© Aleh Varanishcha | istockphoto.com


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There is nothing like living in hell, but there is something close to it: incarceration. In my hell, where I’d lived since the winter of 2014, there was, as Dante understood, no hope.

People think the worst part of a life lived in the concrete jungle is the violence. They are wrong. The worst part is the loss of hope. You wake up every morning realizing your nightmare will continue into your waking hours. The loss you have suffered is permanent. In many real ways, you are already dead — just unburied. There is no healing, no improvement. But even worse, there is no possibility of any to come. The most unbearable thing about your unbearable life is that you will always be forced to bear it.

A visit

In the midst of my horrific incarceration, alone and desperate, I wondered if anyone could hate me more than I did myself. Was anyone left to love me? Was I worthy of love?

My thoughts were interrupted by a light knock on my cell door.
Christian volunteer: “Are you saved, son?”
Me: “No.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“OK. But know this: God loves you.”

And just like that, the floodgates burst open. I cried as I told the volunteer I felt dead inside. He guided me through a prayer to be born again. I told him I wasn’t sure I really believed him or in Him. He gave me a Bible and instructed me to simply read one psalm a day and reflect on it. He would be back next week to discuss.

Psalm 16

The next few days were especially tough. My family had stopped answering my calls. They clearly believed everything being said about me. On a particularly dark evening, I started to believe those things as well. I doubted anyone could despise me more than I did myself. I could hardly stand to see my own reflection.

One can only fall so deep into the well before being consumed by the darkness. I admit, I considered the coward’s solution, but I had made a promise to read a psalm a day.

I read Psalm 16:7-11:

I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel; my heart also instructs me in the night seasons. I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Honest writing

I took out the little journal and pen the Christian volunteer had left me and wrote my reflection notes. I had so many questions and couldn’t convey the magnitude of what these words meant to me. I refused to settle and postponed my act of desperation until I could speak with the volunteer again. Night after night, I read and wrote.

I wrote notes to Jesus and God. Prayers. Complaints. Whatever popped into my head. My only rule was raw honesty. I figured if God was real, there was no point in even trying to lie to Him. For the first time in my life, I could be completely transparent.

I didn’t realize honest writing tears your guts out. Like when I wrote about the pain and shame in my mother’s eyes when she came to visit me in prison. I knew it was my fault, and worse, I could do nothing to help her. It felt as if I was stuck in a barrel at the bottom of the ocean with no options. I could not imagine anything worse. Still, I read and wrote.

Second visit

I was reading about the steadfast love of the Lord when I heard the gentle rapping at my door.

“How are you, my son?”
I strained to get a better look at him, but the sliver of a window in my cell would not allow it. He spoke to me in his gentle, quiet way.
“I’m OK. Better.”
I told him about reading Psalm 16 and how it had touched me. I didn’t mention that I had been ready to open a vein.
“Keep reading, my son. The Word can give you hope and purpose through faith. Your faith can cause you to endure prison. Read 2 Timothy. It was written by a follower of Christ named Paul while he sat in prison, falsely accused.”

And just like that, he was gone.

Spiritual growth

Eventually I would be transferred to another prison, but still I read and wrote every day. I wrote by the light of the morning sun through my dirty cracked window or glare of the hallway lights through my cell bars. I promised myself I would read the Word and write about it every day, no excuses. And I have.

Now, seven years later, I have learned that reading the Word and writing about it wasn’t a diversion; it was my church. It offered me salvation in the promise of change. Escaping hell is difficult because sometimes you yourself believe you belong there. But with enough effort, grace — and, in my case, a well-meaning Christian volunteer — it can be done.

As I reread some of my earliest entries, I marvel at the flawed, broken person I once was. I also notice that as my thoughts oriented toward Jesus Christ, my life evolved into a more positive realm. My thoughts became prophetic. As I tried to make the best of things, as the Word instructs, every now and then I succeeded. Looking around today, I can see that reflecting on the Word has helped me appreciate life in a whole new light.

Word power

Today, when I see others suffering what I have endured, I gently knock on their door with a Bible, pens, and paper in hand. I remember the last passage I discussed with the Christian volunteer so many years ago.

Second Timothy 2:8-10:

Remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, was raised from the dead according to my gospel, for which I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

Recently, my parents wrote to tell me they were proud of me, even as I sat in prison. I am not ashamed to admit I wept. I cried again after my sister’s most recent visit, seeing her changed and beautiful from the inside out. She found her faith, which she had been looking for, but not in the places she would have ever imagined.

I owe all of it to the power of the written word and the written Word. It has taught me how to look inward and upward in order to look forward. It has provided me with the escape from my hell and hope for the next chapter of my life.

Leo Cardez
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Leo Cardez (pen name) is an award-winning inmate writer. His work has been published in Under the Sun, The Abolitionist/Critical Resistance, The Crime Report, Prisoner Express, Beat Within, and other publications. He was a finalist for the New Press anthology What We Know. Leo is the director of the Dixon CC prison writing initiative and is a regular contributor to Prison Health News. He has worked as a prison GED tutor and currently works as a clerk at the prison eye lab. Leo is incarcerated in Dixon, IL.