A Sentence of Life

Throughout my incarceration, I’ve spent quite a lot of time with inmates who will never be getting out of prison. They have been sentenced to Life without the possibility of parole — known as LWOP. There is a wide range of attitudes among them as to how they view the future. Some have stopped caring or trying, while others work tirelessly to better themselves. Some have faith in an afterlife that will be much better than this world, and others believe there is nothing at all after death.

Unfortunately, among nearly all of these inmates with LWOP, there exists a general sense of sadness from knowing they will never again be free in this life and the rest of their days will be spent in captivity. Even the most motivated and positive among them understand that no matter how much they change, how much good they do, or how much they learn from their past, they will never be free again.

I have felt their sadness as they speak of this reality and express their desires to not continuously be punished for a major mistake in their life so many years before. Whether or not LWOP is an appropriate sentence for their crimes is a discussion for another time and a different forum.

Recently, I have found myself thinking of their situation and feeling deep gratitude for the knowledge that I can someday get out of prison, even if it is years from now. The inmates with LWOP would never ask for my sympathy, but I do feel bad for them.

As I ponder on their dilemma, I can’t help but notice parallels between their situation and what my life would be like without the Atonement. If Jesus Christ did not die for us, suffer for us, and atone for our sins, each one of us would be sentenced to LWOR — Life without the possibility of Repentance. Without his loving sacrifice, it would not matter what we did to change, or how righteously we tried to live. We would all be held accountable and punished eternally for every sin we committed, no matter how long ago. It would not matter if we had learned from our mistakes. Personally, I have made serious mistakes in my life, and without the Atonement, which I can not even comprehend, I would be condemned to an eternity in bondage and captivity.

When I feel the despair those LWOP inmates are experiencing in relation to their mortal lives, I feel so grateful for the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I don’t need to have that kind of despair for my eternal future. I am so thankful that Christ has given me, and each of us, the opportunity to change, to learn from past mistakes, and to be clean again. I can’t even imagine how it would feel to live a life without the possibility of repentance. Thankfully, I don’t have to.

The Amazing Race

Recently, one of the inmates here on our prison yard has been in touch with a charity that is important to him. It helps disabled children, and those children are soon going to be running a 7K race to help raise money and awareness for their organization. My fellow inmate decided he wanted to organize a small 7K run here. His goal was to have it occur weeks before the one run by the charity so we could write about our experience and send it to them beforehand so they would know they had supporters, even here in prison. He presented the idea and immediately there were a few of us interested in participating.

Now, I know some people have a stereotype that everyone in prison works out. While there are some that do, most don’t. While I do some exercise, I am NOT a runner. That’s just not what I do, and interestingly, that seemed to be the case for most of those wanting to participate in this run. We had only one official training run before the day of the event.

On our track here, it takes 22 laps to run 7 kilometers. There were fifteen of us at the start and we all had different goals. Some people had goals of how fast they wanted to go and some just wanted to finish. My personal goal was to finish the run without stopping to walk, even if it meant going really slow. That morning, we had a brief word by our organizer about the purpose of our run. It was interesting to me to notice that there were inmates of all ages, ethnicity, religions, and reasons for being in prison. There was a nervous energy because this was out of our comfort zone to run like this, but we wanted to do it for the cause.

There are usually not more than a couple of solitary runners using the track at any one time so it created a little bit of a stir when one of the inmates yelled, “Go!” and fifteen of us started running. It surprised the guards and it took a few seconds for them to realize that we had no ill intentions! Inmates around the yard noticed what we were doing and started asking questions. Soon, it seemed like the whole yard knew that we were all running 22 laps as part of a charity run. Some inmates acted like fans and started asking us how many laps we had left and encouraged us to keep going.

We all ran at different paces. When I was at about the 15 lap mark, I felt like I was going to stop and walk a lap or so. There were others walking, and I knew I would still finish, but I would not accomplish my goal. Just as I was about to walk, one of the other runners passed me and said, “You’re doing great, don’t stop now!” It was just the motivation I needed and I never did stop to walk.

Some of the faster runners had started to finish their run, and when I got toward my last lap, I didn’t know if my legs could keep going. Then, just when my body was about to give out, one of the people who had already completed his run asked me how long I had to go. When I told him I was starting my last lap, he said that even though was finished, he’d join me. He stayed by my side, talking me through the last lap, encouraging me, and helping me to get it done. As I finished the race, I felt so good that I had finished and accomplished my goal. I knew that a big reason for my success was the help of others.

Soon after I finished, one racer who had two laps left decided to quit, saying he just couldn’t do it and he was done. The rest of us encouraged him, and after just a few seconds, he decided to finish. As he got to his last lap, I remembered what had helped me, and I and another participant who had finished jumped back in to run the last lap with our final finisher. It was as if having us by his side gave him new life. He ran with energy and was able to finish the race. Even though he had considered quitting, he was immediately grateful that he finished and that he had help to do it. All fifteen of us had completed the race.

I felt so good afterwards, and I know that part of that is because it was such a different experience than often happens here. This place is often negative and some bad things happen here. So to go through something like this was a huge lift. I thought about the fact that so many people on the outside think of prisoners negatively, and as a scourge on society. Then I realized that even though I am an inmate as well, I often fall into the easy habit of judging people in here, based on something I have heard about them or have seen them do.

This race was a big reminder to me of the divine potential of all of God’s children. No matter what we have done, who we are, or where we are, we all have the potential to change. We all have the potential to help others. It is inside each of us. What I saw during that race was goodness. It is so important to remember that even when I am down on myself for past mistakes, that goodness, that divine potential is there. And when I see others who are making mistakes, I need to remember that the same potential for change is there, and I need to treat them as such.

I guess I could say that this race is a little bit like life. In life, we have to do difficult things. We need to set positive goals and work towards them. We can receive help from the Holy Spirit and from those around us. When we feel like giving up, we must rely on the help available to us. And just as importantly, we can be the one to help others, and step in when they are about to give up. We can be the reason they make it.

Be Vigilant

One of the unfortunate realities of living in prison is the ever present possibility of violence. Danger can occur in any situation at anytime. However, even with that reality, there is a lot that someone in here can do to try and stay safe. Doing so takes effort and vigilance, not to mention a lot of prayer and following the Spirit! There have been times when I have prayed and then felt like the spirit placed a cocoon around me, protecting me from what was going on all around.

Currently, I feel blessed to be in a place where the violence is much less frequent than in other places I have been. While this is no doubt a good thing, I recently realized that it has allowed me to feel complacent about my safety at times. I got to a point where I was too comfortable. I was going about my days and getting into a routine that did not involve staying constantly aware of my surroundings and environment. I feel fortunate that even with that relaxed attitude, I stayed safe.

Sadly, something recently happened here where others were not so fortunate. Violence hit hard and people were hurt that did nothing to deserve it and had done nothing to put themselves in that situation. This incident quickly put everything back in perspective for me. I was reminded that as much as I might try to forget it, I am in prison, and therefore, I need to constantly be doing that things that keep me safe. The phrase that kept coming to my mind over and over again was, “Be vigilant”.

Vigilance to me, means to be aware of my surroundings. Vigilance means that I need to be looking for potential danger and doing whatever I can do to avoid it. As I spent time looking at my own routines and what I could do to improve my constant vigilance, I was reminded of a scripture I had read in the past. I had to look it up in the Topical Guide, but I found it in 1 Peter 5:8

“. . . be vigilant because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”.

Reading this had a powerful impact on me because it’s clear that in the scripture, they are not talking as much about being vigilant for physical safety, as much as they are about spiritual safety. If I consider it important to be vigilant in relation to physical safety, should I not consider it even more important to be vigilant for my spiritual safety. However, this doesn’t just apply to being in prison.

No matter where I am, what I’m doing, or how old I am, I need to be vigilant. And if I look back at my life, I can see the same pattern in my spiritual life. There were many times that I felt spiritually “safe”. In those times, I got comfortable and complacent. I got into a daily routine that did not involve staying constantly aware of temptations and spiritual opportunities around me. I left myself vulnerable to making mistakes because I wasn’t paying attention to potential dangers around me. This led to serious problems that should have been a call to vigilance. And at times they were, but those periods of vigilance were all too brief. It never took very long for me to slip back into complacency.

As I examine my life, now that I have unfortunately made many serious mistakes, I realize that Satan will NEVER stop trying to get me. He will NEVER stop tempting me, or tricking me, or lying to me. He will NEVER leave me alone on my path to returning to live with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. That teaches me a valuable lesson. If I am ever feeling spiritually comfortable to the point that I don’t think I’m currently facing any temptations, or that I’m not having any spiritual challenges at the time, that is a big warning sign that I’m not being vigilant enough. Since Satan will always be “walking about, seeking whom he may devour”, if I’m not seeing it, that may just mean I’m not noticing how Satan is working on me in the moment, or maybe I’m not recognizing the lie that he is currently telling me. If I’m not vigilant enough to always be watching for the opposition, I will likely not be prepared to defend myself against it.

Vigilance for me comes through reading the scriptures and the words of the prophets who can warn us specifically what to look for. Vigilance for me means repeatedly reading certain scriptures — such as Alma 5 — so I can constantly test whether or not I am on my spiritual path. Vigilance for me comes from frequently talking to Heavenly Father about how my life is going and asking Him to guide me to areas I need to improve.

As I continue to try to find ways to stay vigilant when it comes to my physical safety, I pray that I can pay even more attention to my spiritual vigilance and come closer to where Heavenly Father wants me to be.

The Day Everything Changed

I woke up that day just like any Saturday morning, feeling pretty good about life. I had a good job, a nice house, a calling I liked in church, and most of all, an amazing wife and kids. I started the day with my customary bowl of cereal and then headed out toward the church where I was to meet other people who were going to help set up for a ward picnic that would be held later that day.

I had no idea that my life was about to change forever, or that I would soon begin the worst experience of my life. I could not have imagined that in a few minutes I was going to feel more alone than I ever knew was possible.

After a few blocks of driving, I noticed a minivan that was following close behind me. As I made a turn onto a main road, the van started to flash blue and red lights. It did not look like a typical police car, so it surprised me, but I pulled over. The officer in regular clothes came to my window and asked me my name. After I told him, he asked me to step out and he immediately handcuffed me. I was in shock. This was so unlike anything I had ever experienced. It soon became clear to me that my past mistakes were catching up with me and I was about to be held accountable in a big way.

As I started to process all that was happening in those first couple of hours, I came to a decision that the only option I had was to take my own life. I quickly planned how I would bail myself out, take the necessary steps to give messages to my family, and then how I would end it all. As soon as I was transferred to the jail and had a chance to make a phone call, I called a bail office to start my plan. Fortunately, to bail out I would need somebody to co-sign for me and I wasn’t willing to call anybody to let them know about what was going on.

I sat in that holding cell and felt so empty. I tried to figure out another way to make my plan work. I didn’t pray because at that point of my life, I felt that I was plenty capable of handling my own problems without troubling Heavenly Father. Thankfully, He came to me anyway. I sat on the bench and was suddenly filled with a warm feeling of peace. I can still even remember the spot on the wall I was staring at when this feeling hit me. It made no sense. I was in this horrible situation and I knew my life was never going to be the same, yet I had the thought come to mind that everything was going to be ok. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But there was no denying that peaceful feeling that all would be well.

I am glad that at that moment I did not know the anguish I would go through the next year or so. I could not imagine the pain that was going to be felt by me and those I had hurt directly and indirectly. If I had known what I was going to go through, I don’t know if that peaceful feeling would have provided enough comfort. Heavenly Father knew what I needed at that time and sent the Spirit to save me. Since that moment, even in my greatest moments of despair, I have never again considered ending it all. Looking back, I have come to see that from the very moment this apparent nightmare started, Heavenly Father was helping me, guiding me, and carrying me.

From that feeling of peace, came a determination to take the next step. So I grabbed the phone book and started looking in the Yellow Pages for a lawyer. I don’t know if you have ever looked, but I imagine that in whatever city you are in, there are a ton of attorneys with ads in the Yellow Pages. I had no idea how I was going to choose a lawyer, so for the first time that day, I said a prayer. I prayed that I would be led to the lawyer that would be best for me. I tried a couple of the first ads I saw and because it was a Saturday, I wasn’t able to get in touch with anyone.

I continued to scroll through the ads and after skipping over several of them, my eyes landed on one in particular. There was nothing flashy or special about this ad, but without hesitation, I picked up the phone and dialed. The lawyer answered and, although the conversation was brief, I felt instantly at ease. It was only a couple hours later when he showed up to visit me for the first time. He did not say anything overly comforting, and he didn’t try to sugarcoat anything. But as he left, I felt that calm assurance again and knew that he was the one to be my lawyer.

As the next year went on, this decision was confirmed to me over and over again. While he was a good lawyer and helped represent me legally, the reason he was to be my lawyer was much more than that. In some of my darkest moments, he showed up to visit me. He not only worked as my lawyer, but ended up filling roles as my therapist, advisor, and friend. He worked with my family and gave them continued support as well. He even came to visit me on holiday weekends because he knew I would be having a tough time. He did not do this because of money. He did it because he cared. I know for sure that he was the best lawyer for me.

Out of all the lawyer ads I could have responded to, I know that I received that guidance from Heavenly Father because I had reached out to Him in prayer. That was the first of many, many experiences that helped me gain a testimony of the principle that Heavenly Father is aware of every detail of my life, and will help me and guide me if I am willing to ask, and willing to listen.

My life and the lives of many others were forever changed that day, but that day was just the turning point. The problems started years before, as I made the decisions that I did. In the moment, I never would have thought that day would be the moment things changed for the positive, but it was. If not for that day, I would still be a believer of Satan’s lies, and I would be heading toward a very dark place eternally. Since then, there have been a lot of difficult moments, and the challenges are far from over. However, I am grateful that everything changed that day. That is the day my heart started to change, my spirit started to heal, and my soul began the process of being saved.

Reflections: Ye Came Unto Me

(Reposted from my page)

After being arrested due to some very poor decisions that I had made, I was embarrassed, ashamed, and upset at myself. I had never felt so alone.  I had been an active member of the church, a loving husband and father. And now I was in jail.

I worried that my family and friends would abandon me and that I would never see them again.  I did not feel worthy of their love or support. I relied on prayer and the Holy Spirit with an intensity that I had never experienced before.  I wanted so desperately to feel that I was still important in God’s eyes. I was living in an environment that did not encourage the presence of the Spirit, but I pleaded to feel His comfort. 

I am grateful to say that Heavenly Father heard my prayers and provided ways for me to feel His presence and grow personally and spiritually. He did this through members of my family and church members  who were willing to minister to me while I was incarcerated. Jesus Christ said, “I was hungered, and ye gave me meat . . . I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me.” (Matthew 25: 35-36)  Prior to these experiences, I had thought of ministering to the sick and the hungry, but had somewhat ignored the last part of Christ’s teachings. Thankfully, others did not ignore His words, and they found ways to minister to me.

Since this life changing event occurred, I have received many letters that arrived at just the right moment with just the right message.  In some of my lowest moments, when I was feeling new levels of despair, I received letters or conference talks from people who had said they felt an impression that they should write me or send me that particular talk. 

There were also members of the church that sent me items such as scriptures, books by LDS authors, and material from the church’s 12-step Addiction Recovery Program.  Every time I finished reading something, it seemed that I would receive something else in the mail that would build on what I had just read. 

Some people chose to minister to me in person and came to visit.  It is difficult to describe how much joy those visits bring me. While in Liberty Jail, the prophet Joseph Smith wrote, “No tongue can tell what inexpressible joy it gives a man, who has been enclosed within the walls of a prison, to see the face of one who has been a friend.” (Joseph Smith, Jr., Letter, Liberty, MO, to Presendia Huntington Buell, Clay Co., MO, 15 Mar. 1839 ;in JS, History, 1838–1856, vol. C-1, between pp. 897—898)

I received visits from members of wards I had not lived in for years, including some of my past Bishops.  These people weren’t “assigned” to me, they simply followed the spiritual impressions they received. Many people later expressed that they had been nervous at first and unsure of what to write or say.  Fortunately they pushed through those uncomfortable feelings and allowed themselves to be led by the Spirit. There really was no “wrong” thing to say to me.

The blessings that have come into my life because of these ministering brothers and sisters cannot be numbered.  I know that God loves me and I am His son. I know that I can repent and make the necessary changes in my life. I have learned that the atonement applies to me, and I can be forgiven for my sins.  The service that those ministers give to me has allowed me to be in a place spiritually where I am now able to minister to others while serving my time in prison. 

It is important to point out that by ministering to me, there were also things they were NOT doing.  By ministering to me, people were not condoning my actions or approving of the illegal behaviors I had done.  They were not turning their backs on any victims of my crimes. They were simply ministering in the way that Christ wanted them to. 

I still have several years left in which I need to pay my debt to society, and I have lost my membership in the church.  Making the horrible choices that I did could have led me to abandon my faith and go even further down a destructive path, but thanks to the love I have felt from Heavenly Father through all those ministering to me, I have had my testimony strengthened and have felt my weaknesses turning into strengths.  I know that I can return to Him someday.

Reflections: Waking Up

When I was in County Jail, all of us inmates lived in single cells by ourselves. We only got out of our cells for one hour each day. The isolation for 23 hours a day required that we do what one friend called, “mental gymnastics”, in order to survive. Needless to say, that one hour out of the cell became very important in so many ways. That was my only time to shower, shave, use the phone, and exercise, not to mention just getting some fresh air in an attempt to stay sane.

We were let out in groups of ten, always with the same people, and always at the same time each day. My group would be the first to get out at 8:00 in the morning. They brought us our breakfast in our cells at about 6 am. Then most people would go back to sleep and wait until our 8 o’clock time to go out. The problem was that the guards didn’t do anything to wake people up when it was our time to go out. At 8 am, they would announce over a very quiet speaker, “Group One, your doors are unlocked.” Then, I could press a button on the inside of my cell which would open my door and I could go out.

People often slept through this announcement and so those of us who were awake would often go by and try to wake up those who were still asleep. However, I was always nervous about doing this because all of the inmates in the other cells, who belonged to later groups, were still sleeping. I didn’t want to make them upset by waking them. So I would approach the cell doors of those in my group and lightly knock on the door, and quietly call their name through the crack between the door and the wall. I would never get much louder than that because I didn’t want to cause a disturbance.

The result was that sometimes people in my group just didn’t hear me, and didn’t wake up. This meant that they missed their one chance to get out for the day. I could have pounded on the door or yelled loudly, but I chose not to. Once they woke up, they would realize they missed their time and would be stuck in a cell for the rest of the day without a shower, interaction, or any other privileges. They would often be upset that nobody woke them up, and I would tell them that I wasn’t willing to create a scene just to wake them up. After all, I reasoned, it was actually their responsibility to wake themselves up and I was just doing them a favor to even try.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with my spiritual journey. Well, I noticed as I became aware of all the lies Satan had led me to believe, that I had been in dire need of a spiritual awakening. Believing in Satan’s lies allowed me to fall into a deep spiritual slumber. Being asleep was allowing me to stray far from the light. I can look back on my life and identify different times when Heavenly Father tried to wake me up through quiet taps on the door, or softly calling my name. He used the Holy Spirit and people around me to try and get my attention.

Unfortunately, I had let myself get to a point where I was sleeping so heavily that I just didn’t hear these attempts to wake me up. If Heavenly Father had stopped there — if He had decided it was my responsibility to wake myself up — I can’t imagine where my spiritual life would be now or what my future would hold. I am so grateful that He was willing to do more to wake me up. He was willing to pound on the door and yell loudly. It is what He had to do in order to get my attention. I wish I had not been so hard to wake up. I wish I did not require such a drastic method of being woken up. It has caused a disturbance and has created a scene. It has caused a lot of hurt for a lot of people. Most, if not all of this, could have been prevented if I had just heard the earlier wake up calls.

I understand now that the drastic measures that my Heavenly Father was willing to take to awaken me are an indication to how much He loves me and knows me personally and intimately. I’m humbled to know he loves me enough to chasten me.

My hope is that others can learn from my mistakes and heed the earlier, softer warning calls. I pray that others will be able to wake up before such disruptive and hurtful events need to happen. There is nothing I can do to change the past, but I continue to be extremely grateful that Heavenly Father was persistent with me in His attempts to wake me up. If He had not done so, I would have lost my opportunity to repent and would have been “stuck in my cell” for a very long time.

Are there any people in your life who are currently trying to wake you up? Is the Holy Spirit softly tapping at your heart and urging you to change? Don’t ignore them. Don’t go back to sleep. It’s time to get and start the new day you have been given before you discover you have missed your chance.

Lie #8 – Avoiding the Appearance of Evil Means to Appear to be Perfect

Perfectionism has been defined not as striving to be perfect, but as striving to appear perfect.  I had no desire to be perfect, actually, and knew I was far from it. However, I felt it was vitally important to appear perfect.  When I thought of avoiding the appearance of evil, I thought of all the ways I could make myself look perfect. I believed that to show anything less would be to show weakness and invite others to be disappointed in me.  I often heard people talk about how nobody is perfect, but I rarely saw examples of people acknowledging their own imperfections. However, the scriptures again provide examples. Nephi tells us that his heart groans because of his sins that so easily beset him.  Joseph Smith is often chastised for his sins. And yet I believed I needed to be above them and it was so important for me to hide any sign of sin or weakness. I have learned that nothing could be further from the truth.  

There are no partial truths in this one.  We are not meant to appear perfect. We are not meant to be perfect.  My sins and my weaknesses are what teach me. They make me better. 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 tells us “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore, I take pleasure in my infirmities…for when I am weak, then am I strong.” Colleen Harrison adds, “Sins are only sins until they become the stepping stones upon which we learn, repent, and mount to Godhood.”  

It is clear that my sins are a necessary part of my spiritual journey.  So, to acknowledge them allows them to become a part of that process. To act as if they don’t exist means they will remain as sins or mistakes that will continue to weigh me down.

Have you ever felt pressure to appear perfect? Where did that pressure come from? Have you ever felt that if you show your imperfections you would be a failure? Share your thoughts with a comment.