed two rolls in his pocket and began to scrub the man’s cell door, hoping to persuade him to eat something. After a quick glance around to make sure no one was watching, Javier passed the rolls through the food wicket on the man’s door.
Unfortunately, an officer confronted him almost immediately. Passing anything unauthorized to another prisoner is against the rules and could result in him being fired from his new job, or worse. Much worse. To his credit, Javier made an immediate confession, but he told the officer he’d given the man a book, not food. Passing food to a man on a hunger strike was a more serious offense than passing reading material. The officer gave him a stern warning, but chose to believe him– and the incident was forgotten. But Javier couldn’t let it go.
“So why did you finally decide to tell him the truth?” I asked. “You had gotten away with it. Besides, no real harm was done.”
Javier’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Because the lie kept bothering me. I hate lying. I was wrong to do what I did, but it was worse that I lied about it.”
That was the point I began to cry. How was it possible that a state convict could grow to love the Lord so much, he would put himself in jeopardy this way? “Javier, I can’t believe this. I … I can’t help wondering what I would have done in your shoes. I’m not sure I would have confessed, to be completely honest with you. No one was hurt by what you did. I think I might have chalked it up as a learning experience and resolved not to pass anything again.” I felt the tears streaming down my face by now but there was no use hiding them anymore. Besides, Javier’s eyes were just as full of tears as mine were.
I cleared my throat. “But what happened? Did you lose your job?” I prepared myself for the worst, for a huge setback, including Javier earning additional time in the hole.
“I waited a couple of days and when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I took the officer aside and asked to speak to him. I told him it bothered me that I lied and I had to tell the truth,” Javier explained. “Then I let him know that I would understand if he had to fire me from my job.”
I slid back in my chair, afraid to hear the rest of the story. Javier had come so far, and they’d recently promised him he would soon be sent to general population. I didn’t want to think about him spending more time in the hole over this; the isolation had nearly driven him to the brink of insanity. But on another level, I was immensely proud of him. My voice cracked as I shared what was in my heart.
“I am so deeply moved by what you told me, Javier. God is working a true miracle in you. You are not the same man you were six months ago. You have so much courage, more than I would have had in the same position. I am so sorry you lost your job over this.” It depressed me that his courageous devotion to the truth would cost him so much.
He smiled. “But I didn’t lose my job.”
“What! Are you serious?”
“Yes. I knew I would be punished after I confessed, and I was sure I would at least lose my job. But the officer was surprised that I told him the truth anyway. He said he wasn’t going to do that. He is a really good officer. And when I promised him I would never pass anything again, he said he believed me because I had the courage to tell the truth.”
An hour later I said goodbye to Javier and left the prison, humbled by the miracle I just witnessed. A few years ago, my faith in a God of miracles had been reduced to embers. I saw no evidence that God concerned Himself anymore with the affairs of men. There was far too much hate and meanness in the world to believe that. But God responded to my despair and lack of faith by guiding me, the wife of a retired law enforcement officer, into prison ministry.
At first, it didn’t make sense. I had no desire to minister to prisoners. They were the least deserving of God’s children, in my view. Why waste time with people who had deliberately hurt others and had no desire to change?
But it’s clear to me that God didn’t limit Himself to changing Javier’s heart, He changed mine as well. Now every day I thank God for the mercy and forgiveness He extended, not just to Javier but to me. I think I needed it every bit as much as he did.
*“Javier” is a pseudonym.