I never expected to find myself on Death Row.
I was supposed to go to a friend’s Christmas party last Saturday, but I kept feeling a tug telling me that I needed to go to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution and spend an evening with the “worst of the worst.” So, I joined several other members of APMUMC, including Pastor Melisa, to deliver Christmas gifts and spend time with the inmates who are housed there. I had no idea what to expect and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was remotely prepared to provide any kind of “ministering” to anyone, much less men who live daily with the weight of knowing they will die young and in prison. Curiously, I’d spent the morning with homeless men and women who were full of hope and would end it with people who have shelter and no hope….or so I thought.
We gathered in the prison’s Chapel where we were offered bologna sandwiches on white bread and tangerines as we waited for other groups to arrive. Some began to sing Christmas Carols and all I could think was how surreal this was. The prison Chaplain announced which group were going where when she called out “Pod 2, Andrew Price.” Pod 2—the innocuous designation given to the section that houses Death Row, as if that name somehow could mask the reality of the place.
There were rules. No contact. No personal information exchange. Hand the gifts to the inmate unwrapped, one by one. With that, we moved through the prison grounds under the shadows of guard towers and razor wire that formed the perimeter, finally stopping at Pod 2. It looked like all the others, but of course, it wasn’t. If those walls could talk, they’d speak of men’s last words, last walks, and last moments on earth. I’m not sure what I expected when we walked into the actual room where we would meet these inmates. Sure, I’ve watched prison reality shows, but you can’t smell what’s on TV. Pastor Melisa observed that it “didn’t smell bad” like county jails do. With all due respect to her, that was possibly the most disturbing part of the whole experience for me. There was no smell, as if there was no life. A lot like a hospital—that “too clean” scent that covers up sickness and hurt.
As I waited for them to unlock the “pie flap” of the cell door I chose, I watched as a living, breathing man came over to the door. We exchanged small talk as I passed small gifts one by one through the flap as instructed. A bar of soap. A cupcake. A pair of socks. A stick of beef jerky. Four stamps.
Jesse’s a Cowboys fan, so I teased him about that until he said, “hey, what about those Titans?!” I quickly changed the subject as I handed him a small Bible. “I won’t really use the stamps because there’s no one to write, or at least no one to write back. But this I’ll use,” he whispered. I found out that we’re the same age, but he seemed so much older somehow. We talked about the spiritual programming he watches on his small television and also about the books he’s read. He was especially excited about The Purpose Driven Life, and I told him that I had that one but hadn’t read it through. He said, “You have to READ it!” I resisted the urge to ignore that he wasn’t on Death Row and blurted out “what does that book mean to you, considering where you are?” His words hit me like a brick, “There’s hope and purpose in God. I wish I had had it before I got here, but I have it now.” I began to forget about the walls that divided us and realized that this chat was so much more a blessing to me than it was to him.
When the officer came to me and said it was time to go, I turned and looked at Jesse whose eyes had lost the brightness they’d had just a minute earlier, “I don’t get anyone to come see me, but I’m really glad you did,” he admitted.
The massive gates clicked loudly as they locked behind us and we all went our separate ways. I thought about Jesse and those other men on the drive to that Christmas party, and I’ve thought about him since. I know I’ll never see him again, and I know that the State of Tennessee will probably take his life someday.
Saying goodbye, I tried to imagine what it must be like at that “final goodbye.” It’s true that most of these men have committed heinous crimes. It’s true that most of them should be in prison and many of them should never return to society. It’s also true that they all live in the worst kind of Hell and many of them have not a single person who truly cares about them. Perhaps the absence of love in the first place has a lot to do with their current living arrangement. I hope that I’ll never be so jaded that my heart doesn’t break for what breaks God’s.
Though we were instructed (or advised) not to, I looked up his case, so I know what he did to end up on Death Row. It was reprehensible. It took my breath away. Would I have looked at him differently had I known what he did prior to our conversation? Perhaps, but I hope I still would’ve shown him an open heart.
I will pray for Jesse, not because he is an angel or even a nice man, but because he needs it as much as I do.