Grammy-winning hip hop artist Lecrae admits there's "some weird, warped thing" about how he feels walking into a prison. "It's hard to describe, but I feel at home. It's like a weird connectivity. … It gives me life."
Lecrae grew up visiting his father and uncles behind bars. For a time, those visits felt like a strange rite of passage, he says. He would later volunteer in juvenile halfway houses and other correctional facilities. These experiences, and his growing Christian faith, developed within Lecrae a zeal for prison ministry. It's one reason why this spring found Lecrae and members of the 116 Clique behind bars for an unpublicized tour stop with Prison Fellowship® at the Carol S. Vance Unit in Texas.
"Why wouldn't we come?" he said. "I'd want somebody to come see me."
CONNECTING AS BROTHERS
For a prison, the Carol Vance Unit is as nondescript as they come—beige cinderblock, drab linoleum, barred windows—but ever since the Prison Fellowship Academy® debuted here in 1997, this facility has developed a reputation that stands apart from many others.
The Academy is a holistic life transformation program anchored in biblical, evidence-based curriculum, for incarcerated men and women across the country. Darryl Brooks, the current program director at Carol Vance who escorted Lecrae's crew, graduated the program at this site years ago after a long battle with cocaine addiction.
From the cell block to the yard, Lecrae and his crew were greeted by many men with stories like Darryl's. They ate with the incarcerated men in the chow hall and swapped jokes like old friends— "You know, cars fly now," Lecrae teased.
In more serious moments, Carol Vance residents shared their hopes and fears for life outside. This wasn't a publicity stunt—rappers shaking hands with nobodies. This was about men created in the image of God, connecting as brothers.
Lecrae's fans have valued his transparent, self-effacing lyrics for years. In a culture of social media noise, he maintains a reverent yet unwavering presence, undeterred from sharing honest, biblical truth with millions of followers. Lecrae doesn't front. And if there's one place where false pretense won't get you far, it's prison.
Sitting across from Academy students at desks, eye to eye, Lecrae asked the hard questions: What's the biggest lesson you've learned in prison? Do you have plans for when you get out? Are you ready to face the reality of life in the free world? The prisoners answered him earnestly.
They also had questions for Lecrae. One invited him to share how past experiences can affect present and future success.
"I know how messed up my life has been because of the generational cycles in my family," Lecrae told them. "… God doesn't waste pain. He doesn't waste the experiences. We all struggle with stuff, but the experiences reveal what God is trying to work out in you."
Real success, artist and prisoners agreed, isn't just found on stage. Sometimes, it can be reclaimed in a prison cell.
THE STORY IS NOT OVER
In the day room, they met current prisoner and recent Academy graduate Eddie. He doesn't look a day over 30. With clasped hands he recounts the seven years he's paid the Texas prison system. The v-neck of his white state-issued uniform revealed a spread of tattoos. One word stood out in bold ink: "Jesus."
Eddie is one of the 134,000 people in prison in Texas—just a sample of the 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S. today—and in the Academy, he unearthed the roots of his criminal behavior, discovered new identity in Christ, and joined a community of believers.
In mere days, he would be going home.
"I just got my release date, and my mom already posted to Facebook," Eddie laughed. "I'm ready to go home. I'm so ready."
In the chapel, Eddie and some classmates performed an original rap, followed by a surprise freestyle session by Lecrae's squad. Words of hope filled the room. The place erupted in cheers.
"A lot of times when people commit shameful acts, we throw them away, and God never does that," said Lecrae. "We do it, but God never does that. If God threw away people who commit shameful acts, David wouldn't be here. Moses wouldn't be here … The list goes on and on. I wouldn't be here."
He added, "We're [visiting] like a little bookmark saying, 'Hey, your story's not over.'"
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