I remember one time I saw a high school classmate who asked me, "Hey Fred, what you've been up to?" And I said, "Working my way to prison."
About nine months later, I did go to prison—for possession of 12.8 grams of marijuana. I was given a 6-months-to-10-years sentence and became prisoner B28545. I wasn't a hardcore criminal—just an addict who didn't like myself.
PART ONE: COSTLY ACCEPTANCE
All my life, I was always nervous around people, and I hated that, and therefore I tried to act out. I wanted to be respected in prison.
In prison, if you were a member of a gang, and you were in trouble, the gang would back you. I joined a hardcore group of guys, a notorious prison gang, in 1971, and tried to make everyone believe I was hard and cold. Even got the name of our gang tattooed on my chest like a brand.
But inside, I was scared to death.
PROVING HIS WORTH
In 1972, it came to my attention that I had access to someone who had wronged one of my gang members. It was going to be up to me to kill him.
"But I'm six months from the parole board," I protested. "They're going to kick me out. I could do more for the gang outside."
Then I realized, If I don't try to kill him, am I gonna get killed? 'Cause I had already heard what happened to guys who didn't do what they were supposed to do.
I found the guy and put my arm around him like, like, "Hey, I'm your friend. You're all right with me."
I had never stabbed anyone before. Nervously, I stood on one side of him. My partner was on the other. Then I pulled my knife out, and we began stabbing him.
His face is still in my mind. I see his face—the fear, the torment. I see his face all the time.
When I went to court for his murder, it was almost like I was in a trance. I guess I just numbed myself to the pain of it—the reality of what I was facing. Before the crime, I had been due to appear before the parole board in another six months. Instead, I was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to seven years to life in prison.
'His face is still in my mind. I see his face—the fear, the torment. I see his face all the time.'
MADNESS ON THE PRISON YARD
From there, I went to San Quentin Prison in California, and it just became madness. The racial tension between gangs was crazy tough. You never knew if you were going to get into a fight the next time you went on the yard.
Through the grapevine, I heard that a friend of mine who had been released was back in the Los Angeles County Jail. It was 1976. I sent my friend a letter and asked him to subpoena me for his trial. Not because I could help his case—I just wanted to get out of San Quentin. Still, he sent for me, and I was transferred to the jail for the trial.
I was put in a single cell under heavy guard, but the officers allowed me to go down to the law library to make phone calls. The first time I went, there was a guy I knew from San Quentin there. He was the leader of a rival gang.
The second time I went down to the law library, he was there again. I thought to myself, If I kill him, I'll have made it. I figured I could make a name for myself, be respected by my gang and the other prisoners, and maybe then the fear inside me would go away.
So, I went to the library for a third time. I had a piece of a mop bucket that I had sharpened on the floor of my cell. He was there again, but this time he was with one of his gang partners.
I ended up attacking both of them–and I praise God today that they took the knife away from me and used it to stab me 10 times.
'I praise God that they took the knife away from me and used it to stab me 10 times.'
CLARITY IN THE AFTERMATH
By the end of the attack, they had me flat on my back, and they went for both of my eyes. The knife hit my right eyebrow, and it glanced off, leaving a scar. My left eyelid was cut and had to be stitched together. When it was over, I remember thinking, Who saved me from this? I knew it was God, but I wasn't ready to acknowledge Him yet.
I went to the hospital and stayed about a month and a half. During that time, my parents came to see me. They brought one of my uncles, who was a minister, and the three of them prayed with me.
My hospital room was on the 11th floor, and my window looked out west. One day there wasn't any fog on the ocean, and I saw blue-green water. At night, I would come up to the window and see all the lights of Los Angeles. Wow, this is what I am missing, I thought to myself.
After I healed up, the hospital sent me back to San Quentin where I got a hero's welcome from my gang. "Right on, brother! We're proud of you. You did great!"
And I thought, Proud of me? What if I had died? You would have talked good about me for a few days and then forgotten me. After all, that's what I had done when other gang members had died.
So, the lightbulb went on. I began to see how false it all was—how futile. I thought, Where am I going with this? Where is it going to take me? God used that experience just to show me how ridiculous, how insane—how phony that lifestyle was.
'I began to see how false it all was—how futile. ... God used that experience just to show me how ridiculous, how insane—how phony that lifestyle was.'
A NEW LIFE TO LIVE
Prisoners are often transferred to other correctional facilities multiple times during their sentences. After my time at San Quentin, I was moved to Folsom Prison. Folsom was quieter—there wasn't any fighting going on there. But then in 1978, the department of corrections sent me back to the same facility, the same unit, where I had committed my first murder six years before. My old gang was still very active there.
I remember sitting in my cell on my bunk, seeing the hopelessness around me, and desiring a change. I didn't see lights or hear music, but suddenly, the Holy Spirit regenerated my dead spirit and made me alive.
I realized, Wow, I believe in God. I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior. A peace of mind that I never experienced before came over me, and I knew what I needed to do.
I needed to leave the gang.
'I knew what I needed to do. I needed to leave the gang.'
PART TWO: GOD PROVIDES A WAY OUT
Leaving the gang could mean my death. It was not a decision I took lightly. But I knew it was the right thing to do. The next time one of my gang brothers asked me to get into a fight with some rival gang on the yard, I said, "If they take the fight to me, I'll defend myself. But I'm not gonna take it to them."
He asked, "What's going on?"
I said, "I'm a Christian now. That's the life I'm gonna live."
He just looked at me, shook his head, and walked away.
My pride wouldn't let me go to protective custody. Instead, I waited for the gang to come for me—but they never did. The correctional officers didn't believe that I had dropped out. They kept questioning me, asking, "Why aren't you dead? Why hasn't the gang tried something?"
And I said, "I don't know. I told them that I became a Christian. Maybe God is protecting me."
Sometime later I learned that two prisoners were each approached by the gang to kill me. Each refused to do so.
I know that my Lord and Savior Christ Jesus didn't allow it to happen!
'I'm a Christian now. That's the life I'm gonna live.'
A DANGEROUS SITUATION
Once again, I was transferred to another facility. I was placed in the general population. My gang seemed willing to leave me in peace, but I had plenty of other enemies to worry about.
At this new facility, I ended up working with a Christian prison ministry. Pastors and volunteers would come into my new facility seven days a week to lead evening Bible studies with the prisoners. We had an office right along the main prison block corridor where we met. The room didn't have a door—it was just open all the time. During the day, a few Christian brothers and myself would counsel guys who wanted to talk one on one.
One day—I remember it was summertime—I was in the fellowship office by myself studying. All of a sudden, this man walked in through the open doorway, and he said, "I'm looking for some Bible studies."
I showed him where we had the studies along the wall and told him he could take any one he wanted. "No, I have a copy of all of those," he said.
I thought, That's a lie. We had more than 75 studies—there was no way he could possibly already have a copy of each one. Then he started asking me about the ministry office and how we run things there. I told him about the counseling we offered, in addition to the meetings we had in the evenings. After a while, he left. The whole interaction was suspicious, and I realized it was a set-up. Someone wanted me dead.
'The whole interaction was suspicious, and I realized it was a set-up. Someone wanted me dead.'
A WAY OUT
I moved to the farthest area from the doorway and sat down. I had my Bible, and I opened it to 1 Corinthians 10:13:
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
I think I memorized that verse right there—I just kept going over it. I didn't know what else to do.
A few minutes later, a different man arrived. He had on a big, thick winter jacket, gloves, and a ski hat. It was a hot summer day, so there wasn't any need for heavy winter clothes … unless they were meant to be discarded after an assault to hide any evidence.
The man walked up to the doorway, stopped, and looked at me. I didn't do anything. I didn't say anything. The guy just stood there. Then he looked over towards his left. There was another doorway that led to a kitchen. He looked back at me, and he walked away without saying a word.
He did that three times. He would come to the doorway, stop, and look toward the other door, but he never came into the room. It was as if he was afraid to come inside. As if something or Someone was keeping him from entering.
After the third time, the first guy who had asked about the Bible studies walked by. He saw me sitting there. I held his gaze, and he kept walking.
I later heard that two prisoners had been sent to the Hole (solitary confinement) for possession of a weapon. I have no idea whether they were the two guys in our office that day, but if they were, they were probably sent to retaliate against me for my attack on the two gang members in the jail library back in 1976.
Was there an angel in the room with me that day? I don't know, but our God knows, and He protected me.
'When you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.'
PRISONER B28545 NO MORE
I ended up getting out of prison in 1985. I continued working in prison ministry, and later I helped run a house for returned citizens who needed help after prison. Several years ago, I connected with Prison Fellowship®. I began as a volunteer leading a Prison Fellowship Academy® class and then joined their staff as a field director in 2013. I later served as a Prison Fellowship ambassador.
I've seen a lot, and this is what I've learned: People behind bars need hope. When Prison Fellowship volunteers go into prisons, it gives prisoners hope. Whenever I have the opportunity to share my story with our students, I take advantage of it. I tell them, "If I can do it, you can do it. I'm no spiritual giant. I am just a sinner saved by the grace of God."
One Easter years ago, Prison Fellowship held a Hope Event at Folsom Prison. I was asked to speak and share my story with the prisoners on the yard. I was able to encourage the men—to give them hope that they, too, could live lives that they enjoy and that are honoring to God and to their families.
Afterwards, I asked if I could be escorted to my old cell where I had once spent 18 months. I took my wife with me, and there it was: the very first cell on the block. Nobody was in it—in fact, the prison was using it for storage! Being there brought back a lot of memories. It was wonderful to be able to walk out of that facility and go home at the end of the day.
Without God, where would I be? Knowing where I've been and where I am now, all I can say is, "Praise God."
'I'm no spiritual giant. I am just a sinner saved by the grace of God.'