The old Tino would not recognize the smiling, hopeful man he is today.
It was during a stint in solitary confinement that Tino finally dropped his pride and admitted he needed God. "I was writing my sister, who I believe was battling cancer at the time," Tino recalls. "I wrote her a real two-page letter and got the envelope and stamp ready." But when Tino went to add his sister's address, he drew a blank.
"I forgot her address," he says. "And that really broke me down. I couldn't even mail a letter to my sister."
It was a turning point in Tino's life. In that moment, he felt the presence of God in his cell. "I knew there was a presence there. I knew He was before me, [saying], 'No more. You can't do this no more.'"
Tino has served 27 years of a 30-year sentence for murder. He's a recent graduate of the Prison Fellowship Academy® at the Carol S. Vance Unit in Texas.
"I didn't know what to expect [when I first arrived]," Tino says. "I came here as a stipulation for parole, but [the Academy has] opened so many doors for me. … I met so many people who wanted to pour into me, wanted to share just their love and their experiences with me, to where the walls just fell down. Any barriers that I built were just nonexistent."
Located in select prisons across the country, the Prison Fellowship Academy takes incarcerated men and women through a year-long holistic life transformation, where they are guided by Prison Fellowship® staff and volunteers to lead lives of purpose and productivity inside and outside of prison.
Academy participants learn to identify the life-controlling issues that led to their incarceration and take responsibility for its impact on their community. For Tino, the Academy "has helped me dig into the forgiveness that I need to seek," Tino explains. "I violated people. … A father isn't there with his children [because of me]. I now see that."
Tino knows that his transformation can seem almost too good to be true. He knows that if the Tino of his past saw him today, he would be shocked at the change. But "it's so much better on this side" of the cross, he explains.
GRACE AND MERCY
The Academy also works with graduates to find resources and the help they need upon their release. Returning citizens receive opportunities to join communities and churches eager to see them succeed.
"Knowing that I have a community of believers, a family of believers, waiting for me on the outside—waiting to accept me wholeheartedly—that [is] amazing," Tino says. "They will not only teach me the everyday ins and outs of the world, but I will be able to share fellowship with them."
Because of the Academy, Tino knows where he can go to find accountability and support after he leaves prison.
For now, Tino is spending his last days in prison helping others find the same hope he has. He sees in each newcomer the old Tino, the one who resisted God and mocked people of faith. "But I embrace them the same [as others did for me]," he says. "I want to be there for the next person because it's a full circle—it goes full circle. If I can't do what someone is doing for me now, it'll be a shame."
"I think back to Tino back then," he says, "and I shudder because it was horrifying. It was truly horrifying. … The hate I felt on an everyday basis. … I'm [still] not perfect, [but] on this side of the cross, it's grace and mercy, and I really embrace that."
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