The Least Of These

I took a few days off, away from politics and away from news. I spent this time helping a few of those kept in America’s human storage units. Out of sight out of mind: Over 1.5 million Americans are locked up in state or federal prisons.

Georgia “wins” the statistical war with over 7,500 adults per 100,000 residents (as of 2014), nearly double the second place finisher, Idaho. There’s plenty of opportunity to minister to these where I live.

In Washington State, two teenagers bound and gagged one of the boys’ great-grandmother, stuffed her in the trunk of her car with her Chihuahua dog, and kidnapped her 200 miles across state lines into Oregon. She told them to “behave yourself in prison” after they were tried as adults and sentenced to 9 ½ and 10 ½ years for their pointless crime, according to Fox News.

Those teens were white. The placard on the wall at the maximum security prison where I volunteered this weekend stated that 77 percent of the population is African-American, and 19 percent is white. That’s about right based on the sample of inmates I saw. Most of them were in their 20’s. Dyllan Martin, the boy who kidnapped his great-grandmother, would be about the age of the men I saw, a few years into his sentence.

Here’s what Dyllan and his friend have to look forward to.

Gangs, sexual abuse, drugs, and a correctional environment heavy on warehousing and control. What else do you do with people who make such terrible choices in life? The boys will be told what to do practically every minute of the day. The only outlet for any creativity is matching wits with the guards over getting contraband in and out and breaking the (many) rules. That and taking advantage of weaker prisoners. The guards have a life outside of prison. For the inmates, frequently the only life they have is the dehumanizing game of prison existence.

Reality never kicks in for some prisoners–they fantasize about what they’re going to do when they get out, but some are sentenced to die in prison. Some fantasize about a life they can never have after getting out: A fantasy when pursued leads right back into the system.

But not all are condemned to a life of perpetual recidivism. There’s hope, which is why I spent my weekend behind gates, fences and razor wire.

Various faith-based ministries help those forgotten by the rest of us after we read their horrid crime-and-punishment stories in the news. Organizations like Prison Fellowship, started by Watergate convict Chuck Colson, preach change through faith in Christ. I am not going to reveal the specific organization or facility where I helped. It’s none of your business, and it’s irrelevant because they’re all basically the same.

I saw kids–mostly twenty-somethings–and a few older inmates attracted by the prospect of doing something other than the day-in, day-out routine of locked-up life. Some genuinely believed in a Christian faith. Some were gang members. Some were Muslims or other faiths. But all of them were humans with their own stories. I didn’t ask what they did to get them behind bars. It’s none of my business, and besides, God already knows. I didn’t ask about their sentences or legal situations–that’s not why I was there and I couldn’t help if I wanted to.

I did ask how they felt. I asked about their families. I talked to them about trust, love, pain, rage, and forgiveness. I can’t make their time go any faster, or change the past that got them where they are, but I can help them decide how they serve their time, as men of purpose and light with courage and a mission instead of demons in storage.

Those in prison are simply a focused mirror of darkness in our society, especially among young black men. It’s as if the worst of our culture were collected by a large polished mirror, passed through lenses to concentrate it, and beamed into facilities surrounded by high walls, barbed wire, and patrolled by uniformed officers dedicated to keeping that concentrated cultural evil contained.

Undiluted, that evil becomes a festering sore on our country, oozing infection every time an unrepentant prisoner is released. So instead of treating the illness, we build more prisons–a Band-Aid if there ever was one–and a weak solution since the raging infection beneath the bandage just keeps growing.

Kids who are raised in single-parent households; fed stories in school about humans evolving from goo to you as a result of matter plus time plus chance, with no superintending God; given “morals” as a set of arbitrary rules, with arbitrary genders and arbitrary identities based on what feels good; sold violence bordering on torture porn in movies, with popular anti-heroes like Deadpool; pumped full of music glorifying thug life; and idolized sports stars rotating in and out of prison, have no chance to turn their own lives around. No chance.

Either these kids make it by some miracle, or they’re simply not caught and eventually mature, or they end up in a human storage unit brimming with undiluted demonic plague. Once there, the chance of them having a “normal” life drops to near-zero. And worse, many of them, by the time they’ve ended up in prison (once, twice, or more times) have reproduced themselves multiple times, with multiple women. They’ve planted the generational seeds of their own curse for their own children, who will never know a father who isn’t locked up.

There is only one hope for these kids–these men–who have value, dreams, plans, and largely wasted intellect. That hope is the saving power of love. God is love. We all know that verse, but it’s really only half the verse. 1 John 4:8 reads “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

This country has forgotten its most important lesson. The power of God is in the knowledge of God, and that power breaks death’s grip. In one prison, in one weekend, a lot of love was poured into a small number of prisoners. A helping of God was heaped upon a burning pit of demonic death, and for some, that evil fire was extinguished and replaced by a holy fire of God’s love. We know it works. It has always worked.

In Angola, Louisiana, the enormous and enormously violent prison was transformed into a soul-saving center of redemption.

The prison no longer suffers from chronic escapes, deadly violence or racism — incidents now relegated to the prison’s public museum. Those inside say it is because this correctional institution views each inmate not as a subhuman incorrigible transgressor, but as a soul worth saving.

“We are teaching these people things like how to be certified mechanics and how to respect themselves and each other,” Mr. Cain, 72, said in an interview with The Washington Times. “But that alone would only make them smarter criminals. We teach them morality through our Christian ministries and the examples we try to set. We change them spiritually.”

It’s a disgusting shame that a prison would serve as an example for American society versus the other way around.

This is why I spent the weekend with inmates. One more Angola, in Georgia, or anywhere, can help to change our morally decayed society more than ten thousand cops on the street filling up more prisons. With faith in Christ and courage to live out Matthew 25:39, many more of us are needed to minister to the least of these, who may be the key to reversing our downward cultural death spiral of institutional racism, crime and moral depravity.

About the author

Steve Berman

The old Steve cared about money, prestige, and power. Then Christ found me. All at once things changed. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

I spent 30 years in business. Now I write and edit. But mostly I love. I have a wife and 2 kids and a dog and we live in a little house in central Georgia.

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