Chapter OnePrologue: Paradox
It was a glorious Easter Sunday, the spring sun sparkling and warm, the air fresh and sweet. Too nice a day to spend in prison, but that's where I was bound.
As I approached the sprawling complex of brick buildings surrounded by barbed wire fences, I remembered my first visit here nine months earlier. As in most states, Delaware's institutions were dangerously overcrowded. The legislature, though unwilling to allocate needed funds, was carping mercilessly at corrections officials. To help make his own assessment of the situation, Governor DuPont had asked me to report on conditions at Delaware State Prison.
On that steamy August day I had visited every corner of the complex. I had walked through dormitories so jammed with sweaty bodies that the air was diffi cult to breathe. I had seen the psycho ward where a man writhed convulsively against the chains around his bloodied wrists and ankles. Immune to sedation, without restraints he would have destroyed himself. I had continued on to the "hole," stopping to talk with each man isolated there in solitary lockup.
One, who introduced himself as Sam Casalvera, had been sentenced to life without parole. Sam was tough, his huge, muscled arms testifying to hours of weight lifting. His defiant gaze told me prison - even solitary confinement - had not broken his spirit.
Sam was the exception. By the end of the tour I was overwhelmed, as I am in so many prisons, by the sight and stench of death. It was reflected in the inmates' eyes, in their head-bowed shuffle, in their endless staring at nothing through hand-clutched bars. The suicidal patient chained in the psychiatric unit was perhaps the most rational of all, I thought ironically; he was merely struggling to bring his body and spirit to the same point.
I asked the young chaplain if I could meet with the Christian inmates. We gathered in a small conference room off the warden's office. Of the eight prisoners present, all were lifers, seven were black. These strong, earnest men were a dramatic contrast with what I had just seen. Joyous about their faith, they had resolute assurance that Jesus was alive and real, even in the midst of the human hopelessness of prison. We prayed together, holding hands around the table, and then I promised I'd be back.
A few months later we sent a Prison Fellowship seminar team into the Delaware prison. With the help of twenty volunteer lay people from the nearby community, our two staff members (one an ex-con himself) conducted thirty-two hours of teaching. More than one hundred men signed up for that first in-prison seminar, and before the week was over, seventy-five met Christ. That made the week memorable, as did another unusual incident.
One study session was interrupted when two guards burst into the room, clamped handcuffs on a frightened young inmate, and hustled him out of the room to a waiting van. Those in the seminar, who knew only that he was being taken to court, prayed fervently.
Arriving in the courtroom, the inmate stood shaking before a stern-faced judge. "Young man," the judge said somberly, "I've been examining your records." He paused, then looked up. "And I've decided to reduce your sentence to time served. You're a free man.
"Good luck," he concluded, nodding at the speechless prisoner and rapping his gavel.
"Thank you, your Honor," the inmate choked; then, more loudly, "but sir, if it's all the same to you, could I stay in prison the rest of this week? I'd like to finish the Prison Fellowship seminar."
The judge, shocked, muttered something about working it out. The man was returned to the seminar's expectant group of believers where there was much celebration.
During the months following I received a series of exciting reports about the Christian fellowship continuing to grow in Delaware. As spring approached, I knew I wanted to spend Easter with these brothers.
Now as I arrived at the front gate on Easter morning, I was met by the corrections commissioner, more than seventy-five Prison Fellowship volunteers, several judges including a justice of the state supreme court, and a bevy of other state officials. We were quickly escorted around the metal detectors and processing rooms - none of the usual search routines this morning.
The Christian inmates, more than one hundred in number at this point, had gotten permission to host a breakfast for us. As we were served in the mess hall, I took a perverse pleasure in watching the justice turn away from the dried-out porridge and sausages of dubious origin.
One of our enthusiastic hosts rapped his spoon against a cup, and when the group quieted he announced that an inmate, Sam Casalvera, would read a poem composed for the occasion - and dedicated to Chuck Colson.
Sam rose, wearing the broadest grin I'd ever seen; it was obvious he was not the same rebellious convict I'd met in solitary nine months earlier. I didn't need to ask what had happened.
Sam cleared his throat and began reading:
I heard you were coming to worship once more With souls who were floundering when you came before.
He hesitated, took a deep breath, and continued. We had direction but needed a push You made us a promise and also a wish.
Sam paused to take a wrinkled cloth from his pocket and dab his eyes.
Your promise was kept - Prison Fellowship you sent. Whatever I write can't tell you what it meant. Some who attended made your wish come true. They gave their life to Jesus, as you did too.