My name is Louis and I am currently serving time in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on a 47 year aggravated sentence. I am a Field Minister at my unit. I graduated May 2016 from Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary to be a resident, an inmate, and pastor. Upon my graduation I was assigned to the Mark W. Stiles unit Chapel of Hope. I have been serving this community for almost 5 years.
God had called me for His glory to be a shepherd and servant leader to the men here at my unit. I love my calling and it is a humbling honor to be of servitude to these men. I have many spiritually challenging ministry duties: On-call Biblical and Grief & Bereavement, Counseling, Hospice counseling, preaching, teaching life skills courses, organization of chapel programs and services, facilitation of anger ministry, facilitation of faith-based 12-step recovery programs (Overcomers & Celebrate Recovery), Closed Custody & Administrative Segregation ministry and courses, Tutorial Services for GED students, Facilitator of Talent Shows, playwright and Theatrical Workshops & Theatrical Company. Even though I am a Christian I teach and minister to all faiths, even no faith at all.
I also have many beloved friends incarcerated with me who have different faiths, no religious beliefs, and theological differences. In light of this up-and-coming Presidential Election countered by the current condition of the pandemic, I strongly believe, articulate, and live by the saying former President Obama used, “We all need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.” My prayer is that someday our government & world leaders would adhere to that principle at the tables of diplomacy.
I am also teamed up with three other fellow Field Ministers to support and assist in the various ministry opportunities. The Chapel of Hope resident community that we serve has over 33 different faiths. I truly love these men and understand the plights and situations one goes through doing time. Unlike TDCJ chaplains or outside chapel volunteers who leave the unit after duty, I live with my congregation. I wear the same uniform, eat the same food, and experience the unpleasant circumstances of being incarcerated. 75% of this population is serving lengthy sentences.
The Chapel of Hope administration team of men, my co-workers, is a very close-knit group. We are blessed and fortunate to be under the governance of a TDCJ Staff Chaplain who treats us like human beings, not outcasts who fell from secular grace. We have seven Christians and one Muslim brother. We all respect and take care of each other. We hold each other accountable by maintaining the integrity of our leader (Unit Chaplain) and the Chapel of Hope. We live by the mission of our chapel: Redeeming Broken Lives.
The Chapel of Hope Ministry Team and I do not play church for appearance sake. This is not just a prison job to our staff. We believe all people have value, deserve mercy, and are loved equally by God, even the worst outcast and most forgotten! We help restore hope by sharing God’s redeeming grace with individuals and their families. By no means were we choirboys. Every one of us has a mighty testimony (ex-street and prison gang leaders, drug, alcohol and substance abusers, thieves and murderers and master manipulators) from our past. Heartfelt testimonies give a level of transparency to those we minister to.
Over the past twenty years of my incarceration I see that the faces entering the system are younger with more violent charges and extremely long sentences. They are confused, angry, prideful, aggressively violent and scared. In order to minister effectively to these residents, you have to first earn and gain their trust. Trust in a prison environment does not come easy. You gain their trust by them witnessing you living consistently. In other words, are you living and walking the talk you preach and teach?
We prisoners are professional observers, especially observing those who claim to be Christian, Muslim, and Buddhists etc. One of the first characteristics you inherit by simply doing time is how to observe your surroundings, staff & other prisoner’s characteristics, what shift is one duty etc. Before you can minister to these men they have to observe how you live and if it is constant with the belief system you claim. As the scriptures say, “You cannot serve two masters.” Hypocrisy is frowned upon by members of my community, especially when the hypocrisy is used or hidden behind religion. There is a secular term here in prison called “being 100.” When someone witnesses for you and says, “That dude is 100” that means he is not fake. His word is his bond. As a shepherd pastor, teacher, and minister, I always strive to be 100 with my flock.
Let’s be frank, there are many people in here that are not in here for being very nice. Some of them wear my uniform and others wear a staff uniform. There are those who are predatory and look for vulnerabilities or weaknesses. You do not want to become a mark, a weakling, vulnerable, victimized or labeled as a sucker in here. There are a lot of broken men who enter these walls who have not dealt or made peace with their past circumstances or transgressions (illiteracy, poverty, child abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, addiction, broken families etc.) Please do not get the impression that I am making excuses or supporting the victim stance for criminal behavior or thinking. However, there is a cultural worldview mindset of relativism that prisons manifest. This detrimental mindset has adverse effects both on our free world society and within the walls of our prisons.
Every day I witness on the world and local news that there are no set moral standards. The mindset is “You Do You and I Do Me.” If you speak out against how I am living you are out of line. It may sound ridiculous but I often thank God I am in here, and not dealing with the ills of free world society. It seems a lot more viscous out there.
This individualistic selfishness is immediately apparent and manifested from the very onset you are processed in the prison system. No one gives you a training manual on how to Do Time. The only manual you receive is an orientation manual of institutional rules and violations. There are no smiling faces or welcome committee other than correctional uniformed staff.
Staff is trained not to trust you and not to befriend you. It does not take very long to realize you are alone, especially if you do not have any spiritual foundation. You learn to live by a set of endless forever changing rules and regulations called “The Prison Code.” There is no abridged edition to this manual. It has never been published in print. It is handed down verbally and the contributors are numerous authors who have earned their PhD’s in the “PRISON CODE OF ETHICS,” accredited by “Penitentiary State University” of “Doing Time.”
Your mind can quickly become a battlefield of bamboozled clichés tricked and fed by your emotions, environment or circumstances, such as how you represent your hood, street, set or barrio at all cost. Watch your back. Do your own time not mine. Trust nobody but yourself or your homie. Worry about no one else but yourself. Look hard, tough, resilient & un-vulnerable. You can take on the victim stance of living, the “because I” excuse for not taking responsibility. Because of the white man, because I was poor, because I am black, because I am Hispanic, because the DA was out for blood, because my mom was a whore, because my father was not there, because I lived in the hood or barrio. There is an endless cycle of excuses for taking no responsibility and believing, “Society owes me something. After all they are the ones who put me here.”
I am a firm believer in the positive flourishment of my community. The reality is that this temporary residence is my community. I have a moral and spiritual responsibility for its reform by promoting hope in an environment that often dictates hopelessness.
Our unit has a high rate of suicides, HIV, Hospice patients, mental health and health care challenged residents. Prison is not very encouraging. The surroundings, barbed wire, steel cages and fences, overcrowding, punitive systematic policies, substandard healthcare, mental illness, family loss and separation often makes emotions unbalanced. Feelings of hopelessness settle in. Suicides start to peak and men develop self-destructive habits: drug abuse, substance abuse, increased gang activity, violence, and staff assaults.
Unfortunately, too, the COVID-19 outbreak had an adverse effect on our resident community and its members. Systematic lockdowns for positive outbreaks from COVID means no outside visitation, limited commissary privileges, and inconsistent preventive measures imposed upon residents. The realistic situation of overcrowding and prison living areas were not designed for “social distancing. Unrealistic staff enforcement of preventive measures can stress out residents and uniformed staff members. There is an old saying “Idle Minds Do Idle Time,” which is often an excuse for self-destructive behaviors to take over and cause substance abuse, depression, self-pity, suicide, homebrew, gangs, isolation, bitterness etc.
Men continuously make bad choices. Not owning up to their God-given responsibilities, they end up in here!!
Sometimes we make choices and sometimes we allow our choices to make us. I teach fatherhood principles in a Christian based all faiths welcomed program called “Quest for Authentic Manhood.” Men have a problem with the concepts and responsibilities of true manhood. You see many men have no idea what the true definition of manhood is. After 24 weeks of genuine classroom mini-group interaction they come away with a clear definition of Manhood to include reward, God’s reward. One must learn to deny self without excuse. I challenge my flock and it is a humbling experience to be in the position to do so. I love teaching and I don’t take my calling under God for granted.
However pastoral care can be overwhelming. Like I said earlier I live with my congregation and earned trust requires patience, listening skills and a genuine heart for service. In the free world pastors can take a sabbatical and get away to refuel. I do not have that luxury. I live with my congregation 24 hours a day. So to decompress I do a lot of reading.
My favorite topics of interest are African & American History, autobiographies, and biographies. I am also a playwright. I love to make people laugh. I have a background in theater and enjoy doing stand-up comedy, hosting unit “talent shows” for the men. I pray one day that my plays might be copyrighted and published. I facilitated, directed and wrote two plays performed at my unit. I was blessed with a very good solid dedicated group of 40 men to formulate “THE UNCOMMON MEN THEATRICAL COMPANY.” Both performances were sell-outs during the Christmas season. It is amazing how many men here have never seen a live play performance. It is extremely rewarding introducing them to a cultural experience. I was in tears when I saw my ideas brought to fruition by my guys. They worked very hard, studying and memorizing their lines, and doing costume prep. We formed a brotherhood. People who view the prison environment from false misleading depictions from T.V. shows and the media really don’t realize how many gifted and talented men and women are behind bars.
Since my incarceration I decided not to remain enslaved to criminal thinking patterns or to do my time in idle mode. I did not come to prison to continue doing wrong. The only way to do that was to deny the narcissist pattern of thinking that got me in this situation in the first place. I came from a good solid loving middle class family and now I would be a disgrace to the family name. I let down my ex-wife, children, family and friends. I make no excuse or blame anyone. I am extremely remorseful for the victims of my crimes, the hurt and pain. I begged Christ for His forgiveness and asked my victims’ forgiveness, some in person and others in prayer.
I decided to make peace with my past and everyone by completely surrendering my life to Christ. Again, this is no temporary jailhouse religious journey. I had to complete the will of surrender. My life was completely dedicated to be obedient and in service to Christ Jesus.
I was first incarcerated in Arizona at 41 years old. I never before then was arrested nor had ever been inside a jail cell. However while sitting in the county jail of the notorious Sheriff Joe Apiolo, I was at an all time low. Clothed in prison chain gang stripes, pink underwear, pink t-shirt and socks with bright orange flip flops. The cell was cold, clammy, and nasty and the roaches were Special Forces members of Navy Seal-Team repelling off the walls (smile). I was coming down from a bad substance abuse habit and was unsure if my life was worthy of continuing. I made a promise to God. “Lord please lift the power of addiction from my life and I will forever be of service to you and your people.” Praise be to God that was twenty years ago, no drugs, no hooch, no pills.
I am smiling when I say that even on clean air I am still crazy.
In closing, sorry if this letter was too long. You are probably saying, finally, man this dude can talk. I need a bathroom break. Seriously, if God one day releases me from inside these walls, I will forever be of service to Him and involved with a prison ministry. His grace sustained me all these years.
I am blessed to have an 82 years young mom, a loving brother, two grown sons and two little girl princesses, my grandchildren. I will not leave Jesus at the gate upon release. My prayer is that this is good enough for publication and will inspire someone inside and outside of these walls.
In closing: “You have my permission to contact me if you desire.” If anyone else would like to contact me, they have my blessing. You may give them my information. I pray that your family and staff remain safe, healthy and blessed during our country’s time of unrest.