Prisoners in the Prison Fellowship Academy® at the Carol S. Vance Unit in Texas live in community not fear.
"My name is Dennis Boyd, and I used to be a robber."
Dennis has a quiet and steady demeanor as he shares his story. He's been behind bars for 39 years, with most of that time spent in maximum-security facilities.
"Prison was kind of rough," he says. "You come in, you have a few fistfights … you have to adapt to the prison unit that you're in, and [at] most maximum-security units, you kind of go through a [violent] phase like that."
For Dennis, prison was a dangerous place where no one could be trusted. He saw prisoners attacked and even murdered. While some prisoners would join gangs for protection and community, Dennis chose to be a loner. He worked hard in the fields—he prefers to call himself an "agricultural specialist"—and he kept to himself in the cellblock.
"People wanted things from you, or they wanted you to do things [for them]," Dennis says. But Dennis kept his guard up. Eat, work, sleep, repeat.
"After a while, you get accustomed to doing time," he says.
A DIFFERENT WORLD
Dennis has spent most of his life in prison but will be released this year. Because he's up for release soon, he was transferred to the Carol S. Vance Unit to participate in the Prison Fellowship Academy.
Located in select prisons across the country, the Prison Fellowship Academy is an intensive, biblically based program that takes incarcerated men and women through a holistic life transformation process. Participants are guided by Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers to lead lives of purpose and productivity inside and outside of prison.
For Dennis, Carol Vance was a completely different world than the one he had grown to know behind bars.
"There [are] units that we call 'rock 'n' roll units,'" he explains. "Basically, you endure a lot of fights. ... I came to [Carol Vance] from the maximum-security units with walls built around me."
At Carol Vance, though, the prisoners were welcoming. Friendly. Kind. Dennis wasn't sure how to respond to that. Were the prisoners sincere? Genuine?
As his time passed, Dennis realized that difference he saw was because of the Academy. "You get to know people here, and you get to see the genuine love," he says.
For Dennis, it's the Academy staff and volunteers who have had the most impact. He doesn't take them for granted. "They could be at home doing so many other things," he says, but "they sacrifice their time and their effort just to come and to hang out with you, and to pour into you and to encourage you to do better and to be better."
Not that long ago, Dennis was given a choice—he could be released soon, or he could stay at the Academy and be released later. He chose to stay.
While at Carol Vance, Dennis has had the chance to reconnect with his son and daughter. Had he pursued his release, he would have been too focused on himself to allow God to restore his family.
Had he gotten out, "There [are] so many things I would have missed. I would have missed a tremendous amount of blessings that I have received since I've been here."
'YOU DON'T HAVE TO TAKE THAT ROAD'
"I used to be a selfish person," Dennis says. "A lot of times I was only concerned about myself and no one else. I didn't care about anyone else. But through Prison Fellowship I have learned to be considerate of others."
God has worked in Dennis' heart and called him to reach out to others, especially younger men and women. He hopes his life can be a testimony to others—an example that inspires the next generation.
"If you're traveling a road of being in trouble, then let my life be an example to you [of] where it goes," he says. "You don't have to take that road."
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