The Church of the Second Chance: A Faith-Based Approach to Prison Reform
Carlton L. was sentenced to thirty years for three counts of aggravated involuntary manslaughter in 1997.
Q: Tell us a little about your life before you were arrested for your current offense.
A: I was born in 1969. My father worked in construction, my mother in the textile industry. We were a very religious family and went to a Baptist church every Sunday as I was growing up. I was never in any trouble with the law. At parties, I would drink a little, but I never did drugs. I graduated from high school in 1987, worked at a TV shop for two years, and then joined a major multinational manufacturer of power equipment, specifically large transformers. I worked there from 1989 until 1996 in a variety of different positions, manufacturing different parts of huge transformers. In the end I was working as a support team technician, which was considered a good assignment. My work evaluations were always good. But I should say that I only went to church occasionally between 1987 and 1996.
Q: What happened in 1996?
A: I was involved in an automobile accident that resulted in the deaths of three people in another car. I was driving home from a relative's house, and I was under the influence of alcohol.
Q: Tell us about this accident.
A: I don't actually remember any of it because I was severely injured. An ambulance took me from the scene to a local hospital, and then I was flown by helicopter to Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. There I was placed on life support for roughly two weeks. Along with several other injuries, the main artery to my heart had been ruptured, and my spleen had to be removed. I was unconscious throughout all of this, so I don't even know how many operations they did on me.
Q: How long did you stay in the hospital?
A: About two months, after which I was released in North Carolina. I had some family there who wanted me to stay with them, but I returned back to Virginia. Two weeks later, the Virginia State Police came to question me, and another month later I was indicted for three counts of aggravated involuntary manslaughter. I was released on bond until my trial in 1997.
Q: Tell us about your trial.
A: It lasted two days. The prosecution's main argument was that I'd been reckless because I was drunk and speeding. I didn't deny that, and I agree that I was partially at fault. But my lawyer's argument was that the victims had also shown reckless behavior. There were two eyewitnesses to the accident who testified at my trial as part of my defense. They had seen the victims horseplaying with their car and almost getting hit by a tractor-trailer a few moments before the accident. Shortly after that, they came speeding from a side road and turned into the main road without stopping. That's where we collided. Of course I didn't see any of this myself; this was eyewitness testimony from the couple living across the street.
Q: How did you feel about those three people dying in this accident?
A: I was very sorry to have the whole thing occur. I hate to see anyone lose their life under any circumstances, especially when I played some part in it. When the family members of the other car's occupants gave their victim impact statements at my sentencing, I understood their feelings completely; I probably would have felt the same way. That's why I apologized to those families as well as to the community.
Q: Tell us about your sentencing.
A: The jury recommended a sentence of ten years for each count, which was not the maximum. Normally, because the charges stem from a single event, these sentences would be served concurrently, and that would have meant eight and a half to nine years actually behind bars. After the jury made its recommendation, the judge ordered a pre-sentence report, which recommended a four-and-a-half-year sentence. But in the end, the judge followed the jury's recommendation of three ten-year terms—except, he ordered those three ten-year terms to be served consecutively. So I now have to serve twenty-five-and-a-half to twenty-seven years.
Q: Did the judge give any reason for doing that?
A: Not that I can recall. But I do remember him saying that he felt he would probably never see me again, if I walked out of his courtroom that day.
Q: Did you try to appeal the sentence?
A: Yes, with my family's help. They had paid for my trial lawyer, and they paid for years and years of appeals, too. But all the appeals were rejected. And under the "no parole" law, there is no other way for me to be released early—no time off for good behavior, nothing.
Q: Was the shock of that very long sentence what made you turn to Jesus?
A: No. There are many inmates who turn to the Lord in prison, but for me it happened in the hospital. On numerous occasions, doctors and nurses would look at my medical charts and say, "I don't know how you survived." And they would say, "The Lord must have saved you for some purpose." That got me thinking. Also, one day, after all my other visitors left, the chaplain came by and shared with me my mother's faith throughout the many surgeries. All the doctors had told her that they expected me to die within twenty-four hours. The chaplain encouraged me to turn my life over to God, and he let me know that I was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime. So I started reading the Bible in my hospital bed.
Q: Were you facing criminal charges at this time?
A: No, not then. But I knew that charges might be brought against me in future. And I didn't try to hide from that. Duke University Medical Center released me, and I could have just stayed in North Carolina instead of returning to Virginia, where the accident had happened. But I went back, because I knew I had to face what I had done.
Q: Did you continue to read the Bible after you left the hospital and went home to Virginia?
A: Yes, and I started going to church regularly again. Also, I went to church after I made bond, after I was arrested. I received overwhelming support from churches in the surrounding community—not just my own, but others, too. They visited me, gave me money because I couldn't work, and even gave me money for lawyers. So I really felt the love of Jesus in its practical form. This helped me to see that there was more to the Christian faith than just words in a book. It was love in action.
Q: Did you continue to walk with Jesus after you entered the prison system?
A: Yes. I attended church services as often as they had them, twice a week as I recall. I also got pastoral visits from my home church's minister every six months or so, and he continues to come to visit me occasionally. He also stays in touch through cards and with my family. He's a wonderful man.
Q: Did you take any classes after you came to prison?
A: Well, I'm fortunate, I guess, in that I have more education than most inmates. Most educational programs in here are more geared to them: remedial reading, high school equivalency, and so forth. But the prison in which we are now, Brunswick Correctional Center, is unusual in that it has a computer course. I graduated from both parts of that, the introductory one and the advanced. In my work prior to my arrest, I had worked with computers a lot, and I wanted to maintain my skills. [Interviewer's Note: The size of this class has meanwhile been cut in half.]
Q: What kind of job did you get at Brunswick?
A: I began working as a chaplain's clerk pretty soon after I arrived here, and I've held that job continuously since then, under three different chaplains.
Q: What do you do as a chaplain's clerk?
A: My work consists of aiding in scheduling services for all different denominations and faiths. We have about twenty-five prison ministers and other religious volunteers who come here regularly for Protestant, Catholic, Jehovah's Witness, Buddhist and Islamic inmates. I liaise between the volunteers and program sponsors and the chaplain as well as the other staff here. Distributing religious literature, setting up the musical equipment and lecterns used at different services, and scheduling appointments for other inmates to see the chaplain are some of the other things I do, too.
Q: Apart from the office work, what do you do?
A: At the Protestant services, I am the worship leader. That means I conduct the service from beginning to end—leading the congregation in prayer, calling on the choir to sing, inviting congregation members up for the Bible reading, introducing the volunteer or sponsor if he or she is preaching the sermon, or preaching the sermon myself. Protestants have services twice a week, and I usually give a mini-sermon at each one. Depending on the volunteer or sponsor, I may also give a longer sermon.
Q: Before I became a Catholic, I attended Protestant services that you led, and I remember some of the sermons you preached. Tell us about the one called "Fight Night at BWCC."
A: Well, "BWCC" is "Brunswick Correctional Center." The sermon is based on Psalm 42 as a starting point, and it talks about David's struggle within himself. He is exiled at this point because his son Absalom has taken over the kingdom. David is wrestling with his faith and his current situation: if I love God as much as I say I do, why does it seem that my circumstances are getting the best of me? If I am a man after God's own heart, how come I am in exile? Each time his situation gets worse, his faith speaks up to quiet his heart and to comfort his soul. He realizes that God has not forgotten him, and some day he will rise again.
Q: How did you come to choose Psalm 42 as the topic of that sermon?
A: I think that this psalm speaks to men who are incarcerated and are trying to do the right thing. I see my role as helping the men in here keep faith and keep doing the right thing, even though their circumstances get very unpleasant at times—just like David's. They find themselves with a battle raging inside. Has God forgotten them? And the answer is that God has not forgotten us, any more than he forgot David. God spoke to David's heart, and he will send a comforting word into our own hearts. It's not in vain that we keep doing the right thing, even though we're incarcerated.
Q: Have you ever thought about becoming a minister when you are released?
A: Well, first I would have to get a job to provide some financial stability. But yes, I would like to attend a seminary and become a pastor eventually. I believe my experience as a prisoner could help others turn from a life of crime and bring out undeveloped talents, so I would like to go into prison ministry especially.
Q: Apart from leading worship services and preaching sermons here at Brunswick Correctional Center, what else do you do to help prisoners keep faith?
A: I also counsel some men one-on-one, if they want it. Many inmates are more comfortable speaking with me than with a staff member. Some of the issues they bring to me are thoughts of suicide, the death of a family member, other family problems—such as disobedient children or a wife who wants a divorce—or disputes with other prisoners. Sometimes we'll talk on the rec yard, or in the lobby of a housing unit, or even in the man's cell.
Q: What is the most common problem that inmates bring to you?
A: Many men are very lonely and despairing because they are cut off from their families. Many families cannot afford to come to visit their incarcerated relatives or pay the surcharges on the prison's collect call system. Also, hardly anyone in the free world writes letters any more—it's all instant communication, e-mail and cell phones. Prisons are the last place on earth where pen and paper is the primary means of communication!
Q: And, of course, many inmates have no connection at all anymore with their families in the free world.
A: That's right. Many prisoners feel abandoned, and they really have been.
Q: Do you and the inmates who seek your help ever talk about their crimes?
A: Certainly. You know, despite the overwhelming propaganda out there, most offenders that I have come in contact with are first-timers who came in here when they were a lot younger than even I was. They are very, very regretful that they made their mistake—but there is no one to tell that to, no one to listen. Who can you turn to, to say that you're sorry?
Q: Do you think that most of these men would re-offend if released?
A: I don't know if they would re-offend; that depends on a lot of things, like if they find a job and have gotten some help with their drug addiction. But I know that most of them don't want to re-offend. They don't sit in here planning how they're going to terrorize people when they get released. They dream of going straight, but they don't know how. They tell me, "I'm sorry I made the mistake I made—but where do I go from here?" They feel despair, because they know there's no second chance for them.
Q: And how do you answer that question, "Where do I go from here?"
A: I tell them that you have to continue to be patient and take one day at a time. Also, I instruct them that they first must forgive themselves. That's important, because you cannot continue to harp on your past mistakes—you cannot change them. What has happened, has happened. I tell these men: now you know what can happen to you, if you allow it to happen. This gives the individual the opportunity not to excuse his mistake, but to accept it. And then I point out the positive aspects I see in the man before me: he might be good at helping others with their education, or he might be a good listener, or he might know how to comfort others in a crisis through his own experience.
Q: How do you know what a particular prisoner might be good at?
A: I observe people, and I listen. Many people in prison discover talents and abilities that they did not know they had within them. That can happen through their faith—they might learn how to sing in the church choir. Or they might write poetry. A lot of men around here have picked up crocheting and make all kinds of things with their hands. It all depends on what opportunities they are given. If there is no choir, no English class, no arts and crafts program, men can't discover their abilities. But these men really need these opportunities to discover their talents, so they can stop hating themselves and start forgiving themselves.
Q: Is self-hatred a big problem among prisoners?
A: Yes. A lot of inmates have very low expectations of themselves. They figure that nobody cares if they can do something besides getting high and doing crime.
Q: I noticed that you didn't mention Christ in this discussion of forgiveness; you only talked about prisoners learning to forgive themselves. Why is that?
A: I don't always bring up Jesus in the one-on-one counseling sessions because you have to feed men what they can digest. Some of them aren't ready for Christ yet. We are a vast culture of many faiths, and so I have to be ready to help regardless of whether I have the same faith as that person or not. Jesus summed that up in one word: love. If you give these men love and forgiveness, you have already brought Christ to them, even though you might not have used the word "Jesus" in your conversation.
Q: But what about those occasions when you do mention Christ explicitly?
A: When I talk about Jesus in counseling sessions, I talk about how he has made it possible for us to endure these circumstances and go through the trials and tribulations of life that we face day in and day out. To the person who has to deal with sickness, I talk about Jesus the Healer. To the individual who is dealing with legal problems, I introduce Christ as the Lawyer, the advocate who speaks up for us. To the man who is restless and weary of mind, I introduce Jesus as the Master of Peace who comforts all hearts. To the person who is struggling with finances, I introduce Christ as the Great Provider.
Q: And do you find that your one-on-one counseling sessions are successful in helping inmates with their problems?
A: Most of the time they are. A lot of people don't know what strength they have inside until they are put to the test. We are often stronger than we look. These situations we face, they can bring out not just our best side, but our true being.
Q: "Our true being" is a problematic phrase in this context. A lot of people in the free world, and even many inmates themselves, think that everyone in prison is a born criminal, beyond salvation and rehabilitation. We're supposed to be beyond hope.
A: That's right, many people do think that way. But no one in here is born bad. Some time in the early stages of our lives, we get our lives clouded up with bad things, which lead to really bad choices, which land us in here. But this does not have to be the end. The brighter, better side is capable of rising again. And the key to that better side rising again is experiencing the love and forgiveness of Jesus.
Q: Do you believe that Christ has forgiven you?
A: Certainly. I believe he forgave me long ago, when I first asked him to come into my life, in Duke University Medical Center. But I certainly understand that society often requires more of others than they are willing to give themselves.
Q: Explain that further, please.
A: I think we find it very hard to forgive others. For example, the judge who sentenced me: if that had been his very own son in the courtroom instead of me, I dare say that he would have pled for mercy—and he would have granted it. Or a female guard who talked to me just a few days ago. She has been holding a twenty-year grudge against a man who promised to give her husband some wood to make a piece of furniture. Her husband forgave the man a long, long time ago, but she continues to harbor hatred on her husband's behalf and says she can't ever forgive him.
Q: What did you tell this female guard?
A: I told her that bitterness can ruin us all, if we let it. If we fail to administer love and forgiveness to those individuals who have harmed us, we are the ones who will suffer in the long run. Jesus told the disciples, "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Certainly Jesus would have forgiven this man long ago, just as her husband did—and welcomed him with open arms. It's Jesus that we ought to try to follow, not our own bitterness.
Back to The Church of the Second Chance