'Until my mind and heart were free, my soul would never be free to face the challenges of prison life.'
The following article was originally published in the Spanish Spring 2015 edition of Inside Journal®, a quarterly newspaper printed and distributed by Prison Fellowship® to correctional facilities across the country.
Born and raised in a bayou town in Louisiana, Sidney thought he had a good life with a family, a home, and a job with the U.S. Army Corps. But in the 1970s, he was arrested and convicted of rape. "My conviction carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole."
As the judge pronounced the sentence, Sidney stood there stunned. "I had never been to prison before … my life seemed to be over." Despairing thoughts flooded his mind as he considered the fact that he would die in prison, never again to be active as a husband or a father. "While I stayed numb and speechless, I heard someone say that I was 'trying to be strong.' If they only knew; I had no strength at all."
Afterward, reality set in. "I was going to Angola [Louisiana State Penitentiary], then the bloodiest prison in the country. I wondered if I would have to kill or be killed, but since I would spend the rest of my natural life in prison anyway, it didn't seem to matter."
Sidney felt hopeless. "When you have an out date, you can look forward to the future and make some plans. Even if you have a long sentence, there is always the possibility of getting it shortened. But how could I hope when there was nothing to hope for?"
LET TIME SERVE YOU
For the first couple of years, Sidney just existed day to day. But one day he saw a sign in the education department that read, "Don't serve time; let time serve you." That was an aha! moment for Sidney. "It was then that I began to take note of what the prison environment was doing to me. I knew I was better than what I was becoming."
Sidney was raised in a religious family, but he didn't want to know a God who would abandon him in prison. All around him, he saw people who had "jailhouse religion" and were pretending to be holy, but they "were living even worse lives than I."
One day an old prisoner came up to Sidney and asked him to come to a church service with him. "At that time I was so lost and confused that I agreed." Something happened to Sidney at that service. His heart began to change. "The old convict who had brought me looked me in the eyes and said, 'No matter what people might say about you, you have worth. So, don't ever give up. You must build the life you have always desired or as close as you can to that life.'"
LESSONS FROM PRISON
The older prisoner encouraged Sidney to read, study, and grow in the Bible. "He told me I could still be the man I was meant to be, but to become that person, I needed to cleanse myself of [sin]."
Sidney surrendered his heart to Christ and began to study His Word. "I visited the sick at the prison hospital and began talking to anyone who would listen about this new life I had found behind the barbed wire fences." Within a couple of years, Sidney was teaching the Bible to others.
"A few years later, my mom came to visit me," he says. "She told me she was proud of the person I had become. I could see in her eyes that she meant every word. Her expression of love and faith in me was so moving that I began to apologize to her for all the wrong I had ever done."
A NEW LIFE FOR A NEW PERSON
After that day Sidney started getting involved in every self-help program the prison had to offer. "I was a new person, and I had to do new things." He received a call into the ministry to preach the Gospel. In the 1990s the prisoner church elected Sidney as its pastor.
In 2010, the Louisiana Department of Corrections and Warden Burl Cain established a reentry program allowing Angola's lifers and long-termers to teach and mentor short-term prisoners. Prisoners would teach vocational training and life skills with an emphasis on moral rehabilitation, with the goal of reducing recidivism, enhancing public safety, and creating fewer victims.
Warden Cain selected Sidney to be the lead mentor and coordinator of the Corrections Court Reentry Program. "Working with young men, many of whom have never had a real chance in life, has been my most rewarding experience. The mentors and tutors are helping to make society safer."
After decades of incarceration, Sidney is no longer angry or bitter with anyone for any reason. "I believe that God has given me another chance to be a good father. He has restored my relationship with my own children, and now I have so many more ‘kids’ behind bars who call me 'Pops.'"
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