June 16, 2011
Thursday, 5:30 p.m.
Letter #178: Robert’s Story
I want to give you the brief life story of Robert, a skinny 27-year-old energetic young man with a constant smile and positive attitude. He moved into my pod in Florence Correctional Center several months ago and was there until his transfer back to California only weeks before the rest of us transferred to La Palma.
In the few months we were together, Robert went from being outspoken and even threatening against me to being a staunch supporter—he said I was the only person in his eight years of incarceration who he’d seen cry over the crimes they’d done. This led him to ask me for advice and counsel regarding his imminent parole. In and out of prison since his first felony at age 15, he wanted more than anything to do it right this time, and stay out.
In the process of working with Robert to develop an exit strategy, I had him write down a timeline of his life and a short history. We’d talked at length about his relationship with God. Common to most prisoners, Robert never heard about a God who loves him until he came to prison—for the third time. He told me that he had placed his faith in God, but it was tough to live for God day to day. He had never been discipled, never encouraged to grow in his knowledge of who God is. He attended a couple of chapel services, then took upon himself the task of trying to change. I challenged him to give up foul language, and he made it a priority.
My self-confrontation class would’ve been a bit too deep, so when he inquired about it, I suggested he join me in reading through Rick Warren’s little 40-day devotional, The Purpose-Drive Life, He agreed, though he felt more at home studying it on his own. Two days into it, he complained to me that I’d “tricked” him into reading something religious, but I told him to not give up on it and keep reading it. He told me a couple of weeks later that he really liked it.
Soon, he was meeting one-on-one in the dayroom with another Christian guy for Bible Studies, and yet another for weekly accountability and prayer. I agreed to work with him on the daunting process of creating an exit strategy—something I’m passionate about—once I saw he was trying to change. Here, in much his own words, is Robert’s story:
“Let’s see, I was born in 1984 and was instantly exposed to drug addiction and an unstable household. My father, a Vietnam vet, did prison time for involuntary manslaughter before I was born. My mom, a drug user from the age of 16, is the reason why I learned what syringes are used for and why I knew early on that drugs means instant cash. My mom is still in prison, and so is my little brother. My dad died of cancer when he was only 42. I was seven. I moved to San Jose with my aunt, but to a bad neighborhood. I tried to fit in by doing drugs, stealing cars, and robbing people. This led to dealing drugs, which led to a four-year sentence when I was 16, served between California Youth Authority facilities and prison. I began my second prison term within a month of being released, and a few months after finishing that term, I began this one, two years ago.
Prison taught me a lot—how to get flawed “respect,” how to no longer feel anything, and how to commit crimes even better. Just two years ago, I was sure I had it made: street status, money, and stuff. Now I’m more mature, though I have less material stuff and less so-called friends—and I’m much happier! The big change came just a year ago, when I finally determined that I was tired of the life I’d been leading, and so I went to the prison officials and signed my “dropout” papers, retiring from the gang lifestyle. I knew that in order to change my life, I couldn’t just go halfway. Now I’ve reestablished relationships with my family, earning their trust back and focusing on them. I’m taking this new life step by step, and I just know I’ll experience success this time. That’s where I’m at now, and I’m not looking back!”
A big challenge to me recently has been Jesus’ words about how we demonstrate our love to Him: caring for those less fortunate than us. In Matthew 25, He gives several examples—the hungry, thirsty, stranger, needy, sick, and imprisoned. Jesus says when we help one of these, it’s as if we’re doing it to Him, and when we don’t, we reject Christ Himself! Do I see my fellow inmates as if they are Jesus Himself? Do I show the kind of compassion as if it is Jesus?
Robert paroled to Morgan Hill last week. He plans to attend his aunt’s church, look for a job, have his neck tattoo removed, and stay out of trouble. I think he’ll do just that. I’m praying he will … I saw Jesus in him.