What is an extended stay in prison like? It is, at times, like a nightmare. An eleven year-long one for me. One of those that is tough to wake up from, to find freedom in.
Or, to count the days, over 4,000 days.
A nightmare that you never really get to wake up from but move through in progressions. It isn’t all bad: God is graceful and in the nightmare are also those lucid moments of joy, accomplishments of yourself or others, and the stretches of apparent normalcy.
And in that aspect, prison life and suffering is very much like human suffering generally. Our shared human experience is guaranteed to include suffering. Its one of the things that makes us all more alike than different.
And for many of us, suffering is not just an occasional thing. For many of us, it may feel like a nightmare. In the midst of the good and the joy of life, comes the sharp and terrible pains.
So right now, you may be living in one of your nightmares. Cancer, accident, death, divorce, multiple sclerosis, hunger, homelessness, I am getting sick writing this list. So I will stop there. You get it. And you might be in the midst of a nightmare right now.
Maybe you are sick of hearing people say, “I’m sorry,” or trying to relate to you, but you feel like no one can relate. I know I felt like that many times over the last 11 years. When my uncle died of multiple sclerosis, when one of my best friends died of stomach cancer, or the daily knife of waking up knowing I robbed two children of a father for eleven years.
When we are in this place of pain, we reach out.
One place I found not just comfort, but strength, was literature.
Here is a list of ten books that will get you through your nightmare. They are the top ten books that got me through 11 years in prison.
They might not fix whatever it is; maybe it’s not fixable. But these books provided me with strength, power, endurance, and the spirit to overcome. I believe and hope they can do the same for others in the battle to overcome, or to endure, suffering.
The Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
This book was unbelievable and gritty. As I would sit and complain to others or myself about the state of imprisonment, reading these words showed how other inmates from other eras with a lot less guilt had it. For the first fourteen years of imprisonment, this man was not given any underwear! And not to mention he was in prison for standing up to gain freedom. The suffering he and his compatriots experienced and their later victories not only gave me comfort but endurance. They started out breaking stones in quarries, but Mr. Mandela focused on all of them getting correspondence degrees to further their education and make the time count for something. I would follow this example. To go from inmate to president sets a high bar and denies me the easy path of quitting on life. If he did that, there are no excuses.
Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl
This book is gut-wrenching. The author went through the Holocaust as a Jewish prisoner. So did his wife, who he would never see again. He lived up close and personal with death, misery, suffering, racism, and pain. Imagine sleeping nine prisoners to a bunk with no mattress stacked five levels high? Read this book and find out what that level of suffering can bring to humanity.
The Story of Mother Antonia. Mother Antonia was born an heiress of a very large fortune. She would give up her charmed life in Southern California to live with inmates until she died in a prison in Mexico after decades of serving the outcast and forgotten. This type of self-sacrifice and service inspired me in prison and inspires me now in my mission to be a giver more than a taker, and find a way to do the greatest amount of good in this life.
Faith of My Fathers, by John McCain
This autobiography is about a naval aviator who gets shot down and ends up spending seven years as a prisoner of war. Multiple times the US Government attempted to trade for this son of a senator, and he passed up the prisoner exchanges. Instead, he sent other inmates in a worse medical condition out in his place. This type of self-sacrifice gets lost in the noise of today’s political environment but is an inspiration in the face of our suffering. Regardless of our political orientation, we can draw many lessons from his story as a POW in a war a generation ago. To choose to suffer more for the sake of others is an unreal inspiration.
Born Again, by Charles Colson
This man was at the top of his professional career when he found himself in federal prison. He was an attorney working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the seat of power. And in the fiasco that was the unraveling of the Nixon presidency, Chuck Colson found himself in a prison camp. From power-broker attorney to federal prisoner at a prison camp – much like the one Noah and I served at. He would then go on to launch very powerful ministries, including Angel Tree, The Justice Fellowship, and even launch a prison ministry run by inmates in a foreign country. What God can do with our bad choices, circumstances, ashes and misery: turn them into diamonds.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou would become a professor at the university of my hometown, Sacramento State University. I first read her as a member of the literary arts journal at my high school. But in prison, re-reading her, I resonated more with the work because now I had more empathy from a genuine space. I had tasted a form of a yoke, chains, bars, looks, clothing, stigmatization. And while I chose my way into all of those things (I was not born into them), I still could feel her words with greater clarity. I would use her inspiration to pen a short piece while in prison: “Our Freedom Song,” which will be released in the upcoming Resilience to Reform project.
This book was recently made into a movie. I have not seen the movie yet, but I know this: the book was an inspiration for my willingness to fight against injustice inside the system when I had to. Bryan Stevenson highlights his call to action and its Christian context and the battles that he fought for justice throughout his life. I remember a section distinctly in the book where he meets Rosa Parks, and she tells him about his upcoming journey and hopes: “you are going to be very tired.” Yet he persisted. And if he did with his calling and mission, I can too. Even knowing that we might get very tired. Even if you don’t buy the book, check out the work at Equal Justice Initiative
Tattoos on the Heart, Gregory Boyle
This is not a story as much as a collection of anecdotes from a lifetime of service by a servant Gregory Boyle in Los Angeles. He is the founder of Homeboy Industries, a firm dedicated to men and women leaving the gang life and prison life for normalized, contributing lives in society. The amount of blood, sweat, and tears (literal) that he and the community experienced as this ministry was born and grew is captivating. It shows the power of what is possible. And anytime someone tells me that my hopes or plans for the future are “too big” because of “my past,” I think of this man, this story, this ministry, and all the lives that are living this “big” dream at this very moment.
The Problem of Pain / Mere Christianity, by CS Lewis
The writings of CS Lewis played a large part in my Christian faith. The informal language that CS Lewis writes in is inviting, it’s not overly-academic or theological, and is very unifying in its messaging. As I learned that “Mere Christianity” was not written as a book at all, but as a series of radio addresses to a nation being bombed by the Nazi Air Force in nightly raids and was under the crushing weight of collective suffering and death, I came to understand its significance in history. If CS Lewis was able to comfort a nation losing its children, women, and men to nightly bombing raids and battles on foreign soil, surely his words could provide me strength while I lived 22 hours in a cell each day. And truly, that assumption was correct. His words provided a nation with endurance during the Greatest Generation and still provided me comfort as I was just entering into my prison experience.
Because something sounds cliche does not mean it is not true.
I know it will sound cliche, or over-used, that the Bible helped me during my prison experience, but it did. And it was not one of the first texts I turned to. Not being raised in a religious household, I tried to avoid it even for the first year of my prison experience. After time and the grind of hard time living (my first 40 months was served 22 hours per day in a cell locked down), I was open-minded and willing to look to new-to-me-sources for peace. And peace and the power of overcoming and victory despite horrible circumstances is what I found when I read about Joseph being sold into slavery, becoming an inmate, and ending up as the second most powerful man in Egypt; or Moses spending 40 years in the desert only to return a messianic type hero to his people and free them from the bondage of slavery; or from the passion of the Gospel of Jesus and the freedom from spiritual slavery to all that is offered in the New Testament. I tell people that ask that the holy scriptures are like, in a limited way, the game Go, or Chess in this: easy to learn in elementary concepts, a lifetime journey to attempt to master, a journey that continues for me. The texts still offer me living peace and strength as I deal with the struggles and suffering of my life today. I highly recommend the scriptures to anyone who is experiencing suffering, especially the books of Psalms, Genesis, Job, and Philippians.
Ordering these Books for People in Institutions
If you are thinking about ordering any of these books for inmates you know, my recommendation: do it. Don’t wait. It could help them in many ways. All prisons allow softback books to be delivered from sites like Amazon or Barnes & Noble (all the links above are to Barnes & Noble) or from known book publishers/resellers. Many prisons will reject hardback books or books sent from your personal residence.
These are the books that I relied on while on the journey of my prison nightmare. I hope that you or someone you know can find some comfort, power, and strength in them as I did, no matter the context of the struggle.
Signing off from Northern California,
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