By Brother Ned, Special to ASSIST News Service
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (ANS) – June 9, 2015) — After being processed as a new prisoner in the county jail, all my personal belongings, including shoes, belt, and wallet, were stuffed into a plastic bag and tagged with my name. They told me that I was responsible to call someone, a family member or a friend, to come to the jail to pick it up. If no one does within 30 days, all belongings would be trashed. The longer one stays in jail, the less one needs a driver’s license or a credit card. Having had a license since I was 16, and taking much for granted, I now realized such a privilege would no longer be a part of my life while incarcerated. For many men, with life sentences, they will never be able to drive a car, visit a restaurant, or use a credit card again! They will never again even be able to handle a $1 bill or feel the clink of coins in their pocket.
I’m issued one set of clothing: one shirt and pair of pants (with an elastic waist band) in the color of the jail I am resident of. I receive two pairs of white socks, T-shirts, and boxers. My shoes are slip-ons. I’m handed one bar of soap and one roll of tissue, then escorted to my cell with one blanket and two sheets. There is a cotton-filled mattress on the bunk, a metal table and stool, both firmly secured to the floor, and a stainless-steel sink and toilet combination. A polished metal mirror is affixed to the wall above the sink.
In a jail, doors to the cells can be opened manually by key, or electronically from a control room. Some cell doors can be open bars. Some doors include a lockable, hinged opening just large enough to accommodate a dinner tray. In these situations, requiring a higher level of security, meals can be delivered by officers to inmates without incurring the risk of violence when the door is opened.
However, my door was solid metal, but included a narrow window (6” wide by 3’ high). A similarly-sized window was built into the exterior wall to provide some natural light and a narrow view of the outside world. Both windows were strongly secured and sealed shut. The only air flow arrived from a central heat vent, except for a little open space under the door.
In my bare cell, I was given the lower bunk due to my age (over 60). I had a cellmate (“cellee” in jail-house lingo) who was a young, 20-ish Asian man. He had been housed here for two weeks thus far, and willingly accommodated my arrival by helping me define boundaries as to when to use the table, how to split the use of the sink area, and how to begin to learn living with a stranger 24 hours a day.
The first days of imprisonment were definitely the worst, as I began to realize how much my world and my life had changed. And the worst part of those worst days were the first several hours, as I began to realize that I was not just staying overnight. Each hour, and then each day – as I attempted to communicate with the outside to find out what was happening to me, to my family, to my business – followed one after the other, filled with increasing frustration and hope deferred.
As it all sinks in, my spartan living quarters become a frustration, too. I have nothing to do. I have nothing to read. I lie on my bunk, thinking, weeping, confused; trying to imagine, to plan, to pray.
Twice a day, for one hour each time, our doors are unlocked and we are allowed out into a common open area, the “Day Room.” It is here where we can shower; it is here where a few pay phones are located. As much as possible I quickly get in line, to try to make a call – to attempt arranging bail, or giving rushed guidance on my family and business needs. But it is terribly inadequate; the time I can have on the phone (only 15 minutes per call) is hopelessly frustrating.
When the “Day Room” time soon ends, I realize again how much I’ve failed, and how I haven’t experienced any victory in being released. I am locked up once again for another several hours!
Thus, these initial days in jail were my very disorienting attempts to continue with a life and lifestyle that was, in reality, completely gone, no longer part of my life or my future. I was anxiously grabbing at straws, at whomever I could reach during the limited telephone times, to try to effect a solution, to “fix problems” – problems that were, in fact, unfixable. At that time, I had little idea of how slow the legal system would be, nor of the resulting sentence which would remove me from society for years to come.
My world would never be the same again! The unbearable truth was as overwhelming as though I were drowning in a dark and terrifying sea that I had suddenly been pitched into. I was swimming, fighting the dark, cold waters to somehow stay afloat. These first hours, these first days, were horrific.
Living in jail is designed to break one’s will, to get rid of independence, of rebellion. Not unlike a Marine’s boot camp, in that regard, it was a serious confrontation to my decades of living in freedom and relative independence, doing whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it. All this was to be replaced, by submission inspired by fear.
Along with fellow prisoners, I was yelled at constantly. If doors were opened for exiting, for example, we had to be ready to go, and be prompt. Even a 3-second pause would incur a shouted threat. Doors were also opened twice a day to hand us our meals. We were required to stand, ready, just inside the door, to grab our tray. No delay! Doors would again quickly close. But then, only 6-8 minutes later, they would open again, to retrieve the food trays. I would have to learn to eat quickly, to gobble up my food even to the point of a stomachache, or else just leave it on the tray. The cruelty of the officers seemed unnecessary! And certainly there seemed to be no reason for their extreme focus on fast eating, since we weren’t going anywhere, anyway.
But its purpose was to constantly intimidate, to control, to break our wills. We were treated as cattle, and barked at like dogs.
When having to walk somewhere for a court hearing or an appointment, we had to line up and keep our heads down, focused on a certain colored line to follow, per the guards’ instructions. No delays; no walking sideways; no independent spirit.
I recalled that decades earlier, I had seen this before. I worked with pastors in East Germany who were carefully watched by Communist guards. As a Westerner, I would try to fit in – wearing local clothing, keeping quiet – when secretly walking along a street to visit a pastor’s house. One of those pastors once commented to me, “We appreciate your care and attempts to protect us. But you still stand out. People can still tell you are not East German, by the way you walk. You walk confidently, with purpose, as you are used to walking in freedom as an American.”
Now – I was learning to walk as a prisoner – shuffling, broken in spirit, being assimilated into the jail and prison system as a felon. Guards would stop me and confirm that it was my first time in jail – and sometimes, softening, would correct me, advising me to “get in line, slow down, shuffle with your eyes down.” I must fit in.
I learned that the food is generally nutritious – planned as a balanced diet with average-sized portions. The tray would include a small salad, fruit, milk and an entrée, usually a casserole-style offering with rice or mashed potatoes. Lunch would be delivered in a brown bag when breakfast was served, and included slices of bread and meat, or packages of peanut butter (a frequent protein-rich diet; it seemed we got peanut butter four or five times a week). There were no sweets or snacks.
We were also required to eat all the food we had, or return it on the tray provided, not to keep it. Lunch was to be consumed within 6 hours. Any food remaining in our cells was to be cleared out; regular inspections were held, and infractions could lead to punishment.
Of course, leaving food around encourages rodents and cockroaches. But also, a favorite pastime for some is the ability to ferment certain fruit, and create alcohol. In jail or prison, this is called “Pruno.” Inmates do get intoxicated, and yes, it is a serious infraction.
Once a week, we were instructed to strip down to our boxers and sockless shoes – then line up to receive a “laundry exchange” –replacing our clothes and bedsheets with a clean set. Also, once a day, an officer would come to our cell and hand us each a razor. We were given 20 minutes to shave, then return the razor to him. These “safety razors” were quite poor quality with short handles. They made a mess of my skin; I had to carefully scrape as best I could. Growing a beard, or otherwise altering our appearance as it showed on a jail ID card, was not allowed, and considered an infraction.
We were also given a short-handled (4”) toothbrush along with a small bag of tooth powder (aka “baking soda”). This short handle does take some creative skill in reaching deep into my mouth to brush well.
But, like the short handle on the razor, such lengths were used to prevent violent inmates from sharpening the handles to a point (by rubbing them repeatedly on the concrete cell walls) and stabbing someone. With such a sharp point, a full-length toothbrush makes for a dangerous weapon!
Similarly, all razors were quickly returned and inspected by the officers to insure that the blades were still intact. Obviously such a sharp blade can be another effective tool to slash the face or arms of an inmate or guard.
I realized that this was the new environment I lived around. Becoming aware and cautious of potential altercations became a necessary way to live. An angry or violent outburst during our one-hour release could occur any time and be over in mere seconds. Even worse, being locked up with a cellee required keeping ‘short accounts,’ being respectful as much as possible, not allowing anger and resentment to build up. I certainly needed God’s grace – and the prayers of His people!
Some have asked about the difference between “jail” and “prison.” There are several points – but, overall, a “jail” is a holding facility operated by a city or county, and used during the time when an inmate is attending court, awaiting trial, and prior to sentencing. It is intended to be a shorter-term holding area for misdemeanors, and felons up to one year. Thus, a “jail” also has few positive programs. Freedoms are quite limited. Most jails “lock up” 22+ hours per day in cells, with limited exercise, trade or educational programs for inmates.
Once sentenced as a “felon” to a term greater than one year, a prisoner is transferred to a state-run facility known as a “prison.” Such facilities are usually developed with an intention of creating a “home” for longer-term inmates, including “lifers” who will likely live there until they die. The facilities are mandated to provide rehabilitative programs which will benefit society in better receiving back those who were incarcerated. So, prisons generally provide several trade and GED, college, and English-language development classes. Prisons usually have large yard facilities to provide outdoors exercise including sports fields for soccer, baseball, and basketball.
But, in jail – where I was now – such programs and open yards do not exist. Lockup and intimidation is the norm. And the sooner I accepted this, the better my days would be. Or, I could become more bitter, angry, and depressed. I could seek ways to fight the system. I could rail against God or those who I felt wronged me, and fight anyone who got in my way. I had a choice!
Words can hardly express the shock, the dehumanizing treatment, the powerful emotions, uncertainties, and losses that swirled around me upon my arrest and for the following days, including Satan’s whispers of suicide. But, in my extreme distress, the Lord was also calling to me.
In our Day Room area, I found a small room with some books. I located one Gideon Bible there, and brought it back to my cell. Now, at least I had something to read, to help pass the time. Strangely, I began to feel that I wanted to re-establish some time with God. Obviously, I had really messed up; I needed help.
As I returned to my empty bunk, my almost bare cell, I fingered the Gideon Bible. Soon, it was opened. By the time I got to Genesis 28, I had a word to consider. Verse 16 says, “Jacob woke up and said, ‘The LORD is here! He is in this place, and I never knew it!’”
I never knew God was here in jail. But, He was. And, more than that, He was willing to talk with me. He was willing to re-establish a love relationship with me. Right here in this barren jail cell. He remained by my side. The heavy metal doors and walls of the jail could not keep Him out. Nothing could keep Him out – unless I tried to push Him away.
I turned to I John – an epistle I had often felt uncomfortable with before, for it exposed the disconnect between my talk and my walk. As Proverbs 28:13 had warned me, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” The first chapter of I John confirmed that – “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (verses 8 and 9, ESV).
And so, I finally responded to the Word of the Lord – as I wrote earlier. For too long, I had not allowed my life to be completely governed by God’s Word and law. But in my jail cell, with that Gideon Bible, I fell on my knees before Him. I confessed my sins, and wept. I repented. I renounced my wicked ways. And I accepted the consequences of my crime. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1,2 ESV).
When, “in my distress, I called to the Lord, He answered me and set me free” (Psalm 118:5 GNT). Just there, on that jail cell floor, He dealt with my heart in a new way – bringing light into areas where darkness had reigned. He set me free from what I could never escape in my own strength. He gave me something I do not deserve – His mercy! While my tears fell, I John 1:7 assured me that the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleansed me from my sin. I could rise in the light of His presence. Now with a cleansed heart, at last I could have a true and deep fellowship with Him, and even look forward to the consolation of a restoration of fellowship with His people. His Spirit would no longer be grieved with me. I could now truly seek His strengthening to “walk in the light, as He is in the light” (I John 1:7).
May all you who read this also be cleansed with the fire of the purity of His holiness, and rekindle that love relationship with God.
Photo captions: 1) Cuffed to a chair. 2) A prisoner inside a bare cell. 3) Prisoners making a phone call. 4) Overcrowed conditions in jail. 5) Exercise time. 6) Reading a Bible in cell.
About the writer: Brother Ned, child of God, is currently incarcerated in a southern California state prison. E-mail messages may be sent to him at email@example.com with the understanding that it may take a few weeks for him to answer.
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