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My first day of prison was July 22, 2002. I walked into the yard of the world’s largest walled prison, while 250 inmates watched us newcomers file in.
Some inmates were sitting at picnic tables, some were walking the track, and others were standing in the weight pit, flexing well-exercised muscles under a variety of tattoos. All of them seemed to be eyeing us with looks ranging from cold disinterest to predatory grins.
My anxiety level was high. I had heard wild stories of how “new fish” were treated, and I didn’t know what to expect. But suddenly I had an image of all of us walking around in a great big playpen. Despite my anxiety, I began to smile. I realized that we are all children who get hurt and cry, and that thought brought me closer to the brothers I was locked up with. I knew I would be okay.
The Gift of Tears. I try to take that vision with me wherever I go in this prison. These are all my brothers, all children of our heavenly Father. No matter how cold our hearts may have become, we were all babies once. We cried real tears. Some of us cried when we were abused or abandoned by our parents. Others cried when they experienced prejudice based on the color of their skin or when a father or mother was shot in the street in front of their house. As we grew up, most of us left the tears behind and lashed out in pain and anger and confusion instead.
When I’m faced with a “hardened” criminal, I need to remember my early prison vision. I know that God can and does work miracles, even in hearts filled with hate. A life shaped by receiving and inflicting pain can be moved to tenderness. All of us can be brought to tears again.
Maybe that is the hidden treasure of prison—its ability to put tears in our eyes. It may happen in the solitude of our cells as we face ourselves and what we’ve done with our lives. It may happen after a visit, as we realize the pain we’ve caused and how much we miss the ones we love. Tears can open us up to compassion for others, and compassion can lead us to love. I know this is true because it happened to me.
Gazing on the Cross. After many years of running from God, I reached the point of being totally empty and without any hope. It was an opening to grace. Instead of despairing and turning bitter, as I had done so many times in the past, I cried in anguish over the person I had become. God showed me the pain I had caused to those I claimed to love the most. He showed me that I had crucified the innocent love of Christ.
Now as I look at the cross of Jesus and see the blameless Son of God in agony, I want to comfort him. I want to make amends. In his face, I see the faces of those I’ve harmed. I know my guilt and am truly sorry. And this sorrow for the pain I’ve caused moves me to pray for healing for those I’ve harmed. With all my heart, I want to love people better.
A New Creation. Holding onto this miracle of continued conversion is a challenge amid the chaos of prison. This is a large, loud community. To be quiet internally—as folks are playing cards, laughing, yelling, cussing, telling stories of criminal and sexual exploits, complaining about the food, cops, judges, corrections officers, and other inmates—can be difficult.
One of the hardest realities of prison is that these things happen every day. They happen at the same time every day. The hope of something new can easily be lost. I know I will stand in the same chow line that I’ve stood in every day for years. I will eat from the same menu. I will walk the same path back and forth. There is a good chance I’ll be searched today by the same corrections officer who searched me yesterday.
Prayer is my only hope for newness in here. That is when I sense the most freedom. If I can pray as I go about the compound, it puts a different light on this place. Then I can have a smile for each child of God I see. I can offer an encouraging word to a brother who is struggling.
God knows there are days when I have a hard time just getting out of bed. Still, I can have hope because I know that grace is at work in me. The love and action of Jesus are very much alive—applying the surgeon’s knife to unhealthy thoughts and attitudes, and supplying the grace to form new thoughts, attitudes, and habits.
And so, even here amid the chaos and routine, our God makes all things new. n
Since writing this story, David Rose was released from prison. He continues to grow in the Lord with the support of his brothers at the Catholic halfway house where he now lives.
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"It was while I was in prison that I was introduced to The Word Among Us,” says David Rose, who wrote “We’re All Just Big Kids” while he was still behind bars. “I looked forward to reading the meditation every morning, as well as the stories about the saints and the other articles that came out each month.” Since leaving prison, he adds, “There have been very few days that I have missed going online and reading the daily meditation. Thank you for doing what you do!”
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