Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Man lost in a complex maze, surreal concept
Illustration by Peresmeh on iStock

I am part of a peculiar, distinctive community of incarcerated field ministers. Unlike most pastors, I live with the members of my congregation 24/7. I eat the same food and wear the same uniform.

I have dedicated my life and service to Christ and others. I was called into ministry while incarcerated. I graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary College in May 2016 after more than four years of intensive study. Upon graduation, we were commissioned and assigned to various units in the Texas prison system to serve as field ministers. Since the program’s inception, 200 of us have been awarded bachelor’s degrees and assigned to positions.

Our duties include community service, such as providing chapel services to newly assigned inmates, mentoring and tutoring; counseling and crisis ministry, including officiating funeral and memorial services, paying hospice and hospital visits and providing grief counseling; and counseling services in family reconciliation and offense forgiveness programs and providing support to inmates on death row and in segregation. Of course, we also practice faith-based ministry, preaching and planning worship.

My challenge on a daily basis is “the prison code.” The code has numerous categories. An example of a code for cell living: “When you brush your teeth, you don’t spit in the sink; you spit in the toilet.”

In conversations, one must “never interject or give your opinion, even if you are in listening distance, unless asked by one of the conversants.”

Here are some other codes that I must combat:

  1. Mind your own business, even if you witness someone destroying their body and soul with drugs.
  2. Let his own race look after him.
  3. Don’t reach out to your neighbor. Do your own time.
  4. Don’t involve yourself to keep peace.
  5. If a man is hurting, he will learn to man up eventually.
  6. Don’t play with God. You’re a sinner anyway.
  7. Let him trip out on dope. Make fun of him. He will learn his lesson by humiliation. I’m not snitching.
  8. Watch a man sell his body for drug debt.
  9. Religion is for sellouts and marks.
  10. You got to get your hustle somehow. It’s nobody’s business. No one cares anyway.
  11. The Texas prison system won’t help you. You have to provide for yourself.

The main problem with the prison code, like most things involving life in a penal institution, is that no one schools you until you experience or witness a violation. For the most part, the code creates selfish, antisocial, individualistic disharmony for a group of people, many of whom lacked neighborly traits before their incarceration.

In my work, my aim is to break the code by teaching men that it is OK to care for one another and to seek help when feeling hopeless or down. I am a shepherd dedicated to the teachings of Christ. In service to Him, I am in service to others.

In my view, many of the men in prison have been living under a worldview of criminal thinking, always trying to find a way to cut corners and never accepting responsibility for their shortcomings. They allow the penal environment to dictate their actions and attitudes.

Many embrace victimization. They make excuses, such as “it’s because I was poor,” “it’s because I was dealt a bad hand in life,” “it’s because my father wasn’t there” or “my mom was on drugs,” “it’s because I was in the ’hood.”

Bad things happen to people. But that does not entitle one to wreak havoc on oneself and others in prison or society.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Louis C. Harper is a writer and a pastor in Texas. He obtained his degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from inside prison and is now a field minister in the Texas prison system, where he remains incarcerated.