DJ is as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. He can’t stand still. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other and occasionally goes through the motions of shooting a jump shot with an imaginary basketball. Along with two other men, he waits nervously between two locked fences ringed with razor wire.
These three men are dressed in white from head to toe, including their tennis shoes. They carry all of their limited belongings in a white laundry bag that serves as both suitcase and library. Book-shaped images stretch the sides of the bags and test the strength of the fabric as well as the men who carry them.
I don’t know the other two men personally although I have seen them occasionally at this state prison outside of Houston. DJ, however, has become my friend over the last eight months as we entered into and developed a mentoring relationship. It was a privilege to play a small role in the last few preparatory steps for his release after 18 years of incarceration. Contrary to the oft-repeated maxim that our prisons are full of “innocent” men, DJ readily admits he was arrested in the midst of a blossoming life of crime as a young 20 year-old gang member on the inner city streets of Dallas.
His first decade or so of incarceration revealed little had changed in his attitude or actions. In fact, he was honing his criminal skills and perfecting his “game” in an effort to make the most of his time as a guest of the state and its taxpayers. And then…..Jesus showed up. Slowly, at a glacier-pace, DJ began to develop new ways of thinking. Soon his actions followed suit and he began to separate from the prison gang to which he had aligned himself.
His transformation was made easier by relocation to another facility and then finally, about 18 months ago, a transfer to this specialized program that seeks to prepare men for re-entrance into the free world. With a target date in site, DJ took full advantage of computer literacy classes, job skills training, public speaking instruction and personal tutoring from the 100 or so volunteers who serve in this unique program associated with Chuck Colson’s organization, Prison Fellowship.
The mentoring program is just a final phase for men who are facing the sometimes daunting challenge of “going home”. Many, just like DJ, have virtually “grown up” in prison. At 38, the world has changed remarkably since he was last free to move about it. Having never had a checking account, a driver’s license or legal employment, for that matter, there is much to prepare him for. DJ is one of the fortunate few who actually have a family still intact to welcome him home and ease his transition.
As I look across the prison yard and watch DJ nervously waiting the unlocking of the outer gate, I can’t help but feel anxious for him. The strange “security” of his familiar surroundings will soon be history and a million options await him just outside the fence. Then suddenly, with no formality or ceremony, the gate is open and three men in white are being led by a petite woman dressed in civilian clothes out the gate and into an office where the first paperwork steps are taken.
A few moments later, the three men join two other mentors and me in the Visitation Room. They are handed “free world clothes” and ushered into a bathroom to change. DJ emerges first in a fleece warm-up and sporting some new shiny basketball shoes; all supplied by his parents for this occasion.
Free of his state issued “whites”, DJ and I are ushered into an area just outside the Warden’s Office where a prison official brought in for just this type of occasion reviews DJ’s paperwork. Instructions regarding the terms of his parole and signatures on multiple forms finally lead us into the presence of the Warden. Although not many years DJ’s senior, the Warden speaks final words of encouragement and challenge before affixing his signature to the last document. A sincere hug and a handshake signals the formalities have come to an end. DJ is now a free man after 18 years of incarceration.
As we exit the Warden’s Office, a staff member with Prison Fellowship presents DJ with a small item designed to remind him of where he has been and where he is going. The item resembles a “skeleton key” that has been re-shaped into a cross and holds great significance for the men who receive it. They entered the prison system bound by sin and its consequences and have been set free, literally and figuratively, by the power of the cross.
David Trickett, Co-Founder along with his wife, Kaye, of C.H.A.R.M. Prison Ministry, has been present during the entire morning and rejoins us in the prison parking lot where we pause for final good-byes between DJ and the other two men who have just been released. Photos are taken near the prison sign although one of the other men has no desire to ever be reminded of this facility. David is the “photographer” for the event and understands this process well. He has not only welcomed a number of former offenders back into the free world in this parking lot but is himself, a “graduate” of this special program and left this very facility nine years ago. There’s not enough room here to tell you all of David & Kaye Trickett’s journey from offenders to ministers…..that will have to await the publication of my second book……but you can learn much about their work at their website mentioned above.
DJ’s parents have driven down from the Dallas area and are waiting for us at the Houston “Re-Entry Facility” operated by Prison Fellowship. I place a cell call to Jackie and as she nervously answers, I say, “I have someone here who wants to talk with you.” Handing the phone over to DJ I can imagine the conversation although I can only hear one side of it.
David drives DJ to a tearful reunion with his parents while I am occupied with other matters. I get to join the four of them for lunch before their drive north and witness DJ embrace his new life with his parents attentive to his every need. He is ecstatic to purchase chewing gum from a machine and disappointed as it quickly loses its flavor. He is eager to chat with the waitresses and quick to compliment the entire staff on the quality of the meal and the service. Nothing escapes his attention including the size of the modern cell phone. He is like a child exposed to the wonder of the circus for the first time. All the movement, colors and activities coming at you from every direction are almost too much to take in…..but it will be attempted.
Eventually, with lunch consumed and conversation exhausted, it is time for DJ and his parents to begin their four hour trek north. Promises to keep in touch are made and contact information is exchanged. DJ will report to his Parole Officer within a few days and begin the process of re-entering his community. Prison Fellowship will assign him a Dallas area mentor who will follow DJ’s progress and help him in his transition. He is a better human being now, both for having served his designated sentence and ultimately for being reconciled to His Creator. God has great plans for this young 38 year old man.
Prisons have been built for men but men were never built for prison. Nothing in our DNA prepares men for isolation, humiliation and separation from those who love us most. I fully recognize the need for justice and restitution but we should never be surprised when prison fails to reshape and “correct” those who are placed there. It is no accident that what was once called the “Texas Department of Corrections” is now referred to more properly as the “Texas Department of Criminal Justice”.
We are hard-wired for RELATIONSHIP; first with our Creator and secondly with our fellow man. If we fail to recognize and properly respond to the relationship offered by our Creator it is an easy step to fail at healthy relationships with our peers. In most prison settings it is the rare individual who can discover and rebuild a relationship with either his Creator or his fellow man, much less both. That is why it is often a fact that prisons many times just create better criminals who, upon their release, soon return to their old habits. The recidivism rate from most prisons in the United States is in the 70 percentile range (meaning approximately 70% of those released from prison will offend again and return to prison). Of those 70% or so, 90% of them will commit crimes in the first year of their freedom.
Such figures would lead most of us to conclude that our prison system is failing our society.
However, there is hope. The Prison Fellowship sponsored program DJ has benefited from is called the “InnerChange Freedom Initiative” (IFI). IFI is all about RELATIONSHIP. Candidates from across the Texas Prison System are pre-qualified based on a number of factors and then only a select few are offered the opportunity to enter the IFI program. The particular unit in which both David Trickett and DJ were housed has a capacity of about 300 men. As one group graduates to the free world from the approximate 18 month program, another new group enters.
When entering the facility it is made clear to new participants that although this is a Christ-centered program, no one is coerced into a religious experience. There are expectations of participation but each man is free to come to his own conclusions regarding the value of a personal relationship with Christ. Many men come to realize their need for reconciliation to their Creator and to others. Some men rediscover a personal faith that had been submerged beneath the allure of the world. A few men benefit from the principles of the program but never come to know Christ as their Savior. They are the exception.
Beyond the emphasis on rebuilding or strengthening the primary relationship we all need with God, IFI promotes healthy relationships between men of like faith. Most IFI graduates remark about the initial shock of entering the program and witnessing men greeting one another with heartfelt and sincere hugs. It is not often seen in the general prison population to such an extent and it takes new entrants a season to grow accustomed to the atmosphere of mutual care and trust. Racial barriers disintegrate, gang allegiances disappear, profanity is rare and violence is virtually non-existent in the IFI program. The participants most often “police themselves”, realizing they all have something to lose if the IFI program goes away or is hindered in some fashion.
I could fill up the blog with information on the IFI program and what I have witnessed of its effectiveness in just the last year of my involvement. I’ll try to give you installments from time to time in the weeks ahead but suffice it to say, IFI is quite successful. While the recidivism rate nationally is hovering around 70%……the IFI recidivism rate hovers around 10%!
Through the IFI strategy, men are being changed from the inside out. Relationships are being restored. Ex-offenders are returning to their communities and becoming law-abiding citizens. Those who once terrorized their neighborhoods are now agents of positive change in a myriad of ways. (In the weeks ahead maybe I’ll tell you about the Habitat for Humanity teams from IFI and the prisoner “offerings” that go to feed hungry inner city children in Houston.)
DJ has benefited immensely from the IFI program and I am anxious to see him live up to his commitment to the Lord and to his Brothers still working through the program.
What tremendous lessons I have learned through this mentoring experience! I have probably benefited more from our time together than DJ has. Freedom is dearer to me these days. The opportunity to spend time with my family and friends at a time of my own choosing and duration has encouraged me to do so more often. The ability to be spontaneous in even the most insignificant ways now has a great attraction to me. I am preparing for my next mentoring assignment which should begin in the spring. I have more lessons to learn from my Brothers in “prison whites”.
If you have a desire to help provide copies of TSWK to any of the four prisons CHARM works with on a regular basis, especially the IFI program group, you may order them through the blog. In the column to the right under the heading, “Pages”, locate the “Purchase a Copy of TSWK” command. Just indicate in the notes for PayPal that this particular copy is for CHARM. I will both sign this specific copy and, unless you instruct me otherwise, will mention it has been provided as a gift by you.
UPDATE: DJ and I have talked by phone several times since his arrival home. After interviewing with several businesses, he secured a job and began work on November 29th. It is in within walking distance of his parent’s home and he will soon begin the process of securing a driver’s license and a vehicle. He will open up his first ever checking and saving accounts when he receives his first paycheck. He recently joined his parent’s church and the congregation who has been praying for his return…..gave him a standing ovation. DJ has indeed, come home!