My Day in Prison

I went to prison not long ago to visit an inmate and to hear her story. I needed to know first-hand if she was who my client said she was. My client, her best friend on the outside, is writing a story of forgiveness between two women. I spent two hours in a small room listening as she spoke more words than my male ears could possibly take in. But I was riveted.

Outside in the main visiting area, dozens of inmates visited with parents, friends, children. Eating vending machine food, playing cards, laughing and trying to find a bit of normal in their season of isolation from the world for their public sins.

Her words filled the air for about 95 percent of our time together. She radiated the Lord like few I’ve come in contact with on the outside. Twenty-two years behind bars for a cold-blooded murder that she readily admits to committing. Many more years lie ahead. She killed the best friend of her best friend, the woman I mentioned in the first paragraph. Tears of regret come easy for the life she took, the lives of children she altered (including her own, one of whom was only 18 months old at the time and whom she has not seen since), even a city she threw into turmoil.

The good part of the story is that she’s now had 22 years of learning what it means to know, love, serve and wrestle with the Lord.

“Though I have the privilege of keeping a small TV in my cell, I have few distractions. I get up at 6:00, make coffee in my little coffee maker, and spend time with God in the Word.” She prays…a lot. She writes songs, words and lyrics, which are truly inspired. She’s an advocate for other prisoners trying to navigate a system that, by its nature, has to be more concerned with incarceration than care, with towing the line instead of grace. She understands. “It’s just the way it is.”

“There are 1,000 women here,” she says, “about 600 I would say know the Lord, probably 400 attend one of the four ‘church’ services offered once a week. Three of the services are the fire and brimstone variety, only one of the pastors of one church talks about the grace of God.”

“As if people here need more shame,” I say, attempting to understand a bit of what prisoners feel when they’re locked up for years at a time. She agrees that most of the women are so full of shame they don’t need the heaping coals of judgment to go along with it.

Before I can ask the question, she says, “That’s why books get passed around here so often. Books communicate, through story, God’s grace and the love of Jesus in a form that women can grasp. A woman can get swept away into the love of God through a story, well told. Jerry Jenkins’ book, Riven, is a favorite here, we have four copies. Francine Rivers is passed around a lot, and of course Karen Kingsbury.” Ted Dekker is mentioned, Gary Chapman, John Eldredge, as are several other familiar novelists and nonfiction authors.

You and I both know writers can’t invest their precious time writing solely to prisoners incarcerated for not playing by life’s rules. But in a bigger sense, that’s exactly what you’re doing every time you get behind your computer to tell the story God’s given you to write. We’re all prisoners to our own story in ways unseen, locked-up to our own daily grind. We all hear too much condemnation and not enough grace and love, and we all need those continual reminders that God is involved in the details but also looking out for the big picture.

And we all need to hear that He is constantly trying to inspire us to move closer to Him, His Kingdom, and communicating the true love He has to those who can’t readily touch it.

Books do that. Perhaps the book you’re writing right now does that.

So in the truest sense, you do what you do for the prisoners. You labor long hours in research, in writing and rewriting, in obeying the editorial instructions of your agent and editors. And most of the time you do it for a pretty low hourly paycheck. You hone your craft to tell the story better. You endure bad reviews and confusing royalty reports. It’s often hard and thankless and lonely.

But you do it for the prisoners.

Thank you.

Greg Johnson is president of WordServe Literary Group and has been a literary agent for 18 years serving Christian authors.

22 Replies to “My Day in Prison”

  1. Hello Greg,

    This is such a touching story in more ways than one. Your client will have a published book and you were blessed by the interview as I was in ‘hearing’ what you covered so well.

    Thank you,

    1. It sure did for me. I get so stuck behind this computer screen that I forget there is life in a word aptly spoken…and for me, thousands of words spoken to me. Nothing competes with hearing the voice of a real person who is thankful for the little things…like a book.

  2. Thanks, Greg. It’s tough for inmates to make good when (if) they are released. We spent many hours with the daughter of a friend before her release from a nearby penal facility in Oregon. After her release, we provided support but she found it hard to stay away from old friends–not the good kind.
    She dropped out of sight but I recently saw her sister; it looks like she’s making a new life. Recidivism is the lot of most.
    There’s certainly a reason that scripture exhorts us to remember the prisoners. Hope is a fragile thing behind the walls.

  3. We are all in prison, or were, in one way or another. If I, by writing, can free any person of anything keeping them in chains, I will feel the work worthwhile.

    1. That’s exactly the way I felt. Words of truth, of love, of hope…they do set us free, if only for the moment.

  4. Great post, Greg! It’s amazing how the Lord blesses us, even in all our various forms of imprisonment. Thanks for sharing this experience.

  5. “We’re all prisoners to our own story in ways unseen, locked-up to our own daily grind. We all hear too much condemnation and not enough grace and love, and we all need those continual reminders that God is involved in the details but also looking out for the big picture.”

    I love this part. And it’s what I write — even when it doesn’t seem God is in control, He’s there in the background. Thanks for sharing this woman’s incredible story. It gives me hope.

  6. Thank you for encouraging us to keep writing the stories for the prisoners—all of us who need more awareness of God’s grace and forgiveness! What a heartfelt posting! Much appreciated!

    1. What you’re writing, Shellie, since I know what it is, will set so many of us prisoners free. Thank you for your perseverence, for your creativity that you’re offering back to the Lord, for the thousands of hours you’ve put into hearing from God so you can share a message of hope and inspiration. The world doesn’t need every message, but it certainly needs yours (like so many other books from WordServe clients (and beyond).

  7. Greg,thanks for the story. My son is in prison and I feel like I’m in my too. He said he learned his lesson and wants to come home. I want to believe him. I will always love him and I want him to come home. He said it before but I think he really means it now. I know God will let me know. I keep telling to ask God for his help. Thanks again for your stories. Judy R.

  8. That’s a WOW post, Greg. Very powerful. One of my girlfriends has a son in prison. So painful. He won’t be coming out. And as you said, “Books communicate through story.” I hope many of our books reach their cells and that God continues to speak to them through His Word and through our stories.

  9. Thank you for sharing a wonderfully touching story, Greg. There are some hardened people behind bars, for sure. But I’ve also met some very tender hearts there while doing jail ministry. I love that God’s glory lives in whatever heart that has invited it, and that His Light cannot be imprisoned!

  10. Wonderful insight, Greg. During my own involvement in prison ministry, I saw hardened criminals weep when touched with the love of God. It’s nice to think that my writing might penetrate the darkness in such a way. Of course, not all prisons are behind barbed wire.

  11. Great post, Greg!

    And a good personal reminder, for me, of why I wrote my recent book, to begin with…in the hope that it will free believers who have experienced divorce from unnecessary shame and guilt based on a skewed perspective of God’s heart.

    Thanks for posting!

  12. Greg what a gift to be in her presence and hear about grace from someone who lives it everyday. And, what a gift for her to be able to share it with you. Peace.

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