442 | Special Assignment: Justin

July 3, 2016
Sunday, 8:00 a.m.
Letter #442: Special Assignment: Justin


Dear Family,

The moment I landed at this facility in the first dorm I was housed in, I couldn’t help but meet Justin. A tall, lanky young man, Justin was not well liked by most everyone in the dorm. He had a habit of starting arguments with anyone, about anything, at any time, and I like arguments. With Justin, it didn’t seem to matter whether you agreed with him or not. He was so certain you were against him, and he couldn’t accept critique of any kind.

As I’d sit up on my bunk, writing or reading, he’d wander over from his other argument to push some of my buttons. (Yes, I have buttons that I keep carefully hidden away.) So as not to disturb my cranky old man bunkie, Jose, I’d have Justin stand away from the bunk, but it wouldn’t take long for him to get animated and angry, and I’d have to jump down off of my bunk and walk away with Justin to give Jose some peace.

Over the course of my first two months in the dorm, Justin and I got to know each other a bit better. Though he is serving only five months in prison, he’s had run-ins with the law since childhood, and he still has major anger issues. I’ve tried many, many times to help him see the world differently, to help him calm down and grow in character, but it’s seemed to be a fruitless exercise. Justin has a belief in God, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of him being in a bad mood. He’d bring up politics or racial issues that were clearly polarizing, then defend his position to the death (well, the clear death of any goodwill or charitable feelings anyone may have felt toward him).

He has had frequent run-ins with staff members because he was doing something they didn’t want him to do, such as doing handstand push-ups against the outer wall of the dorm while at yard. He gets mouthy, telling staff they are not right to harass him. (I mean, if you can’t enjoy a few moments upside-down on a prison wall, is life even worth living?)

My bunkie, Jose, who is the oldest inmate here, has threatened to fight Justin, who is nearly a foot taller and three-and-a-half decades younger. I have threatened to watch.

After hours and hours of conversation, I began to realize that Justin not only is a terrible friend, but he also seems incapable of developing a meaningful friendship. One night, I invited Justin to join me at choir practice, since he had told me he wished he knew how to sing. While I was leading the practice, I could hear what my childhood choir director would call “the wind,” the sound of one person singing off-pitch. I kept directing as I stepped away from the keyboard to walk behind and next to the guys, getting closer, ever closer to the culprit with no sense of pitch. There it was: beautifully ignorant tones just bellowing forth from Justin’s primary face-hole.

Ahh, if there were ever a moment I have wished to be tone-deaf myself, it was that moment! I stood next to him and began singing the part I’d given his group, the bass section, to sing. In a split second, he’d turned on me, fire in his eyes, and said: “Back off! Get away from me! I don’t need your help. I don’t want your help. You want to do something? We can fight right here, right now!”

Did I mention Justin still has anger issues and is a terrible friend? Well, I don’t like to back down when someone is being a bully, because I believe it sends a wrong message that bullying is okay. So, instead, I humbly told Justin that I was just doing my job as choir director and that no, I wasn’t interested in “doing something.” Instead, I suggested that we return our focus to singing on pitch. He stormed out of the room (but apologized later that evening).

Over the next few days, I talked with Justin about his formulative years, and he told me how his father has never been in his life, so he lived with his grandparents, who have tried several times to kill him. Ranking high in two of the three primary indicators for autism, Justin never seemed to “fit in,” choosing instead a life of drugs and other illegal behavior that eventually made him my neighbor.

I began to feel a bit of compassion for the guy, and I told one of our church elders who lived in our dorm with us that he shouldn’t worry about Justin, who was constantly getting under the elder’s skin. “I really believe God gave him to me to deal with,” I told him.

The elder didn’t hesitate: “Good. Amen!” Funny how quick he was to accept what I said as Gospel Truth. 🙂

Soon after this is when I got moved to my new dorm, and lo and behold, Justin was one of just two from my previous dorm who came with me. Oh, he had to be taken to “The Hole” first to calm down because he was yelling at staff, but he finally settled in nicely. I encouraged him to listen more and speak less, and he’s followed that advice some days.

Last week, I got called into the office of the lieutenant in charge, who asked me what I’ve been doing with Justin. I replied, “Just being his friend, sir.”

“Well, we’ve noticed how much time you spend with him, and we’ve noticed how we have no more issues with him, and I wanted to personally thank you.”

 I said, “Wow, I appreciate that,” at a loss for what to say.

He said, “No, I appreciate YOU. That kid has been a headache here for a while, and now he’s changed. Keep it up.” I thanked him for encouraging me and said my mom would be glad to know.

The past three weeks with Justin have been tough, as some days I’d spend up to four to six hours talking with him. He goes home in four days, and it seems as if everyone in our dorm can’t wait for him to leave, but I’ve finally begun to care about him. I want him to do well, to succeed in life, and gratefully I’ve seen his walk with God deepen as he accepts the unconditional love of his Heavenly Father.