I have been in a cell before. The walls are tall. The concrete is cold and so is the ambience. The public vehicle I was in together with 13 other passengers had no seat belts. We were all arrested, handcuffed and thrown into a gloomy and drab cell in the basement of the Nairobi City Kilimani law courts. For the three hours of incarceration before our trial was heard, I knew that prison was definitely the worst place on Earth to be. 3 hours of taunting silence humbled me that day. I couldn’t help but imagine what goes on in the hearts of men and women imprisoned for 5 years. Life imprisonment made me sick.
On July 6th 2013, together with eight ladies and seven gentlemen, I visited GK prison in Industrial Area in Nairobi City. I had never been to a prison before. We handed over our gifts and toiletries for the prisoners to the warden’s assistant, before we were ushered in. As the huge locks of the gates were unlatched, I felt a pit in my stomach. A dread enveloped me instantly. What if I got caught and beaten up by a mob of angry prisoners? What if I got in and was denied exit? What if one prisoner grabbed my neck and snapped it? (The Man of Steel Vs Zod Knock Out scene flashed my mind and I grew sick). The chunk of doors opened to a threshold where the drainage system was being cleaned. The pungent smell of human waste came up my nostrils and it did no little harm to my trepidation. What was I doing here again? Sharing the gospel…right…Ernest, you are here because Christ sent you.
I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 25:26)
And past the threshold, led by the prison chaplain, we walked into the heart of the prison. There was a wall up ahead with another door, possibly going into a zone where civilians fear to tread. Men in black and white striped uniform stood on our right hand side. Another larger group of men dressed in casual home clothes sat on several benches on our left. Beyond them was a chain link fence separating a basketball court with cracked asphalt for dribbling ground. About six prison security officers were scattered in the area. I was directly behind the chaplain. Being the team leader, I felt significantly responsible for the care of the team, especially the ladies.
“Stay close ladies,” I muttered . All my reactions were driven by fear. I wondered if the prisoners could sense it.
We were led to the front of the group of men dressed in casual clothes. They eyeballed us strangely. Their benches were set up like the pews in a church. Next to us was a man on a keyboard and another holding a microphone. After a few words from the one with the mic, the men arose to their feet and began singing their hearts out. They sang songs of praises to God and I couldn’t help but think if they meant the words. Weren’t they angry that God had them arrested? My judgements were about to be challenged. I had come to prison to encourage the hopeless not knowing I would be the one to leave encouraged.
The chaplain gave me the microphone and asked if I was ready to preach to the prisoners and if we had a presentation of some sort in form of a song or skit. I said no and he frowned. I clearly had violated the protocol. When he asked me the purpose of the visit, I replied, “We are here to listen to them.” This had never been done before. They avoid contact with civilians. I asked if that was prison policy and he said it was not. Just a traditional rule. I asked him to break that rule today. I grabbed the microphone and stood before the group of prisoners. I looked into the audience and didn’t see prisoners. I saw humans. Humans like you and me all silent at the young man and his band of friends who had come to spend time with them. At that instant Christ swept my fear away and showed me men who craved for love and affection. I posed a question that I doubt they had ever heard in a log time.
“What are your dreams?”
There was a brief moment of silence. One man at the front gathered some courage and raised his hand halfway. I encouraged him and walked up to him. I handed him the mic.
“I… want to be a musician.” One prisoner next to him sniggered. This man wasn’t serious was he? The potential musician continued unabated. “I want to sing songs that will be played all over the world.”
He sat down and a wave of claps grew behind him. His fellow inmates approved. The looks on the faces of the prisoners were new as they thought about the possibility. Was it possible to be in prison and have dreams? The musician had began the domino effect. Hands began to shoot up in rapid succession as the microphone went round. And there in the heart of GK prison was a bunch of hopeful good fathers, businessmen, preachers. The hopes were endless. These men were not hopeless. These men had dreams bigger than I imagined. We divided them into seven groups and commissioned at least two young people from our team in each group to listen to the prisoners.
These are some of the highlights of the prison visit from what the men in the prison said.
Why would you visit us?
The men were in awe that a bunch of 16 City youth would go to a prison on a bright sunny weekend and visit the inmates. What was the catch? How could they show this love without expecting anything in return. Some were humbled. One, barely 18, remarked, “I have not seen my mother and my sister. I want to see them just once. Just once and it would be okay.” His own family had deserted him yet strangers came for him. The concept moved their hearts. One of them stated,
“The very fact that you came to visit us yet you do not know us proves that we are people. We are not animals. We may have made mistakes but we are people.”
And so we proved the love God has for us- that while we were imprisoned in our sin, Christ came to visit us. Unlike us, Christ did what we couldn’t do. He bailed us out and took our prison sentence on that cross. Love is why Christ died for us. Love is why we visited.
I’m glad I came to prison
“I’m glad I came to prison, Ernest.”
When those words left the mouth of one inmate, I could have sworn I did not hear right.
“Wh…why…why would you say that?”
“Prison is the only place that God got my attention. I found Christ in prison, Ernest and I don’t regret coming here.”
The smile on his face was unmistakeable. This man was happy. He confessed that he was guilty of the crime he was accused of. He confessed that he was indeed wicked. He saw never saw the value of life especially eternal life until he came to prison. Prison had been dark, cold, and lonely yet in that place he found the greatest light, warmth and friendship through the Son of God. Jesus is very present in prisons, Beloved. He is the friend that welcomes them when the world cast them away.
I had everything!
“I had everything,” he said. “I had lots of money, a great job and lots of wealth. It wasn’t enough. I was caught stealing company cash. I deserve to be in here. Once I finish my sentence, I don’t really care about that wealth. Christ is the most important thing any one should have. I will probably become a pastor. What will it profit a man to gain all the money in the world and lose his soul.”
I have to get out of here!
“I’m not guilty of what I was accused of. I was arrested by mistake. However, coming here was important for me. God showed me that my life wasn’t being lived well. I know what I want to do once I get out of here. I need to share the love of God to people. I need to get out of here.”
After he said that, Sophie, a friend who was with me encouraged him with these words.
“You can start sharing God’s love in here mister. Start here and God will open doors out there.”
Prison either hardens you or humbles you.
He was old but had a lot of life in his eyes.
“In here, you are either humbled by the system or you are hardened by it,” he said.
“Those humbled change. Those hardened leave with a vengeance.”
Prisoners have dreams!
We encouraged them and they spoke. They shared their dreams. They desire to be reunited with their wives. They regret the choices they made. They do not regret the punishment.
It’s too late for me.
“It’s too late for me,” he said. He was dressed differently from the rest. He had the traditional prison garb- black and white stripes. The rest were clothed in home clothes. “You see these stripes I wear; it means I am no longer under remand. My verdict has been passed. I am in here for 10 years.”
One of the prison officers neared to listen. He had taken interest in the stories and was eavesdropping from a relatively far distance.
“But I know I want to be an Evangelist after that,” he continued. “My dream is not faded.”
I am free in prison!
“I found freedom for my soul in here,” he commenced. “I discovered you can be more free within these prison walls than being out there. I was more imprisoned when I was a civilian. Christ set me free in this prison. Without Christ, out there, I was in chains. They were released in this prison.”
I want the peace you have!
Four men did more hearing than speaking that day. Some did not know the stories of their fellow inmates. By the end of it, their desire was to have Christ as their Lord. Five men fell to their knees and surrendered their life to Jesus Christ on that day. He came to set the captives free. We prayed with the men, hugged them, gave them Bibles and bid them goodbye.
You don’t want to be here.
As we left to leave, he grabbed my hand and I turned. He said he had a wife and a daughter. He had to be at least 27. He profusely said thank you and parted with these words: “Ernest, listen. You’re young, like me, even younger. Live wisely man. You don’t wanna be in here.” I nodded, gave him a hug and went on my way.
All my expectations were nullified. A prisoner is a sad man but a prisoner of Christ has joy unspeakable.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
-Paul of Tarsus writing to the Church in Philippi while Imprisoned for spreading the gospel-