I was a young Christian when a friend of mine was arrested and sentenced to Leavenworth Women's Prison in Leavenworth, MO. She is the first person I knew who was sent to prison. My heart was aching when I went to see her with another mutual friend.
Before seeing her, we had to turn in forms to approve our visit; wear specific attire; and arrive at an appointed time. We then had to submit to a search. I can still hear the sound of the huge metal doors slamming shut behind us and the next one rumbling open. I remember the camera looking down on us and the clank of the prison guard's keys. It was all very somber and intimidating. We were only being escorted to a visitor's room. I couldn't imagine having to stay inside the place.
It was worth going through, because when we saw her, her smile was huge as we made eye contact through the glass partition. We had to speak to her on a phone. We cried. We put our hand to the glass to "touch" her hand and we prayed. We returned each week, writing letters in the meantime. We did not want her to feel alone in there. Our hearts were with her even though she'd made a mistake. We wanted her to know that we still loved her. We told her that Jesus loves her. She believed it.
Thus began my prison ministry. Soon after that experience, I became a Chaplain's assistant at Jackson County Detention Center in Kansas City, MO.
As Chaplain Assistants, we were able to go right into the pods of men or women and pray with them, study the Bible, worship, whatever the Lord led us to do. Some were even filled with His spirit as we prayed for them.
Who did I meet inside the prisons and jails? People. Admittedly, there were some who needed to be where they were. There were also many who were average decent people who made a mistake and got caught. They all were in need of Jesus.
Then, something happened which was totally unexpected by me, but foreseen by God. My own brother was incarcerated. A family member in prison may well be as devastating to a family member as it is to the criminal. Yet, the Lord had prepared me. I was able to be there for him, and lead my mom through the experience of walking through those heavy metal doors. I was able to warn her about the procedures necessary to get a few minutes with her son. I knew exactly what the inside looked like so I could somewhat let her know how it was inside. Of course, I knew I'd only seen the mere surface of prison life. Still, it helped both of us handle it better.
Some actually ask me why I give the time of day to people who did wrong. People say to me that prisoners deserve to be there, let them rot. If they did do the crime, I agree that they deserve punishment. I also recognize that they are still human. They still need love. They still need compassion.
In a future conversation we will all have with Jesus one day, He will say one of two things to us. If we are divided to His left, He will say You did not visit me in prison. If we are divided to his right, He will say you visited me in prison. We will all ask, Lord, when did we not come see you in prison? Or, Lord, when did we ever visit you in prison? His answer will be, if you did it unto the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me.
So, there he is, my brother, in prison again for the fourth time. He is one of the countless prisoners I have been in direct contact with to offer what little I could emotionally and to give a wealth to, spiritually. Jesus is everything. Jesus is free. Jesus sets them free. If they want Him.
My Sunday morning primary class recently wrote letters to two prisoners I personally knew about, one being my brother. While the children neatly composed their letters, a boy spoke up and said he had an Uncle Ricky in jail. He asked if perhaps we could write to him, also. The class and I agreed that we could manage one more letter.
After class I found out it would be impossible to get Ricky's address. Not wanting to toss out the letters, I enclosed them in the two others. Knowing the mail is searched, I doubted they'd go through since they were not addressed to the intended prisoner. I included them anyway, with instructions to give them to anyone named Ricky.
Today, I received a reply from my brother. The letters written to Ricky came through. There actually was a prisoner there by the name of Ricky. My brother gave him the letters and explained who they were from. Ricky was so moved by this gesture that he actually cried. As my brother watched Ricky's reaction to "his" letters, he admitted he teared up a little, too. You see, Ricky had been there for over a year and these were the very first letters he'd received from anyone. One I'd enclosed was written largely in purple marker. It was only one sentence long. I can imagine how he felt after a year with no mail when he read that sentence. It said, "Dear Ricky, You are not forgotten!"