Kathleen Jackson never imagined she’d be vouching for a room full of men doing time for crimes ranging from kidnap to murder.
Still, she takes on this mission in Bind the Testimony, a new collection of 19 testimonies from San Quentin State Prison that presents the stories of criminals in a new light, and their own words.
“In my wildest imagination, I could not have pictured myself as part of that scene,” Jackson writes in the book’s introduction. “And yet I have been sitting in such a circle at San Quentin State Prison, facilitating the Christian Creative Writing Class, for over two years, loving every moment and marveling at the men’s intensity.”
The public has a certain conception of prison. Your average civilian would tell you prisons are not for “nice people” and “bad things” happen there. But that’s just part of the picture. In this collection, Jackson asks the public to reevaluate these generalizations. She leaves it to readers to decide whether listening to a bunch of convicts calling themselves Christians is worth the time and effort.
Jackson’s course on creative writing allowed her students to address questions of spirituality on their own terms and through their own life experiences. Writing about their troubled pasts, it turns out, helped them finally come to terms with past mistakes.
Cole Young is doing a life term for second-degree murder. He has been locked up since 1995. His story, An Uphill Battle, is jam-packed with self-inflicted pain and suffering, coupled with the deaths of loved ones during his incarceration. Young’s incredible saga takes readers on a frightful journey that ends when he finds his salvation. Finding God, he says, allowed him to come to terms with his identity and gave meaning to his day-to-day life.
Minor crime to minor crime turned into a Three Strike sentence for drifter James Earl Vick. Vick comes from the poorest state in the United States, Mississippi. He writes about how poverty and a traumatic upbringing led him to a series of bad decisions in his essay Counted Among the Saints. Vick’s story indicates that he is not just a criminal, but also a victim of circumstance.
All the essays grapple with spirituality and its role in inmates’ lives.
“Prison has brought out the worst in me,” writes Syyen Hong in Not an Easy Walk. “I never really considered the consequences behind my actions because, in reality, I didn’t care. I was miserable; I hated my life, and sometimes even wished for death.”
Hong had spent years miserable at San Quentin when another Christian encouraged him to attend church and explore religion more deeply. After this, he had a total turnaround. His story of spiritual redemption, even while in prison, shows that finding meaning is possible anywhere and at anytime.
Religion also offered relief to Raymond Gaddis, who is serving a life sentence for murder. Prison life took its toll on Gaddis. He said that at one point, he collected more than 200 sleeping pills and took them all in an attempt to kill himself.
“I was a self-centered, selfish coward,” Gaddis said. “God, on the other hand, had a different plan.”
After his suicide attempt failed, Gaddis received reasons to live a spiritually based life from friends and family. Understanding the reward of having patience with himself, not giving up and putting one foot in front of the other each day is Gaddis’ story.
The effect that spirituality has on rehabilitation is profound. Writing about it when it’s happening is even more powerful.
Other writers: Elliott Beverly: Rescued by His Grace, Mark “Lucky” Edwards: A Dad’s Only Son, James Metters: Amazing Grace, Simon: Never Turning His Back, Curtis Roberts: What’s Next, Papa?, Bryant Harrison: Destiny, Kenneth “Musa” Bailey: The Prescription, A. Kevin Valvardi: Born Again Catholic, Joel Dillard: Full Circle, Jeffery Williams: Freedom From the Inside, Henry Poe: The Lord was with me all Along, Douglas “Jimmy” Manns: Come as you are and Zitsue Lee: Please God, Abandon Me.