One of the most striking scenes in the movie Courageous is when a police officer visits a young man in prison. This young man formerly flirted with the officer’s daughter and was arrested for involvement with violent drug dealers. The officer wasn’t there to scold or lecture the young man; he was there to teach the young man about Jesus. He read the Bible with him.
The scene struck me because the officer didn’t let the young man fall behind. A man took the opportunity to help another person’s life radically change through Christ. That was incredibly merciful, and that mercy shows why visiting those in prison is a work of mercy.
Entering California Correctional Facility Staff for a week of workouts, Rocco and Eli share their life-changing experience in this video. Most of us haven’t stepped foot in a prison, and we probably don’t even blink our eyes when we drive by a prison. While working out with the prisoners, Eli experienced more encouragement than he did in other gyms. He didn’t even feel uncomfortable eating dinner with the inmates.
“I haven’t had that great of a stimulating conversation in a really long time. They still have this humanistic, positive approach to life. And it’s just inspiring,” he recalls. “It scares me how little America knows about the system and who these people are.”
Rocco recognizes that the emotional toll is harder than the intense gym workouts because he feels that he could have easily been in jail – but circumstance prevented that. Now, he sees other men who are imprisoned and are not the stereotypical “bad guy” who goes to jail in movies. They have dreams and plans for when they finally leave prison. For example, coming up with the idea for conbody in his jail cell, Cos is now a millionaire and returns to prison to lead the workout program. Some are there for only a one-time mistake.
Ping, who has been in jail for over a decade, never had any run-ins with the cops until he was convicted of a “conspiracy of robbery.” He didn’t commit a crime, but he was somehow involved in a plan and mentioned a gun, which alone added ten years to his sentence. He wonders, “What chances do we have when we get out?”
These men are strong, and the experience is emotional for many involved. How can we help those who need help while in prison to change their life and not end up back behind bars? We can start by remembering them. And, then we can do something to improve their life and, in turn, improve our whole community.
“This week, you guys gave us our humanity back,” Ping tearily says, after relating his experience in prison to being cattle. “I feel human again.”
The men in this video remind us that this work of mercy not only is incredibly important for those in prison, but that it is most challenging to us because of our attitudes towards prisoners. It is not merciful to hate, ignore, or cast out another human person. This is why Pope Francis always visits prisons when traveling – to show mercy to those forgotten.
“We’re not coming back here,” Carl talks about the future during his inspiring talk to his fellow prisoners. If we have mercy on them and stop seeing someone who was once a prisoner as always a prisoner, we can help them stay out of jail for good and live their dreams.
Whether justly or unjustly imprisoned, prisoners need mercy in our words and actions, but are often left without it, even after they serve their sentence and ask for forgiveness. As a Christian, your call to show mercy doesn’t stop at prison gates.
Here’s how to begin:
1. Forgive them.
Maybe you were (or are) close to a person who is in jail. If it is prudent, a visit is a huge step to showing a person mercy. Writing them is also a possibility. Either way, grudges do not mend relationships nor are they merciful.
If you don’t know a person who is in prison, forgive them anyway. It is very easy for us to hate or shun those in prison because we automatically assume they are only criminals and will always be criminals. They are also human persons, no matter what they have done, and they deserve to be forgiven. It could change their life. Either way, refusing to forgive hardens your own heart.
If God can forgive us for our sins, we should also forgive others. Forgiveness changes both you and the one forgiven for the better.
2. Pray for them.
Those who are imprisoned because they broke the law or even hurt others need your prayers to find God’s mercy in their heart. Those who are imprisoned unjustly – perhaps even those imprisoned because of their faith – need your prayers for release. Pray that upon their release all prisoners are closer to Christ and serve the Lord with their life. As Revelation 21:5 says, “Behold I [God] make all things new.”
John the Baptist was a prisoner of Herod at the request of Herod’s wife. He was later beheaded (Matthew 14:1-12). If a holy man like John the Baptist was imprisoned, then certainly Christ’s love does not fail at prison gates. There is no teaching of Christ that says that his love ends at bars, so those in prison or formerly in prison should not be left to feel as if their circumstances bar them from Christ. They could still become a saint through choosing to follow Christ!
Also, pray for those guarding the imprisoned also that they keep the area safe and allow prisoners to feel like human persons with the ability to change their life for the better.
3. Reach out to them or their families.
A card or letter. A visit. A second chance. A heroic rescue. A job. A week working out with them. If you’re in a position to change someone’s life for the better, do it! Of course, we can’t all realistically save prisoners of war or those imprisoned unjustly in dangerous territories, but we can always do something. You never know what wonderful things mercy can do for someone’s life. Most of all, pray God’s Will be done.
Through a conversation or a simple letter or a donation to a prisoner’s family, you will have shown great mercy. (See the list below of example organizations.) You may never have been imprisoned, but you are human, too, and able to connect with others. You may be the only one there to tell them that God loves them.
Remember the Good Thief on the cross beside Jesus. He was incredibly blessed with the opportunity to ask Christ Himself to remember him, and Jesus showed him mercy in saying that the man, commonly known as St. Dismas, would that same day be with Him in Heaven. If only every “thief” had an opportunity to meet Christ in one of His followers and find mercy.
Some organizations that reach out to prisoners:
Prison Fellowship helps prisoners after they are released and trains people for prison ministry. They also have a program called Angel Tree, which helps children of imprisoned parents know they are loved.
Kairos Prison Ministry International ministers to those in prison.
Families in Crisis also accepted donations for families with a loved one in prison by providing gifts during the holidays.
Assisting Families of Inmates offers transportation for families for visits and consultations.
Daily Strength is a support group for family members of prisoners.
Center for Restorative Justice Works helps keep families connected.
Write a Prisoner allows you to write letters to prisoners. Some are looking for pen pals, but be sure to ask your parents for help if you are not an adult.