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by Dennis L. Ugoletti, M.Div.

 

 

In the fall of 1992 I went to prison for the first time and ended up on death row. It was a set up. Like everyone else, I didn’t want to be there. But I was drawn to a certain cell like an unseen magnet pulled me. The inmate stared at me through the thick glass. I was a very reluctant prison ministry volunteer from Bible school; he was a convicted murderer. He looked me square in the eye and said, “The Lord told me I’d be getting a visitor today and to tell him my story.” Then he began to share how he ended up on death row.

 

by Dennis L. Ugoletti, M.Div.

 

 

In the fall of 1992 I went to prison for the first time and ended up on death row. It was a set up. Like everyone else, I didn’t want to be there. But I was drawn to a certain cell like an unseen magnet pulled me. The inmate stared at me through the thick glass. I was a very reluctant prison ministry volunteer from Bible school; he was a convicted murderer. He looked me square in the eye and said, “The Lord told me I’d be getting a visitor today and to tell him my story.” Then he began to share how he ended up on death row.

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 His story troubled me. It sounded a lot like my story! My mind went back to the night when an angry young biker put three bullets in a man. I realized that this could be me on death row! I committed similar acts of violence. The only difference - his victim died; mine lived. He was convicted of first degree murder and waiting execution. My case never made it to the grand jury. Standing before the cell of this condemned man on Unit H, of Oklahoma State Penitentiary, I heard the Spirit of God say, “My grace spared you!” The force of the realization hit me like a blow to the chest. I could have been on death row! I began to weep. I cried for days afterward. That was 15 years ago and the memory still brings me to tears. I’ve been going to prison ever since; it’s my calling. So with a face full of tears, I also shared my story. I told him how God had forgiven and spared me; that I belonged on death row too.

 

His name was Will[1] and we became instant friends. For the next three years, I would visit him (and death row) every other Sunday. During this time, Will and I would spend many hours talking together through the window of the closed door of his cell. The door was always locked, the glass was thick and conversation was difficult. If the bean hole (tray slot) was open, we’d use it. I won’t forget Will. He was a picture of calm and rest; comfortable in his isolation and solace. It was evident that Will spent a lot of time in the Word of God and prayer. His words were always seasoned with grace. Our volunteer prison team came to minister to the inmates; Will’s burden was to minister to the volunteers. He always looked for an opportunity to be a blessing. It was hard to believe that this man was a convicted murderer. He was truly a new creation in Christ. If I had met him in a church, I would have never guessed that he was a convicted murderer.

 

What was Will’s secret? Why was he different? How did he remain peaceful locked away in a concrete prison cell? One Sunday, I asked him. Will said he was ready to die; he had made peace with God through Christ. He told me he took full responsibility for his crimes and accepted his sentence as a consequence of his sins. Will knew that he was forgiven! He also asked for forgiveness from those he had wronged and forgave those who wronged him. And he walked in that forgiveness.  

 

I remember another man on death row during that time. His name was Mike and I won’t forget him either. You couldn’t go near his cell without facing a tirade of profanity and derogatory slurs against God. As far as Mike was concerned, Christ and his messengers were open targets for barbed and bitter comments. Most of the volunteers (and inmates) avoided Mike and gave him a wide space. From time to time I would attempt to engage Mike in conversation. After many months, he would permit me to speak with him but only for a few minutes. That was as long as I didn’t mention God, religion or the Bible! I really felt for this man. He hid his pain behind a façade of hatred and bitterness. Mike was hurting and wounded but refused treatment and comfort from anyone.

 

What a contrast between the forgiven and the embittered. Mike refused help from everybody and blamed everyone for his situation. He could never forgive those who betrayed him and often lay awake thinking about how to get even with them. He was full of contempt; never missing a chance to curse those who came too close. According to the other inmates, Mike never slept well. He was often heard raging and screaming during the night.

 

In 1995, my move to Missouri permitted me to visit OSP a few more times. But my move to Pennsylvania in 1998 effectively ended my time of ministry there. I never saw Will or Mike again. Will’s execution was in 2003. A friend who still serves at OSP told me Will’s final days were good and he died peacefully. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that things went as well for Mike. He was executed in 2004. I heard his last days were difficult.

 

Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?

 

When I moved to Missouri, I was privileged to participate in several R.E.C.[2] week-ends in Missouri and Illinois prisons. The R.E.C. week-end at Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling will always stand out in my mind. Two estranged inmates, who were once good friends, were moved to reconciliation and forgiveness by the Holy Spirit. It was a powerful healing moment.

 

When the R.E.C. began, I sat on the opposite end of the meeting room, away from the entrance and watched as a group of inmates made their way to my table. At the back of the group was a big man who stood almost a head taller than the other inmates. You could not help but notice him; his size demanded attention. As he approached, I observed that his face was etched with the lines of deep sadness. He seemed to have a mixed expression of frustration and discouragement. Quietly he took the seat next to mine. I introduced myself and learned that his name was Lee.

 

Lee was polite and answered my questions but would not engage in conversation without prodding. I would have to do the work if I wanted to get to know Lee. I watched for every available opportunity to find out more, engaging him in small talk whenever possible. I noticed that Lee stared across the room at someone or something quite often. When this happened, his expression intensified and his eyes reflected anger. Then, like he was catching himself doing something wrong, he quickly dropped his gaze, put his head down and sighed.

 

That first day I asked the men at our table if they would mind if I ate with them. Judging by their expressions, they must have thought I was crazy. Who wants to eat prison food?But after the jokes they welcomed me to join them.[3] When Lee remained silent and didn’t say no I took it as a good sign. I made it my business to sit next to him at each meal and to keep talking with him. Little by little Lee began to open up.

 

Saturday morning after breakfast, Lee told me his story. He was from Chicago and did time during his younger years. He had a good woman who stuck by him. She helped him clean up and start living right. Things were going well; they were making it. They had two boys, 14 and 16. Lee loved his family. He spent a lot of time with his boys playing basketball. He said that both kids had potential for scholarships if they stayed out of trouble and kept their grades up. Then the trouble began. Lee’s wife got sick and stopped working. They got behind and couldn’t make ends meet. One bad thing led to another. Lee got involved with some friends from the old days. You can guess the story from here …a deal went bad …Lee got snitched out by his “friends.”

 

Lee said, “Black men with a record don’t walk out of the Cook County Courthouse.” He was sentenced to 10 years; he had almost four in. Said his wife was doing better but both boys took to the streets. The oldest almost had a scholarship but quit school. He blamed himself for not being there for them. And to make matters worse, he said, one of the men that snitched him out is here at Western. In fact, he’s in this R.E.C.!! Then Lee confronted me, “what you got to say about that? You people come in here with your church stuff. You don’t know nothing about what my world is like!” I was speechless and struggled for an answer. Then, someone yelled from the building to hurry up, we were late for the next session. I thanked God for the chance to collect my thoughts.

 

The next meditation was, of all things, on reconciliation and forgiveness. Once again I gave thanks for God’s providence! I watched from the corner of my eye to see if Lee was paying attention; he was. When the afternoon break came, I asked Lee if I could try to respond to what he said. We stepped outside. I told Lee that he was right; I didn’t know anything about his world, what he was up against or how he felt. But, I know how it feels to be forgiven and how it feels to forgive. I know about the freedom that comes with forgiveness. Lee, if I could give you anything this weekend, I’d give you that freedom; that release from your pain. The gift isn’t mine to give; but it’s yours to receive. You must release this man; forgive him and let him go. Until you do, you will never be free. Lee looked at me and went back into the room. For the rest of the evening, Lee didn’t say much to anyone.

 

The next morning was powerful. The R.E.C. uses a foot washing service, based on Jesus’ example in John 13, for reconciliation. Everyone is encouraged to participate. Basins, water and towels are provided. The instructions are fairly simple; find someone you feel that the Lord is leading you to serve and pray for them while washing their feet. This is done in a very worshipful attitude with the singing of worship songs and praying while participants wash each other’s feet. It is a sacred moment full of God’s presence.

 

Our group stood off to one side of the room while removing our shoes and socks. I asked Lee if he was going to participate. He said that he didn’t know. I could see that his attention was somewhere else. Our group began to worship together and soon we were busy washing each other’s feet and praying. After a while, I noticed that Lee was not with us. I looked around the room to find Lee but couldn’t see him because he was kneeling down! Apparently, when our group went to the middle of the room, Lee moved to the other side and removed his socks and shoes. He was washing the feet of another African American inmate! It was the friend who betrayed him! They both had tears streaming down their faces.

 

The rest of our group joined me as we stood to the side and watched these two men exchange places. The other man began to wash Lee’s feet. Then they both were standing up, crying and hugging each other. It was glorious. I will never forget that moment as long as I live. Both men were glowing; they seemed like two different people. I had another chance to speak with Lee that afternoon, before we left Western. The look on his face said it all. Lee was a different man! The look of sadness was gone, replaced with a large smile. The R.E.C. volunteers that provided follow up ministry said the change in Lee was dramatic, like day and night. They reported that he and his friend were working things out.

 

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…

 

One of my most difficult challenges occurred while serving as the chaplain of the Beaver County Jail in western Pennsylvania. I worked with a troubled 22-year old female inmate who was trapped in a heartbreaking situation. She never seemed to find the forgiveness that she so desperately needed. She was caught in a web of resentment and unforgiveness.

 

Charged with vehicular homicide, Linda spent 18 months on our female unit as her case wound through the system. Her case was tragic. Linda was very intoxicated and drove directly into the path of an oncoming car. A popular local schoolteacher and his infant son were killed in the accident. Linda was portrayed as the villain by the media. In addition to the criminal charges, the family of the deceased was also suing Linda for monetary damages.

 

Linda and I would talk regularly but always at her request. She was usually very nervous, constantly fidgeting, scratching and looking over her shoulder as we talked. She was so thin her bones stuck out. She told me that she often threw up, usually after a visit from her family. After the first few visits, I began to understand why. Linda was full of resentment and bitterness.  

 

Linda’s story came together in bits and pieces. Her family belonged to a fundamentalist sect and Linda resented being controlled and manipulated by religion. Her father, a leader in the sect, continued to exercise control by monitoring her activities in the jail. He told her what to read and what programs to avoid. Linda saed he wanted a report at every visit. She wanted to think and make decisions on her own but could not find the courage to tell her father. This frustrated her. When I asked Linda how she handled the frustration her response was to “go out and get drunk.”

 

She felt her parents had always compared her failures to the successes of her siblings. She was the youngest of 5. The oldest, a lawyer, advised the parents on Linda’s defense. She didn’t want the help. Linda wanted a local lawyer but the family chose one from another county. Upset with her family’s choice but afraid of serving a long prison sentence, Linda accepted the lawyer, but the lack of choice bothered her. Although she held resentment towards her family, she was very remorseful regarding the accident. Linda repeatedly told me how she would have traded places with the schoolteacher. She was sorry for “causing everyone so much pain.”

 

Linda had many conflicts. If I attempted to engage her, she would grow reserved and aloof. If I pressed, she would end the session. She had a difficult time believing that God would forgive someone like her. I would share the Gospel story and tell her about God’s grace. She would nod. I would read the New Testament passages to her that spoke of God’s grace and forgiveness. She would listen intently. But as we discussed what was read, she could not or would not allow herself to believe that God loved her.

 

When I explained that resentment and unforgiveness were the same, she would balk. Once, I had her read through the Lord’s Prayer and then stopped her at “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” I explained that according to this, the forgiveness we receive is directly proportional to the forgiveness we extend. I suggested she may have to forgive her family if she wanted the schoolteacher’s family to forgive her. She became upset and ended the session.

 

I would like to write a better ending to her story. Before the trial, Linda’s lawyer and the district attorney worked out a plea arrangement. At the sentencing hearing, the family of the deceased rebuffed Linda’s attempts to express remorse. She was given a 5 to 7 year prison sentence. Linda left our jail confused and wounded. She was moved into the state prison system.

 

Blessed are those whose sins are forgiven

 

One day I was summoned by the shift commander to speak with a 40-year old male inmate who was going through a bad time. The inmate was on our special needs unit. He was depressed and refused to come out of his cell. The staff was concerned that he might be suicidal. His name was Joe. His was a sad, sad story; a crime of passion. After a night of drinking and using crack cocaine, Joe woke up the next morning and found his girlfriend dead. He said that he had only a vague memory of what took place. He only remembered she tried to hit him with a hammer and he choked her. But the investigation revealed that quite a struggle took place between them. In fact, it was brutal. Joe was charged with murder. He was looking at spending the rest of his life in prison.

 

Joe spent the better part of 2 years housed on SNU, waiting for his case to work through the court system. For the first three months, he was so depressed that he wouldn’t come out of his cell. Then Joe went through a period of denial, becoming very angry, mostly with himself. Finally, Joe’s anger gave way to sadness and remorse. It took a long time for Joe to face what he had done. It took longer for him to ask for forgiveness …and to forgive himself.

 

After our initial encounter, I made a regular habit of visiting Joe and talking with him. He also believed that his crime was so bad that God couldn’t forgive him. I shared the good news of the Gospel with him. Over and over again, for weeks I kept going back to tell him the story of the One who died for sinners and murderers. The message began to sink in. Joe was much more responsive than Linda.

 

After the first six months, Joe and I began to meet weekly. Joe would usually wait for me near the sally port door. Then one day he was not there and I went onto the unit to get him. There I found Joe face down on his bunk, his face shoved into the pillow. His eyes were swollen, red and he was sobbing. He got out of bed and followed me to the small multi-purpose room on the unit. Joe wouldn't look at me. Every so often a fresh tear made its way to the floor. I asked what was wrong. His sobs became harder as he struggled to tell me he remembered everything that happened on the night his girlfriend died. “I killed her!” he gasped. Joe fell against my chest. We held each other and cried. Then we both got down on our knees to pray. Joe asked the Lord to forgive him and took his first step on the path to healing and forgiveness.

 

Joe was estranged from his family for a long time. He was unable to call them through the inmate phone system so I encouraged him to write. He did. Joe wrote his parents and sisters telling them how sorry he was for causing so much trouble.  He asked and received forgiveness from them. Two weeks later, Joe’s mom and sisters began visiting him at the jail. They saw the change in Joe and were elated. Joe’s father, however, wouldn't come to the jail to visit his son. He was heartbroken over the way that Joe had turned out.

 

Two things continued to nag at Joe. He desperately wanted to reconcile with his elderly father before going away to prison. He was concerned this would be his last chance to see him. Joe spent many hours praying that his father would forgive him. His family continued to visit, but the father never came. Before Joe left for prison, the father sent Joe a message. He told Joe that he loved him but could not bear to see him in jail. It broke Joe’s heart. Joe also wanted his girlfriend and her family to forgive him, but the girlfriend was from out of state and Joe had no idea how to contact her family. I encouraged Joe to write a letter to his deceased girlfriend asking for her forgiveness and to express his sorrow and remorse. I don’t know if he ever did.

 

Shortly after this, Joe decided to come clean with the district attorney. He contacted the public defender and arranged to confess to his crime. The charges were reduced to 3rd degree murder. Joe received a 30-45 year state sentence. He was 45 years old and thought that his life was over; he’ll never get out of prison alive. Before they transferred him to the state penitentiary, Joe slipped back into depression. Once again he refused to leave his cell. Once again I encouraged him with the Gospel to prepare him for a life behind bars. In the end, Joe accepted his sentence and made up his mind to spend the rest of his life helping others, even if he was behind bars! He thought his life was over.  Jesus gave him a new life! Later, after Joe was transferred “up-state,” several staff members demanded to know why I spent time with a worthless murderer. I told them that either the Gospel is for murderers or it’s no Gospel at all!

 

Father, forgive us, we don’t know what we’re doing

A jail chaplain’s work is never finished. I recently overheard two young inmates talking about someone who had offended them. One wanted to know if the other was going to get back at the offender. His reply left me grieved, “It’s worth 30 days in the hole to get back at him!” Then he said, “I lay on my bunk every night thinking how I can get even!” Lord, help us.

 

 

 
 
 

[1] Names have been changed in order to protect identities and maintain clergy-client confidences.

[2] R.E.C. stands for Residents Encounter Christ, a prison ministry with Roman Catholic roots and modeled after Cursillo. It has evolved into a trans-denominational prison ministry with Christians from many traditions (lay and clergy) volunteering to share 3 days of Christian community with those on the inside. The entire experience is designed for inmates to encounter Christ and receive reconciliation. 

[3] They asked if I was ready for “mystery meat?” J