On a chilly January evening, Mike knelt weeping on the floor of his parents’ home. His mother had been buried earlier that day and his father lay in a hospital bed in the living room. Mike had recently relapsed into a methamphetamine addiction after 14 months of sobriety. And on top of all this, he was awaiting trial on a charge that could result in his living the rest of his life in prison.
Although he had never committed a violent crime, an accumulation of minor felonies meant that he could be facing a possible life sentence under California’s three-strikes policy.
Mike cried out to God that night, desperately asking for help.
"I was a Christian,” he recalls. “I was just backslidden, and I needed to get right.”
Mike grew up in Southern California as the youngest of three children. He played baseball and other sports, did well in school, and enjoyed annual trips to Disneyland with his parents and sisters.
“I couldn't ask for a better upbringing,” he says.
This happy childhood was interrupted when Mike began experimenting with drugs in middle school, which led to full-blown drug addiction by the time he reached high school. He started stealing to fund his drug purchases, leading to a series of arrests for theft and robbery. Mike completed several recovery programs but struggled to stay sober.
“I could never put more than a couple years together clean,” he remembers.
The day after Mike buried his mother, however, something changed. He woke up determined not to use drugs and found the strength to follow through with that conviction.
Determined to fight his case, Mike remained sober throughout the 6-month trial period and started attending a local church. Although he ended up losing in court and receiving a 9-year prison sentence, Mike was able to face his sentence with a renewed faith in God and a positive attitude.
FINDING LIFE IN COMMUNITY
Once Mike entered prison, he wasted no time finding ways to improve his life. He took classes, joined substance abuse recovery programs, and started attending church services. When Mike transferred to a yard where the Prison Fellowship Academy® was offered, he eagerly signed up for the program. Through the Academy, Mike learned how to replace criminal thinking and behaviors with the biblical values of integrity, community, productivity, responsibility, affirmation, and restoration. Of all these, he most enjoyed the sense of community the Academy offered, as the men daily studied, worked, and lived together.
“There was peace in there,” Mike says, comparing this unit to the rest of the prison. “Everybody got along, everybody laughed. There was no drama and none of the politics that are normally on the yard: racial separation and everything. We were all united as one in there.”
One day during his time in the Academy, Mike and his fellow prisoners were able to attend a Prison Fellowship Hope Event™, an experience he describes as a "one-day vacation." Featuring live worship and evangelistic preaching, Hope Events bring the Gospel to thousands of prisoners in hundreds of prisons across the country every year. Mike says the feeling of walking out onto the prison yard the day of the Hope Event was “like I was free and I just went to the park or went to a church event.”
When Mike was three years into his 9-year sentence, a bill passed in the California State Senate that offered the possibility of significantly shortening his prison term. As a result of this legislation, Mike received a letter in prison notifying him that his case was going back to court for resentencing.
During his appearance before the judge, Mike described the changes God had helped him make in his life. He spoke about the Prison Fellowship Academy and other programs he was involved in, impressing not only the judge but also the district attorney who had originally pushed for Mike to receive a life sentence.
“The DA looked over at me … and said, ‘I commend you, Mr. Spilker. I just want to say, it's not very often we get somebody who comes in here that goes to prison and does all that to change their life,’” Mike recalls.
With no objection from the prosecution, the judge swiftly reduced Mike’s sentence from nine years to four.
“I teared up and I just gave glory to God,” he says.
'“I teared up and I just gave glory to God."
STARTING OVER IN THE DESERT
Within a matter of months, Mike walked free from prison. He planned to transition to a sober living program, but it was a challenge to find a facility that would accept him. Using the discipline and patience he had learned in prison, Mike sent requests to dozens of sober living homes and programs until he finally found a place. The Ranch is a drug rehab center located in the desert region far east of Los Angeles. In order to move in, Mike had to humble himself and complete a 90-day treatment program alongside others who were detoxing, even though he had been sober for three and a half years.
“I knew God sent me there,” he says, “so it wasn't hard.”
Mike eventually began leading Bible studies and classes for his fellow residents.
When the 90-day program was over, he transferred to a nearby sober living community and continued working on getting his life back on track.
“I had a to-do list of things I needed to do that I had prepared as part of learning responsibility in Prison Fellowship,” Mike recalls.
This to-do list involved obtaining a Social Security card, applying for food stamps, and rebuilding his credit score. Most urgently, though, Mike was looking for employment. Specifically, he hoped to work in addiction recovery—helping people break free from the bondage that had almost destroyed his life. After a difficult season of working odd jobs, Mike finally found an entry-level position working the graveyard shift at Affinity Recovery in Desert Hot Springs, California.
TAKING THE LONG WAY
While finding a job was a tremendous blessing, Mike then faced the challenge of how to get to work each day in a desert town with no public transportation. Even if he could buy a car, like many formerly incarcerated people, Mike faced a lengthy process to have his driver's license restored. Without other options, Mike walked to work each day. The journey took him 45 minutes each way. Eventually, he saved up some money and was offered several opportunities to buy cars that he could operate illegally, but—remembering his commitment to live with integrity—Mike refused to drive until his license was restored.
“The integrity part came in right there,” he says, “because I just want to please my Lord. I just want to be pleasing in His eyes, and I don't want to live the way I'd lived in the past.”
After many months, Mike received his driver's license and was prepared to buy a car. But when he went to a local Toyota dealer to find something affordable, he walked into a crisis.
Mike arrived at the dealership to find a group of panicked salesmen surrounding a car in which a customer was turning blue and foaming at the mouth. Immediately recognizing that the man was in the middle of a drug overdose, Mike jumped into the car to help him. Seeing that he was choking, Mike turned the man on his side and instructed the salespeople to call 911. He then comforted and prayed with the man until an ambulance arrived.
After the scene calmed down and Mike could finally look for a car, only one vehicle on the lot fit the bill—the car from which he had just rescued the overdosing man.
BUILDING A NEW LIFE
Over the next two years, Mike received several promotions, and he is now an operations manager at Affinity Recovery, where he oversees a team of over 35 staff serving dozens of clients on their journey of recovery from addiction. He is also in the process of getting certified as a drug and alcohol counselor. Although he works in a challenging environment, Mike seeks to represent Jesus through his words and actions. “I just try to live by example and share my experience, strength, and hope,” he says.
Life on the outside has not always been easy, but Mike continues to lean on God for strength.
“I need Jesus every single day … because there could be a lot of stress and a lot of struggles,” he says. “I don't know how I would do it without Him.”
"I just try to live by example and share my experience, strength, and hope."
Mike’s original sentence was for four years, but the California penal code required the court to add a 5-year “enhancement” to his sentence due to his previous felony convictions. In California prisons, 80% of prisoners serve sentences lengthened by at least one sentence enhancement, a significant contributor to the massive growth of the state’s prison population. As part of efforts to reform this system, the California legislature passed a law in 2019 that allows judges to revoke 5-year enhancements for people with prior felony convictions.