He was sent to solitary confinement with only a Bible. He could not have guessed what would happen next.
Posted in , Dec 19, 2018
“Enjoy your week alone, convict.”
Those were the last words I heard before the prison guard slammed shut the steel door. My new cell was a 10 by 10 room with concrete walls. All I would see for the next seven days. Just me, a thin mattress on the floor and a book. But I didn’t let the guard see how I felt about it. I wasn’t going to show any weakness. That could get a guy killed in a place like this.
What had I done? Several counts of dealing and cooking methamphetamines had earned me a jail sentence of about 175 years. I would never get out of the Oklahoma Lexington Correctional Center. With no hope and nothing else to do, I dealt and took even more drugs in prison—that’s how I ended up in solitary. Bad drug deal on the yard.
But what did it matter? My life had ended five years ago when I got locked up. Not that I fit into regular society anyway. If anybody saw me coming down the street—beard down to my belly, hair down my back, fire in my eye—they’d say: There’s a guy who’s going to hell. And they’d be right.
I sat on the mattress, my back up against the wall, and picked up the book. A Bible. Of course. Don’t know what they think this book has to do with me, I thought. The Bible was for upstanding people on the outside. People like the man my family thought I’d become when I won a math achievement contest at 13. Not the junkie convict I was now. I tossed the Bible into the corner.
As the hours and the days dragged by, that little red book looked more interesting. I lost track of how long I’d been in the hole when I started reading. I flipped to the stories about Jesus. The prison ministers talked about him all the time. How great he was, how loving. Jesus wouldn’t know what to do with me, that was for sure! Nothing much to love about a guy like me. Jesus was for good people. People who didn’t have to be forgiven for much more than their little white lies. But then…what was this? Jesus said, “I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” I read the passage again, making sure I got it right. Jesus related to prisoners? I read more of the Bible, about how Jesus encouraged all the outcasts to follow him. He had died for their sins, and he forgave them. My sins too? I wondered. Jesus wasn’t just for good people?
The page before me blurred. If the other prisoners saw the tears in my eyes I’d be in trouble. You don’t show weakness and survive in prison. “Jesus?” I whispered. “Would you really help me? Take away my desire for drugs. Let me be a better man.”
I fell asleep with the Bible open in front of me and read it as soon as I woke up. I read until the day the guard opened the thick steel door. Daylight poured into the dim cell and stung my eyes. “Back to the yard, convict.”
Back to the yard, I thought. Back to reality. Had I really prayed in there? Had I really asked God for help? A moment of weakness, I thought as the guard locked me back up in my usual cell. I can’t let that happen again.
Right away I scored some drugs to block out my memory of my time in solitary. Getting high had always been my answer. Not this time. Oh, I did the drugs all right that night, but I didn’t get high. “Must be something wrong with the drugs,” I said, staring up at the ceiling.
But a few days later when I tried again, I couldn’t get high. Where was the rush? I remembered my crazy prayer in solitary: Take away my desire for drugs. I’d want them again soon enough. For now, without the obsession dogging me, I paid more attention to those hospital chaplains. When the education coordinator, Donna, called me down to her office, I went.
“I think it’s time you enrolled in college,” she said.
“College?” I laughed. “Guys like me don’t go to college. Who needs a better-educated inmate?”
She closed the folder and looked me right in the eye. “None of us knows what the future holds. It’s one thing to serve time, another to waste it.”
I guessed she had a point. If nothing else, a college course might be a distraction—like that Bible in solitary.
I passed the entrance exam and a week later showed up in the classroom trailer. There were about a dozen prisoners who’d signed up, all clean-cut looking guys who wanted to start over in life when they got released. What are you doing here? their eyes seemed to ask me. Which is what I was asking myself. Why was I wasting my time learning about computer technology? Because I’d had another moment of weakness and let myself hope things could be different for me?
I stuck with my classes. I’d always been good with computers and I enjoyed it. In two years I’d earned my associate’s degree. “You should be proud,” Donna said when I went to see her.
“I am,” I said. “I almost forgot what it felt like.”
Upon completing a degree, a prisoner automatically comes up for a parole hearing. Mine was held just a few days later. “Jeff Brown,” the committee chairman said, “in seven years of incarceration you haven’t shown you have anything to offer society. Frankly, you could get ten degrees and still have nothing to offer. Parole denied.”
I faced the committee squarely, not showing any weakness. But as I shuffled back to my cell, Jesus’ story came back to me. He gave hope to people who had none. But wasn’t I beyond all hope? Did I expect God himself to get me out of prison? Have one of his angels unlock the cell door?
A couple days later Donna called me to her office again. “The governor is going to release five hundred inmates,” she said. “The only people eligible are nonviolent offenders who have upgraded their education in prison.”
“Like me earning my degree?”
“It’s all done,” Donna said. “Jeff, you’re a free man.”
I went back to my cell in a daze. Me? Free? I don’t think it’s the governor who’s in charge here. There was a higher power at work. I knew I’d struggle to stay drug free. But now I was determined. God had released me from my hopelessness. From the prison I’d locked myself in for too long. He’d answered the prayer I’d made, and even the prayer I didn’t dare make. He was just waiting for me to be brave enough to ask for his help. Just waiting for me to have a moment of weakness to show me the meaning of strength.
This story first appeared in the January 2008 issue of Angels on Earth magazine.