On the Tuesday evening before Christmas, I was on a bus for Riker’s Island.
We crossed over the East River channel from Astoria in Queens. The sun had set an hour earlier, and the evening had turned bitter cold. As we rumbled along, one jet took off and another landed on the airstrips of La Guardia, just a few hundred yards to our right. Far off to our left shone the brilliant skyline of Manhattan. What striking images of freedom, wealth, cosmopolitanism, and the power of modern engineering. They stood in sharp contrast to what lay at the end of the bridge.
Straight ahead I could spot roll upon roll of razor sharp wire hanging from top to ground on the metal fencing enclosing the drab, aging buildings of New York City’s main jail. Inside, more than eleven thousand men and women either awaited sentencing or transfer to an upstate prison. Inmates were arranged partly in order to diminish any more violence than they had already triggered: among other things, sex offenders were set aside where others could not murder them out of some dark code of honor.
Somewhere in that hopeless place a small group of men were queuing up to meet those of us riding in on the bus. The designated meeting place was a gym where the inmates play basketball. A simple steel structure with concrete floor and backboards of thick metal mesh, it had been decorated with strings of blinking white lights and some non-religious seasonal decorations. Round plastic tables had red and green paper coverings; and the serving tables were filled with foil trays of hot Italian dishes, plates of cake, and plastic liters of soda.
When the men filed in, wearing their baggy, state-issued green jail uniforms, the fifty or so guests and workers erupted into a standing ovation. The men were a mix—some shy, some grinning, of various races, some young and fit, one grey haired, another partly crippled; but they were all prepared to celebrate and to share with us why we were gathered together. These inmates were graduating that evening from an intensive educational program called the Prison Fellowship Academy. For months they had spent ten class hours per week studying, learning, bonding as brothers, and becoming new men. I was honored to be there as a guest of Prison Fellowship.
The education offered by the Academy included the study of Christian faith and the development of essential life skills like fatherhood, basic finance, and communication. Five days a week the men worked with Prison Fellowship instructors. At the heart of the program was a vision for the whole man, a powerful image that stood in dramatic contrast to the broken lives that had first entered Riker’s. Also at the heart of the program were the instructors, all dedicated Christian men and women who tirelessly gave of themselves and who that night shared in the celebration as the Academy’s proud faculty.
The education was transformative. The teachers and the other facilitators gave the men hope. The men now have new lives and a future supported by a strong, practical set of skills and a beautiful set of allies: their Prison Fellowship mentors, family members with whom they have begun the process of restoring and healing their relationships, and, above all, the God who loves them.
They know the road before them is tough as they prepare to leave jail. The city streets have not improved since they came to Riker’s. And, as Jose “Manny” Negron, the Northeast Field Director for Prison Fellowship, cautioned them, “Knowing the right thing to do does not mean you will always do it; sometimes we do the wrong thing anyway.” However, we can all do the right thing, he explained. The key to consistently doing so, no matter how hard the trial, is to live by the “the Holy Spirit,” particularly the gift of “God’s strength.”
The ceremony included remarks by dignitaries and a spirited keynote speech by a preacher who had been a correctional officer for many years. Two of the graduates shared powerfully about how their lives were turned around by the Academy’s program. We all sang some Christmas hymns. A guest artist performed a stirring song called "God With Us." At one point, the inmates stood and sang "He is Able," a fitting tribute to God’s strength. Some of them sounded and moved like members of a gospel choir; others were clearly challenged to stay on pitch. Altogether the song was a wonderful gift given out of their poverty, joy, and gratitude.
When it was time for dinner, the inmates were initially invited to enter the buffet line as the first guests, but someone directed them to put the chairs in place around the dining tables. Prison Fellowship President James Ackerman intervened and insisted the men go ahead; he took charge and led the rest of us to set the chairs up.
I spent most of the supper with an inmate named Guy. My expectation had been to find out about his future—to conduct a kind of interview. As it turned out, my plan did not go very far. Something else happened, something even better.
To my question about his age, he answered “Fifty-seven” and asked me mine. “Fifty-seven?” I remarked, “That’s my age!” “When’s your birthday?” he asked. “May.” “Ahh, I’m older than you,” he said laughingly, “My birthday is in February!” This is how it went. We talked as a couple of new schoolmates might talk or like two guys putting on their shoes before a pick-up game. It was simple, basic conversation, but we bonded.
Guy had an accent, and I rightly guessed it was West Indian. That brought on a lengthy exchange over the islands we knew. We compared terrains and weather. I had worked in Grenada shortly after the Marxist regime fell. Guy recalled the exact year, 1983, when the U.S. liberated that island. He had not been to Grenada and wanted to know if it was beautiful. I described its ten by twenty miles of white beaches and green mountains. I also shared about how the Marxists had persecuted the Christian church. He was keen to hear that too.
We shared about aging, arthritic knees, the need for staying in shape, and how good the food was: yes, all fifty-seven-year-old guy talk. Guy had two heaping plates of food and explained with a big grin that they never ever ate like that in the jail.
I asked him about his experience with the Prison Fellowship Academy. Hands down, the thing he valued the most was the Alpha Course, a study series on Christ. Guy had been around the church before and had some familiarity with Christ before he came to jail. “But,” as he puts it, “I really learned about Christ through Alpha.”
Most of the inmates, I learned, have jobs. Each job brings just cents per hour, but they are glad to have the money. One job Guy does is to support the jail’s suicide prevention program. He floats through the jail keeping an eye on any inmate who has been placed on the suicide watch-list. I was struck with the reality that, in Guy, Christ was moving among the hopeless at Riker’s, saving their lives.
The greatest takeaway for me was the counterculture Prison Fellowship has fostered. There is a lot of darkness in Riker’s Island. Amidst that gloom and profound alienation, the Prison Fellowship Academy has brought the light of hope and built real community. Behind the bars and inside the razor-wired fencing that rings the jail, the Academy’s participants have experienced the freedom that only Jesus can offer. In their own right, they are now apostles, tending to one another, sharing their stories of hope with us, singing his praises, waiting for his direction as they move on, even saving the hopeless from death.
How is such a remarkable culture possible in the middle of a dark place whose inhabitants are the incarcerated and their captors? The best answer for all this is one I will now steal from the season we are in: Emmanuel.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.