It was dusk and getting dark quickly as I drove into Donovan prison. Donovan is just a few minutes from the boarder of Mexico. I drove to the first security kiosk with a heavily armed officer and showed him my identification before driving a little farther to show my ID again and sign into a visitors log. I crossed a 30-foot fence covered with barbwire, then an electric fence, then another 30-foot fence with barbwire, before finally exiting three different electric gates. All of this made me feel uneasy, to say the least.
Once we got into the prison chapel, the inmates began to enter. Most these guys had tattoos on their arms, some on their necks, and others on their heads or faces. It was clear these men lifted weights, and they outnumbered our group. I was relieved to have my teammates from Serving California, along with our founder Wayne Hughes Jr., by my side.
When I finally mustered the courage to go and speak to one of the inmates, our interaction was vastly different from what I had expected it to be. Bright eyes, filled with hope, a genuine smile and firm handshake awaited me. His name was Steve, and he exclaimed, “How are you, brother? What an honor for you to be with us! This discipleship program has changed my life and I am bringing my family to Christ through my transformation.”
After talking with Steve, Mark came over and introduced himself. He was one of the first TUMI graduates. He has been in prison over 20 years, and he helps the newer TUMI students to acclimate to the program. Mark is hoping to get out on parole in the next few years, at which point he wants to live in the Serving California re-entry homes so that he can stay connected with the word and increase the likelihood of his success. He wants to continue to make good choices
At this point in our visit, Eddie, another inmate, pulled out his guitar so that the fifty of us who were crowded in the prison chapel could begin to sing,
I am forgiven because you were forsaken,
I’m accepted, you were condemned
I’m alive and well, you spirit lives within me
There was no lazy singing in this group as the hall filled with our off-key (but enthusiastic!) voices. I know God was pleased with the state of our hearts and our worship, and I would take this worship time over a full professional band any day.
After the song, one of the inmates shared a ten-minute rap song that summarized the Bible. He said he had written the rap because it helped him to remember scripture as well as to share the word with nonbelievers in prison. You see, by telling the gospel in a rap song he was able to preach in a way that non-believers here would be willing to listen to.
God is really moving in the prisons where Serving California’s programs are taking place. Over 60% of inmates reoffend and return to prison within 18 months of getting out. Among graduates of the TUMI programs, however, this rate of recidivism drops to less than 3%. Praise God, He is moving, He is changing lives! To learn more about our work in prisons and how you can become involved, email me at Vaughn@servingcalifornia.org.