Wednesday, July 30, 2014

TMT goes to PRISON

A great friend, mentor, and ex-employer of mine, Deacon Gary Schantz asked if I would be interested in attending an amazing event he was directing.
It was going to be a trip to ANGOLA, the largest maximum security state penitentiary in the United States. This had been a place that was notorious for also being one of the most violent and bloody places you could be sent to.

I checked my calendar, moved a few things and immediately the next day told him "Yes. I will be there." 

I'm not sure why I was so sure about it but I don't even think I read the whole email before I had  already decided I would go. I'm so glad I did! The experience is something that was changed me for the better and is something I will never forget.
Here is about half of the group of guys I went with.
This is Gary, standing in the blue shirt next to Father Bernie.
 This is Father Bernie, an Incredible man who is the full time Catholic Priest at Angola. He taught me a great deal about how to effectively lead under extreme circumstances. He is a calm, quiet, yet understanding man who is very well respected.

 

THUR 6 pm


As soon as we entered the prison we attended mass at the Catholic Church with the inmates. 
We learned that the church was built entirely by prisoners who worked night and day to build it in only 38 days. 
We were immediately struck by our first greeter who introduced himself as Clausse. He was an older man, probably in his 50's with short black peppered hair. He had on his church garments, a white robe as he had a prominent position in helping with the services. He also wore black sunglasses with piercing blue eyes you could see through the lenses up close and had a very large tattoo on his forehead of a demon. It was quite intimidating and made it hard to look him in the eyes instead of staring right at it.
Later on, Clausse spoke to our group and explained to us that he used to be a very bad person, in fact a devil worshiper. 
He had killed somebody and that brought him to Angola when he was much younger. He had been there most of his life and continued to live badly for many years after arriving. He explained that one day he attended mass and for the first time in his life felt a peace overcome him, a feeling like he had never experienced before. He didn't understand it but wanted more and over the years he has completely changed, giving his life now to  doing God's will. He actually become one of the guys I looked forward to seeing every mass as he was such a warm, friendly guy, smiling and introducing me to the other guys in there.
Although I still had my guard up, there was no denying the smiles and joy he brought to the other inmates as we toured the yard.

It was a nice service. The bishop from Ukraine was in and helped with mass so it seemed like a special occasion. 
We brought a deacon with us from Atlanta who had a history of prison ministry in FL. He was a rough sounding guy and had a very different type of delivery than you usually get from priests. He spoke loudly and with confirmation. You could tell he was used to bringing his message to a rougher crowd.
I liked it! He really got his message across. 
Immediately after mass a few of the inmates started asking me if I worked out! 
I was told they even used to get N.O.Xplode up here!! He said that they also got cellmass and TrueMass! I had to laugh because I had some of the same stuff with me on the bus.
I'm hoping to get a workout with them tomorrow. Apparently there is a pretty large main gym and a bunch of little ones all over the place. They chain the weights up so they can't be used as weapons and I think he said they have 375 pounds to put on the bench. He told me I better be able to press 500 though /)
 
We toured the old death row building and execution chamber nicknamed the "Red Hat."
It was obviously a very uncomfortable place to be to say the least. We joked around taking pictures at first but we quickly realized this was a reality for someone at some point and the our demeanors started to change.



7.25.14 - FRI
We woke up and one of the other guys went with me to the gym they had at the Correctional Officer Training Center.
It was a well stocked gym with plenty of weights and machines! I was happy! They even had a speed bag which I was glad to put back into practice.
After we all showered he headed out into the country to pick up the other guys who were staying at a cabin on the property. Angola is a huge piece of land with much more than just the prison inside it's walls. There is a whole community for the residents who live there with a school, hospital and post office. 
There are fields that the prisoners work in,  in very similar conditions to those of slaves when they worked the cotton fields. I was told by our guide, if you ever wondered what slavery was like, you are seeing it.
There is a rodeo and motocross track on the property as well. I later learned that the rodeo was a huge deal to Angola, giving the prisons something to look forward to and a chance to get a taste of freedom. The inmates also make crafts that they can sell at the rodeo with proceeds going to fund many different programs for them.
We toured the vocational department where the prisoners learned things like horticulture, auto repair, carpentry and yes they even had a license plate factory.
This was one of the best parts of the prison and a place where we got to meet many of the guys who were trying to turn their lives around. Even though many of them will never leave, they still wanted to learn and teach others as well. We met J Dog, a 37 year old lifer who was one of the top auto body repair guys. He gave his testimony and shared how the prison ministry programs helped him make a change for the better and want to build up his brothers.

Everywhere I went I got to make friends by conversations being struck up about either lifting weights, nutrition, or arm wrestling! Lol 
It was nice to have something in common with these guys who pretty much all want to get bigger and stronger. It is nice being easily approached and having something to break the ice with.

Lousiana wolf dogs are placed between fences at night as a major deterrent. They would howl at night too, kinda creeping the inmates out. These were dogs that were partially bred with real wolves. We got to tour to kennel where a number of the dogs were kept.

7 pm 

Today was a little sad as we went into where the prisoners actually lived and saw how tough they really had it.

General population was hot, dirty and depressing. Very depressing. It was hot down there in Louisiana and all they had were fans. I was sweating my ass off.
Just one night would be very tough.
I can't imagine a few months...and the reality is most of these people are in here for LIFE. That's extremely disheartening and made me want to do what I could to give them some kind of hope.
The church really must be one the nicest places you could possibly go to, with it being the most up to date, air conditioned, clean and a fountain of hope in a place normally so void of love.
We walked around seeing the whole prison and finally we got to the place I had been looking forward to seeing the most, the gym!
Naturally I was drawn to the gym and I fell in love with their main compound. 
I felt like a celebrity walking in there as all the guys came walking over to see what I was doing in there. I felt right at home and started banging out a few sets on the dusty equipment. This was the ultimate "dungeon gym." The stuff of my dreams!!! Lol They had a big boxing ring front and center with a trainer yelling at one of the fighters, who we learned had previously fought (and lost to) Tyson.

I heard him hurling insults and that brought a smile to my face. I had to go introduce myself!  - "I can tell you're a trainer!" 
He certainly was, and he shared his routine with me which today consisted of 12 rounds of Heavy Bag, 12 rounds of Mitt Work and 12 rounds of jumprope. 

Every where I went the prisoners kept telling me to go see a big guy named Brother.
I finally met the guy later on and learned he was one of their power lifting champions and we talked for a little bit about how to avoid getting a detached retina from heavy lifting of all things Hahahah! Apparently that's a problem once you get into those heavy heavy numbers.

Tonight we went to have dinner at the Warden's cabin. He popped in briefly and said hi but we didn't get a chance to speak with him. 

Once it got darker we lit a bonfire at another building where a few of the inmates shared their stories of how they ended up in prison and subsequently changed their lives around after witnessing the grace of God. They took turns standing in front of the fire and gave some advice to the younger kids there as well.


I made a new friend, Israel who joked that I should try working out sometime.
We talked one - on - one about what really happened when he murdered someone. It was at a bar and everyone was packing, trying to be hard like young guys do. It was like the Wild Wild West. 
He got into it with a guy and it got to the point where it was either kill or be killed. He didn't want to make excuses for himself since he knew he put himself in that situation to begin with but he says he did feel bad about the death. It was a guy he grew up with and things just got out of control.
He shared how blown away he was by the forgiveness the victim's family showed him afterwards. He had known the mother and when he man'd up and told her exactly what happened, she said "it could just as easily have been you." She understood that it wasn't all him to blame and she forgave him. He let her know that her son wasn't there to speak for himself and he took full responsibility. She still wanted him to know she forgave him and she even came to visit him. For the first time he felt his heart soften. It was after this that he changed and decided he wanted to show that same love to others.

DEATHROW

The execution chamber was very eerie.
I could actually FEEL a bad energy when standing next to the bed, almost like I could feel the panic the men must have felt in that room. It almost made me sick to my stomach. I didn't think it would have an effect on me. The viewing chamber with its padded seats and neatly rowed chairs was also off putting. It just didn't seem right. In the past I was always on the fence about the death penalty. Now, after standing in that room, I have to say I am against it. Using violence against violence doesn't bring peace. Father bernie talked about how the victim's families have been known to want to come back for more executions after finding they never got the sense of relief that they thought they would have. It just never fixes things. 

We went into where the death row inmates were housed and walked down one of the tiers. 
I got to visit with Lucky.
As I walked down the tier looking at the men in their cells, Lucky looked up from his bed, took his headphones off and nodded... I felt like he wanted to talk so I came up and shook his hand and introduced myself.
He was 39 and had been on DEATHROW for 12 years.
I let him know we were with St. Andrew's church and we just wanted to visit.
When asked if his family ever visted him, he said no but oddly enough, the family of the people who put him there did...
In our conversation, I asked him what he thought the best way was to reach people who automatically stop listening once you mention the Bible. Once you start speaking in scriptures many people including myself tend to stop listening. What do you say from your heart? We both agreed that you have to lead by example and just show instead of telling. 
Lucky gave me 2 things to take with me.
1) He wishes people would stop stoning people for appearing with questionable characters. In particular we were talking about a Chritian rapper who had appeared in a music video with another "secular" rapper. The Christian rapper was stoned and talked bad about for his short appearance. How else are you supposed to get to the kids? He said this was one of the main ways. Jesus was known for walking with people of all characters.
2) He dislikes the term secular because it has the connotation that since it's not religious it's evil, which it is not. There are plenty of non-religious people who can lead good lives and be great examples.

WARDEN BURL CAIN


We had lunch today at Warden Cain's ranch house and listened to him tell us all about his experiences there. Had a full time chef named Big Lou who was one of closest trustees to the Warden. He was well deserving of that name as he stood close to 7 foot tall and weighing towards 300 pounds. He was a very nice man and seemed to enjoy his position. I think the Warden really liked his cooking as well. We sure did. 

Warden Cain talked about his first execution when he first took the job.
They were taking bets on when exactly the inmate would die and he gave the gladiator thumbs down to signal the injection. He talked about how he later felt so wrong about how in his mind he had just sent the man's soul straight to hell without any talk with a priest or anyone to help comfort him.

He talked about how he changed the policies from there on out and began to treat the men with dignity. From now on, anyone involved in the execution get together and say a prayer that if what they are being ordered to do is wrong that they may be forgiven. He holds the inmate's hand and tells them they are going to see Jesus' face now....

He talked about how the seminaries coming into the prison have completely changed things around and dropped the violence so much that now other prisons are looking to him for advice on how to run theirs. He said he simply implemented the lessons he learned as a teacher and the basic protocol they taught which included treating them with respect and rewarding good behavior.

He talked about how bringing the seminaries in made such a difference.

He also shared some of his secret tactics for catching escapees!  :D


He said he does love it when it happens! It's exciting for him! They would bring the helicopters to the opposite side of where they thought he was hiding so that he would think they were going the wrong way and he was in the clear, then they would roll out with some 4-wheelers, and wait for them to come out.

He must really trust Big Lou and the other trustees who were serving us dinner! lol 


HOSPICE


For those who haven't been written up for 5 years, and are on their death beds, there is a program which makes their last days a little more comfortable.
Their familes can come stay in their own private room with tv and spend a few weeks with them. The program which pays for itself through sales of quilts made by volunteers, also has funds to bring the families in when they can't afford to come visit.
We heard from an inmate who talked about how his use of drugs lead up to bad mistake that cost him his freedom for the rest of his life. It was tough to hear because some of us on the retreat really could relate to the man who had just one instant change everything. Stories like this really make it hard to listen to people who think all lifers should just be left to rot. People with those viewpoints really should spend a day in here to see that these are people who should be treated with dignity and not like animals.

LAST NIGHT

We went on the trip with about 15 teenagers who wanted to play and laugh all night instead of sleeping so after 2 nights of sleep deprivation, I was out like a light Sat night...and I was told I was SNORING quite loudly LOL!!!!! They said I was snoring so loud and it was all amplified by being so close to the ceiling since I was on a top bunk…They were all scared to wake me up because they said they didn't know what I would do but finally I got a push in the middle of the night saying "Roll Over!" Lol - I immediately complied and heard all the kids giggling their heads off! I knew what they were laughing about and after they calmed down, I did one more really loud, deep, obnoxious fake snore to get them going. The whole room just busted out laughing...Lol ...."Yeah that was me! Now go to bed! LOL!" 

In the morning we went back to the Warden's cabin for one last breakfast prepared by Big Lou and his helpers. It was good to sit and reflect on what we all were taking away from the trip.
We all talked about how much the execution chamber bothered us and also how much it meant to the inmates to have some hope of mercy.

I was asked what I took away from the experience......

I went to confession for the first time in years and had the slate wiped clean once again….
Knowing that he really has heard it all made this one of my easiest confessions ever.
For my penance, Father Bernie instructed me for 3 days to ask God every morning how he could use me to serve him .... To listen and do so and then every night, talk to God and thank him for all the blessings bestowed upon me....

I knew from the second I stepped into that prison that I was a role model; not only to the youth who came on the trip, but also to the prisoners watching my every move, and even the adults who saw I was able to get closer to the inmates then they would ever trust them to do....Maybe I do have a greater calling on this earth like Deacon Gary suggested. Maybe the gospels we are all writing are waiting to be flooded with new experiences. I'm excited to see where I'm headed next and am empowered by the strength of these men who refuse to give up hope and continue to serve one another even in these extreme circumstances. They have shown me true strength and have taught me how easy it is to do the wrong things but how truely strong you have to be to do the right thing. This type of strength, the strength to do what is right in the face of temptation, is admired even more than any physical strength I could ever obtain.
I made a promise to these men to fulfill my responsibility to show others what they have shown me.

I pray that these men find some peace and happiness. They are all people who have just made mistakes. Some are sorry, some are not. I pray that the ones who are can find some joy and are able to share that joy from within the belly of the beast.

As we pulled the bus up to the front gates to leave the compound, the officers have to come on the bus and do a quick search for any inmates. They come look under the bus, come on the bus and after a minute or so we close the doors and drive off
Its good to be a free man….

"Big Lou!!! … You here?" Deacon Gary says....Everybody laughs ... But it's clear we are all sad he does have to stay.