Alpha in the Prisons Week 1: Is There More to Life Than This?

One thing I’ll say about the Prison Fellowship program is that they definitely know how to screen out people who aren’t serious. In addition to getting three letters of recommendation from friends and a pastor, there is about six hours of online coursework and testing that must be completed prior to one’s first step into a correctional facility. No, this isn’t the SAT or GRE, but you do need to be attentive as you watch the lectures and there are no shortcuts to getting through the exams. After you complete the coursework, you have to go to the D.O.C.’s corporate headquarters on a workday and sit through several hours of training classes that go through all the rules that must be followed — a lot of which appear to be common sense but I can see at this point how they can be violated as one develops an affection/affinity for the inmates. Finally, even though the official class time for Alpha is between 6 and 8 PM, I was told that I should prepare to leave my office at 3 PM in order to give ample time for all the logistical things that can and do go wrong on the day one is supposed to go in. The list of volunteers approved to enter the prison has a 50% chance of mysteriously disappearing the day you get there, and when you need help, the guards seem to communicate with central control mostly by fax (!!). For a person who gets really antsy when a projected 20 minute drive on Google Maps takes 25 minutes, waiting for these kinds of issues to resolve itself amounts to a monumental test of patience.

I head out super early as my first day (Sept 23) also happens to be the Friday when there is a ton of UN activity going on which paralyzes the east side of Manhattan. The drive is longer than expected, and truth be told, I have some nervous excitement energy. The thing I keep hearing from the Lord on the drive over is “remember how thin the line is… remember how thin the line is”.

I arrive at the first checkpoint at 4:30 PM. Entering the facility for the first time, it feels more or less like I would have expected. A current work colleague who served in the DA’s office in a former life warned me about the stench, but it frankly wasn’t bad at all. I suppose the best way to describe it is as a dilapidated DMV circa 1995. The main thing I notice are all the non-facility workers…i.e. people visiting their loved ones. Their experience seems so routine- and I’m watching and trying to wrap my head around a world in which prison visits to see a spouse or parent end up becoming routine. There are four different points where I am asked to show my ID, who I’m with, what I’m there for, and each stage is a mini ordeal. After the fourth checkpoint, my co-leader and I are led down a long hallway underground and we come up to the surface level where there’s a small library type room with a TV/DVD player. We sit down and say in about 10 different ways, “Lord Jesus, come into this place”.

Ten men show up to our meeting. The composition is 4 black, 3 hispanic, and two Middle-Eastern fellows (culturally Muslim) and 1 Caucasian. We start with an icebreaker and ask the men three questions: 1. What is your favorite pastry? 2. What faith background do you have (if any), and 3. Why are you here and what do you hope to get these next 12 weeks?

It seems like all the black and Latino fellows had some exposure to the church when they were younger, but the range of experiences are wide and varied . One of the Muslim fellows seems to be practicing, the other more nominal. The answers to question 3 are very honest- they range from “my lawyer told me to do whatever program they offer” to “I’m trying to learn how to make better choices so I don’t come end up back in here after I get out” (recidivism is around 50–65%).

The first memorable moment with these men happens when it’s my turn to answer the three questions. I relay to them that I didn’t grow up in a Christian home, but that I met Jesus while I was in college. I am here, I tell them, because I have met the Living God and He has transformed me in a way that I could never have imagined and I just want to tell the world about Him. What I want out of these next 12 weeks is for each and every one of you to meet and experience this very same God, the one whom I call Lord, Savior, and Friend. That He would not be the God you heard about when you were younger, or the God that two people who came into prison told you about, but instead you would be able to say my Lord, my Savior, and my Friend. That you will one day be free from this facility (everyone there had 18 months or less left in their sentence), but you will never be truly free until you find yourself worshipping the one true King, and surrendering all to Him.

A moment of silence ensues as the men are ingesting this mini impromptu sermonette. Gotta admit I felt the Spirit on me towards the end of it. And then one of the men responds, “That was beautifully put, John. Well said”.

The first week of Alpha is a discussion around the question, “Is there more to life than this?”. It’s a bit of an odd question to ask in this context as it’s primarily geared toward those for whom life is ostensibly working, and yet something deeper within is yearning for more. Despite that, the conversation flows. There’s an authenticity and flow to the conversation that I was hoping for but wasn’t sure we’d get since anyone who’s led Alpha knows that you’re there to facilitate (not teach) and so you’re at the mercy of the participants in how things actually flow. The high point in our discussion is when one of the inmates shares quite vulnerably that he just lost a loved one a couple days ago, and he breaks down as he feels the regret of not being able to spend time with her since he’s locked up. My co-leader and I are a bit at a loss — all we can say is “I’m so so sorry”. By the time I decide to go over and lay a hand on his shoulder, he composes himself rather quickly as I’m reminded in one of the training videos on prison culture — the lecturer talked about how important it is for a prisoner to not show any weakness.

Our time concludes shortly thereafter. Overall, it’s a good start. Like the early rounds of a fight, we’re trying to feel one another out, but I’m pleasantly surprised with how little posturing or perpetrating is going on. These men feel like people I could easily befriend if we met on the street or at a party. At worst, decent foundation for the next 11 weeks is being laid, and I am grateful for that.

Originally published at on September 23, 2016.

Formal training: Dismal Science. Vocation: Investor and Pastor. Desire: Kingdom of God