In 1992, Bryan Kelley was sentenced to life for murdering a man in a drug deal gone bad. As many in his situation have done, he spent time during his first few months in prison reflecting on his past decisions and regretting previous choices. “I was a pretty good kid,” Kelley remembers. “I was voted Mr. Junior High School. I was in student council. I got great grades. Homecoming king candidate, stellar athlete in school. … How does that guy end up in prison with a life sentence for murder?”
As a part of the American Enterprise Institute’s Vision Talks, Kelley recently addressed an audience in Washington, DC, describing the struggles and the challenges of prison life, and the problems many formerly incarcerated men and women face after release. He paints a picture of a world where violence is commonplace, and support and encouragement are hard to find.
“Do you see how hopelessness and despair and anger grip prison?” Kelley asks his listeners. “It covers it like a cloud and it just chokes out any ideas about change or hope. If a man is going to change in prison, there are precious few handholds and even fewer hands reaching down to help pull him up.”
Kelley was fortunate—he had such a hand reaching down, challenging him to take some of the very attributes and skills that landed him in prison and use them to chart a course for success upon release. A nonprofit organization named the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) brought successful business executives into the prison to help cultivate the talents they already have.
“Here’s what I want you to know about the guys in prison,” Kelley says. “From their trade on the street they know a lot about business, they just don’t know that they know it. They know things about profit margins, they know about supply chains, they know about risk management, they know about marketing.”
But having the ability to run a business is not sufficient. “We are not trying to make better dope dealers,” says Kelley, who works as the executive relations manager at PEP. “That is not the deal. We’re trying to forge better men.”
A basic truth that Kelley learned early in his incarceration was that “hurting people hurt people,” be that themselves or those around them. However, he says he has since learned another lesson—that “healing people heal people.” Those who have been supported by others will happily take the opportunity to pass that encouragement on to others who are facing similar situations. “Some of these guys, and there are so many people in prison who are ready to do this, they become strong in their broken places, so strong sometimes that they can go back and help their brothers. That’s what happened to me.”
“There are literally thousands of people that are languishing in prison, broken, don’t know the way out,” Kelley says. “If they knew the way out, they wouldn’t have been there. They need help. They need somebody to connect the dots.”
“Please do not let me languish and drown in my consequences,” concludes Kelley, speaking on behalf of those he now serves in prison. “I want to come up and do something different, but I can’t do it by myself. I need some help. Send me someone who has made a mistake, who has been a failure, who knows what it’s like to let other people down, who has been ashamed and knows what that’s like to come and help me get past that.”
Across the country, thousands of Prison Fellowship volunteers are doing just that. Responding the biblical mandate to “remember the prisoner,” these men and women seek to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of prisoners and former prisoners, offering prayer and encouragement to those who desperately need it. To learn more about the different ways Prison Fellowship seeks to serve prisoners and their families, and to find out how you can help them become “strong in their broken places,” visit our action page.