By Brother Ned, Special to ASSIST News Service
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (ANS — Jan. 4, 2016) — Some days, my jail routine was abruptly changed. I was given 10 minutes’ warning to wake up and get ready for a mandated appointment “somewhere.” When the door unlocked, I was to step out in my bright orange clothing where an officer would handcuff and shackle me.
Then I would follow his instructions to proceed along a yellow line to a holding cell. Here I would be “dumped” into a barred room with other inmates – sometimes 2 or 3, sometimes 15 to 20. All I was told was that I was appearing in court. No details given.
After writing, typically 1 to 2 hours, I would be guided into a prisoner box of a courtroom, along with 5-8 other prisoners. When my name was announced, I would stand and an attorney appointed for me who would speak, supposedly, on my behalf. I was not allowed to speak at all, even to try to correct a known factual error.
These appearances were administrative – to set bond, to set other dates, to establish counsel and venue, for example. But in each appearance, I was not allowed to participate except to fulfill the legality of “being present” in the courtroom.
I realized that I was just a small cog in a large bureaucratic machine. Documents would be entered, forms signed by court members, to fulfill certain seemingly arcane rules of justice, yet for me, a silent bystander, it was a frustrating ordeal of non-involvement.
After only 3 or 4 minutes in court, I would summarily be returned to the holding cell for another 1-2 hours, and then finally escorted back to my jail cell. Almost an entire day was spent in this bureaucratic exercise.
One day about 11 pm, I was transferred, without explanation, to another, larger facility, about ten miles from the courthouse. Thus, I started again, with a new cellee, and this time, in an older cell without heat (it was now mid-November, with evening temperatures down to the low 40’s). Though I was only issued one blanket, one evening guard was sympathetic to me, telling me I had the coldest cell on the tier, since it was next to an open outside wall. My fingers were so stiff from the cold that I couldn’t even use them to write. He provided 2 extra blankets. I spent several hours a day huddled under them, grateful for God’s mercy to me.
At this facility I started getting visits — from an attorney assigned to me, from a very helpful therapist, and from a local pastor. Days were beginning a new routine. I was realizing that I would be staying longer than a few days, as I witnessed the lengthy court procedures and timing of this process.
The therapist advised me on how to establish a “program” in prison, and stick to its routine each day – whatever related to my personal interests, exercise, and communication or journaling skills. As well, he advised me to set goals as to learning, through reading, whether fiction or academic. He told me to use the time to focus on the present, not on a past that I couldn’t change, but to confess and acknowledge my mistakes and the “triggers” that led to my criminal behavior, and then to move onwards.
Of course, such advice was helpful for me to incorporate within a Christian world view. I could agree with the Apostle Paul, who said, “One thing I do, forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God, in Christ Jesus, has called me” (Phil. 3:13, 14).
I had a Gideon Bible, and I made it a big part of my day. God’s Word became precious, as the Holy Spirit illuminated it and spoke to me in various verses and chapters. My cellee gave me some of his extra colored pencils, for we were now allowed to purchase a few items, including hygiene and snacks, from a weekly visit from a “canteen” vendor. Thus, I could use the colored pencils to mark up the Bible where it related to promises, commandments, etc. It was a rewarding project.
This jail also had a better library, with paperbacks donated by local ministries or individuals with a heart for those in prison. What a blessing! I started reading novels to pass the time – from history to science fiction, recent writings as well as classics by Jules Verne. My therapist was right. Such books captured my imagination, reduced the anxiety, and helped fill the lengthy days. The days started to move along more quickly.
(So, dear reader, if you want to help prisoners in an easy, practical way, simply contact your local city or county jail and offer to donate to them some of your used paperbacks. It is very much appreciated.)
Meanwhile, my case was proceeding slowly through the public attorney and the DA. Now, though, each time I was required to appear in court, my trip would begin at 6 AM without breakfast. I would be cuffed and shackled and escorted to a loading dock, chained with another inmate, and placed on a bus or van with several internal cages in it to separate groups of inmates. Then, we were driven to the courthouse where holding cells awaited us as before, for our five minutes in court (again, without being allowed to speak). Now the process typically took 6-7 hours before returning to our cells.
In my case, the initial witness’ testimony was fraught with error and was becoming increasingly irrelevant. The DA, who boasted in her political ads of winning 97% of the cases she worked on, sought stronger measures. Thus, as my attorney confirmed with me, the Social Services Agency was called on to forcibly take custody of my seven-year-old grandson (as it seemed to me, kidnap him), although he had nothing to do with my case, and hold him until I would plead guilty on several charges, and also agree to waive my rights to a trial or appeal.
I was in disbelief, as I’m sure my readers may also be.
I questioned my attorney no less than four different times as his visits became more frequent and more urgent, to wrap my case up with the DA quickly. “This is America!” I cried. “This is kidnapping and extortion!” He simply stated that such actions are not unusual these days. Of course, such actions are illegal for private parties. But it has become an effective tool for government agencies seeking to reduce costs and time, and increase the success rate of their investigations.
Though I had the right to trial by jury, the DA required that I waive this right as well as my right to appeal. Such plea bargains now account for over 80% of court cases, according to social justice advocates.
If I were to waive these rights and accept her terms, the DA told my attorney, my grandson would be returned to his mother.
After three weeks of soul-searching, of seeking other ways through my attorney’s directives, and in much prayer and reading of God’s Word, I realized that I was stuck, trapped, and simply needed to let go and turn all this legal manipulation over to the Sovereign God. I needed to once again accept these consequences of my sin and mistakes and crime. I needed to let go and to move on, with my future in God’s hands.
So I agreed to the DA’s terms and to the waivers. And my grandson was released from the foster home he had been placed in, and returned to his mother. Now the court process could be concluded quickly. The several trips to court were also wearing on me. I was present, again, for sentencing, and one week later I was delivered from county to state custody, to a prison intake facility near Bakersfield, California.
To make that transition, I was given a four-hour notice to “pack.” This really meant to clean out my cell, since I was not allowed to take anything with me, not even that Gideon Bible I had been reading. Once again, my few worldly possessions were stripped away to nothing. I would go from jail to prison with only the clothes on my back and the chain around my waist and ankles. “Holding loosely onto the possessions of this world,” seems to be a lesson I need to keep learning.
My ride to prison was in an old school bus with broken windows open, in mid-January. Wearing only a tee-shirt and orange pants, I found the ride extremely cold. There, I had six hours to ponder the events of the past few weeks and to wonder about what lay ahead for me. I was now a felon, officially sentenced as guilty. My future would always reveal this fact. Truly, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). I had made a life-changing mistake! But, I had also met Jesus again. And as I shuddered, and huddled as far from the cold, windy open window as possible, I realized that He was still willing to take my broken pieces and “do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or think, according to the power that works in us … by Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:20, 21).
Photo captions: 1) Being unshackled. 2) Prisoners about to be processed. 3) Reading a Bible inside a cell. 4) Overcrowded conditions in jail. 5) Prisoners making phone calls.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with the understanding that it may take a few weeks for him to answer.
** You may republish this or any of our ANS stories with attribution to the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)