Sunday, September 26, 2010


"When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully." – Samuel Johnson

Why do so many convicts have their "come to Jesus" moment while in prison? Why not before? How can we judge their sincerity? Does such a spiritual change of heart make that great a difference? Does it endure past their release? Should spiritual teaching be a standard part of the rehabilitation process if it's present proven so effective, or is that too much of a mixture of church and state? With so many people incarcerated today, these are all important questions to consider.

There are many factors involved in prison inmates becoming more spiritual. First, they're removed from the "rat race": they no longer have to put their time and energy into earning a living and paying bills, or amassing wealth and collecting material possessions, or playing their part in the never ending drama of the free world. They have – for maybe the first time in their lives – the opportunity to take a "timeout", to think and reflect, to contemplate their existence and the meaning of life. They can spend hours in meditation and prayer if they choose. And they usually have plenty of time to look back on every mistake they ever made, no matter how small, and feel remorse for each one.

Second, they no longer are directly influenced by their usual environment. Their out of the "hood" or barrio or small town or wherever for, again, maybe the first time in their lives. They're no longer surrounded by the same people and influences, the same peer pressure. (Actually, this isn't always true and is the biggest challenge to growth and change in prison. Too often, new inmates simply exchange their free world gang for new one inside.) In prison, religion/spirituality is a big topic of conversation and study, and new inmates, regardless of their age, almost always encounter new ideas on the subject, and many are introduced to the concept of taking spirituality seriously for the first time in their lives.

Third, people in prison are away from drugs and alcohol and their damaging effects on body, mind, and spirit. Sure, on many units, drugs are easily obtainable (thanks to guards bringing them in), and wine is pretty easily made anywhere, but they're more expensive than on the outside and the punishment for being caught with them is prohibitive. Regardless, the access and amounts aren't nearly what they are in the free world and most all prisoners stay totally sober, especially if they're on the spiritual path. And although some say how they can't wait to have a drink or get high when they get out, I think everyone in here enjoys their sobriety and health and clarity that go along with it. A huge percentage, like myself, were alcoholics/addicts and would probably never have quit and regained their sanity if they hadn't been locked up for a while. It's impossible for anyone to grow spiritually when there f&%$ed up all the time.

Then there is, perhaps the greatest reason of all: when a person is in enough trouble – when they have fallen as low it's as it's possible for them to go – they may finally asked for help. And when there's no one to help them, or no one able to help, they may finally turn to God, even if they don't actually believe in Him. For so many of us in prison, God is our only hope.

Essentially, the penitentiary, by definition at least, is a place for penitence and spiritual reflection. To spend any amount of time in here and not come away changed for the better means you really didn't want to. Every unit has a chapel and both Christian and Muslim services, although the latter are usually organized by the inmates themselves who are almost exclusively black. There also prison ministries out there who visit occasionally and send reading/study materials upon request. It's true (in Texas at least) that if you're interested in any other religions – especially exotic ones like Buddhism, Taoism or Kriya Yoga (my favorites) – you will find zero support from the System, but there are plenty of outside resources available to write for information and that cater to prisoners. Unfortunately, these alternative paths focus more in individual practice than formal, group worship. Whichever way you lean, in prison you'll have countless opportunities each day to apply what all the world's religions preach: love, forgiveness, tolerance, kindness, generosity, gratitude, faith, patience, and hope – always hope, of course, for another chance at life, or at least for the one beyond.

Unfortunately, some prisoners only seem to embrace spirituality but don't really believe in what they're learning, or they haven't had the time to internalize what they've learned. Some use their Bibles and prayer groups for protection, thinking that the gangs will leave them alone if they appear to be pious, God loving/fearing Christians or Muslims. The black Muslims are like a gang unto themselves, though, and membership does have its privileges. The Aryan Brotherhood are all into the Norse God and his fabled Hammer. And there are plenty of proud pagans and Wiccans and what have you running around. One of the concessions allowed to inmates by the System is the right to wear medallions of whatever religion they profess; so you see a few pentacles along with the crosses and prayer beads. The truly spiritual, however, show themselves by their actions; and it's obvious after speaking with them that their devotion is genuine and lasting. To determine the level of sincerity of an inmate's claim to faith, just get another spiritual person to spend 15 to 20 min. with them; it takes one to know one.

No doubt many in prison turned to religion to "get right with God" as if they have something to fear from His judgment and retribution and are trying to avoid hell, but most, I believe, simply want to be better people and realize that they lost their way there for a while and need to get back on track, and that it's important to at least consider the reality of the divine realm and ourselves as spiritual beings with a reason for being here on earth. What's most important, though is how well the spiritual lessons are learned and taken to heart and put into practice – not only today but from now on.

However, I am afraid for too many, upon release, the pushes and pulls of the material world may eventually undo whatever spiritual progress was made while in prison. It's imperative that newly freed prisoners keep their priorities straight and stay true to themselves and their ideals. Having a support group of some kind, like a church or other religious association, is essential. If you know someone just out of prison, reach out to them and show them love; help them hook up with this compatible spiritual community, even if it is different from your own. Of course, this could apply to anyone else whom you might meet who could also use your help.

"We turn to God for help when our foundations are shaking, only to learn that it is God who is shaking them." – Charles C West
An important step along the spiritual Path is the relinquishing of one's own will for God's will, putting one's complete faith in the Divine Order of the Universe. It's the understanding that there truly is a reason for everything both good and bad, as we may judge them. For the prison inmate, it's a coming to terms with one's incarceration, no matter how unjust it may seem, and focus on the positive aspects of the experience – on what has been gained rather than what has been lost. Prison can be an unparalleled opportunity to change yourself and become the person you know you're capable of being. As horrible as it can be at times, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had this experience, solely because it's done so much to further my spiritual evolution. If this is God's will, then so be it. Perhaps this was His intention all along – His way of getting me to finally pay attention. Please understand that someone who makes an honest effort to lead a spiritual life does not commit crime. He lives primarily to love and serve others. No matter how rotten the person he may have been in the past, he is no longer capable of behaving again in such a way. People can change. Redemption is real. However, it's understandable that although he has forgiven himself and is forgiven in God's eyes, he is not yet been forgiven by society. He may never be. After all, how can we really know how someone has progressed in prison? Still, if this person can prove to be a benefit to society rather than the burden he is now, shouldn't he be given the chance? I guess it's a matter of weighing the risks versus rewards. If we can believe that he really has changed for the better, then maybe a condition of his release/parole should be to do community service work of some kind such as counseling troubled youth in danger of going to prison themselves someday. Also, in coming to a decision, perhaps we should look at our own, spiritual development and capacity to forgive and show mercy.

Obviously, I was referring to myself in that last paragraph. I hope to somehow be granted a commutation (reduction) of sentence someday with your help. I feel that my punishment is excessive and that I've suffered enough for my crime. I've certainly learned my lesson. I can do more to help people from outside these walls and razor wire them from within. But I also want you to give thought to the thousands of other prisoners across the country and around the world in my position who have atoned for their sins and are worthy of a second chance at life. Our prisons are overcrowded and underfunded, and too many people are serving way to much time needlessly. Please contact the powers that be in your state/area to release/parole deserving inmates and to amend any unjust sentencing "guidelines" (in Texas, we have "five to life"). Also, of course, I would greatly appreciate your help with letters. See my website at Mystic Ministry'

I hope I've made it a little easier to understand how prison can be conducive to spiritual growth and change. Many of us have discovered the path and are walking it daily. We're not all bad, scary people in here.

Anyway, thanks as always for listening and caring. Bye for now.
– Eric