Learning Life Lessons While in Jail

Posted on July 13, 2017


Now, before you jump to conclusions, I’m not in jail, confined or committed or sentenced.

I go into the Tuscaloosa County Jail every Tuesday night with a bunch of Christian men and women to speak and pray with the prisoners about our faith. We are, I guess, evangelizers and witnesses in “church talk.”

Going into jail is different from a glass of wine at your favorite pub downtown, or maybe a game of tennis, jogging through your neighborhood, or mowing your lawn. But, in many ways, we all are but one step away from being in my “congregation.”

I have witnessed or heard stories in the jail which have sometimes confounded me, sometimes tickled me with their humor (even if not intentionally), and always persuaded me that the human condition is as vast as I’ve discovered practicing my profession of historian over the years.

Some of what I’ve seen or heard is immensely edifying, and some simply sordid and almost unbelievable. There is a range of experiences between those two extremes that speaks not simply to the jail and prison population, but also how the world in general tends to work.

If you had known me 20 or 30 or more years ago, and were to peek in at me now in one of the jail dorms on any Tuesday night, you would certainly say there must be a case of mistaken identity here.

This is not the rational, reasonable social scientist I knew who spoke and wrote of the world’s history with hard facts, all testable and verifiable, authentic and true. Now he seems to be rambling on about the need to know and incorporate the Holy Spirit into one’s life if one is going to transform one’s self from the inmate he is, to the one God wants him to be. Or, How-To-Get-Out-of-Jail-and-Live-Happily-Ever-After 101.

We all know, or can read about, the problems of our jails and prisons in Alabama. Just type “Alabama” and “prisons” into your browser and you can read for yourself.

We are, for better or worse, nearing or overtaking Louisiana for not only having the most elected political officials in jail, but also for having the highest percentage of our population incarcerated. Ex-Gov. Edwin Edwards’ peccadillos makes our own ex-Gov. Robert Bentley’s philandering seem like child’s play. Luckily, football still saves us when making comparisons with Louisiana.

How high is the rate of incarceration in Alabama? If each state were an independent country, Alabama’s rate of incarceration would be the fifth-highest in the world (see Prison Policy Initiative). This is higher than Iraq, Cuba or Syria for example. Of course, they may just decapitate you in Syria or Iraq and save the expense of incarcerating you for life.

We all know, or can read about, the problems of our jails and prisons in Alabama. Just type “Alabama” and “prisons” into your browser and you can read for yourself.

By the way, we’re not No. 1 in incarceration in the U.S. That honor belongs to Washington, D.C., which has a higher proportion of its population behind bars than any state. Louisiana is a close second.

Do my Christian minister friends and I have any positive effect on this sad phenomenon?

One night I was wrapping up a sermon. I think I had three listeners, and one who appeared to be sleeping in a corner of the room. I called for my little group to link hands — well, now we bump fists for hygiene I guess – and then have one of us — not me — lead us in a closing prayer. The dude on the floor got up, stretched his long, lanky body, and ambled over to our little circle to bump hands with us.

“You pray,” the other three told the ex-sleeper. He led us in a prayer that would have knocked off your Christian socks. It was Scriptural, it was prayer, it was praise, it was thanksgiving, it was uplifting, all in the space of maybe one minute or so before the guards came to let me out.

I looked at him, astonished. This guy hadn’t been sleeping. He’d been listening all along — I could tell from the prayer which drew from a bit of my sermonette — and I buried my common wisdom that people who look to be asleep are asleep. They may indeed not be asleep but, playing like the proverbial possum, be wide awake. Hallelujah.

I was brought soundly back to reality one evening as I wrapped up a hot sermon and asked if anyone had any questions.

One guy kind of half raised his hand. I thought, perhaps something on salvation, sin, redemption, forgiveness?

“Where’d you get those shoes?”

Published in The Tuscaloosa News as Learning Life Lessons While in Jail Sunday May 21, 2017