A Letter From Jail

2010 marked the 20th anniversary of Eternal Perspective Ministries, the nonprofit ministry I founded in 1990.

During the years leading up to 1990, by God's grace, Nanci and I and our daughters learned a lot about what's close to His heart and became more active in advocating for unborn children and their moms. In 1989 I had been a pastor of a large growing church for twelve years. I made a very good salary, and also received book royalties. Having been a pastor since the church began, and loving the ministry, I had no desire to leave.

But then something happened.  It troubled me deeply that year after year preborn babies kept dying. After soul-searching, Scripture-searching, prayer and counsel, I participated in a number of peaceful nonviolent rescues (civil disobedience, blocking entry) at abortion clinics. Like many others, I was arrested on a number of occasions and went to jail for a couple days.

Following is a letter (previously unpublished) I wrote during that time. I have never made this public before, until now. It hasn't been on our website, but I was encouraged by one of our staff members to share it, for what it may be worth.

7:00 a.m. August 25, 1989
I’m guessing at the time and trying to remember the date—strange to be without a watch and unable to see a clock or calendar. The light in my cell hasn’t come on, so I’m by the window getting the dim glow of morning.  Someone is already waterskiing on the Willamette, while I’m scratching this out with a tiny pencil stub.

Jail is a fascinating experience! I’m trying to project what it would be like to be here long term, rather than just for the two days Judge Brown gave me for rescuing. In the twenty-one hours I’ve been here I think I can already make that projection. Lonely. Hopeless. Useless. Not for me, of course, because of the short duration, though I am already a bit lonely. It’s not just being away from loved ones—I’ve often been away much longer than this—it’s knowing that I can’t talk to Nanci or the girls except inside two one-hour windows each day, and I don’t know in advance when that will be.

This “correctional facility” doesn’t tell new inmates what’s happening. I read through a rule book in my cell but much of the information seems dated or inaccurate.

Judge Brown was a man under conviction yesterday. I appreciate his spirit and his repeated “you have the right to protest, you just have to be willing to pay the consequences.” I don’t doubt that his constant fidgeting indicated discomfort with putting “good people” in jail. As an African American who understands the critical role of civil disobedience in the civil rights movement, I think he was really torn up inside. He did not seem to share the contempt for me I’ve gotten from others, including the media.

After I read my statement before the court about why I was standing up for the rights of the unborn children, I shared a quote from Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I loved his statement to me made in front of that packed court room: “You don’t know what my own beliefs are about this. You don’t know whether one day I might join you at a protest. But today I am a judge, and I must punish you for breaking the law.”

It took guts to say that in a room full of county employees and reporters. I don’t know Judge Brown, but I love the guy. Restores my faith in judges, as I have not been impressed with the self-importance and arrogance of the others I’ve stood before.

What a privilege, Lord, to stand before this earthly authority and testify to you, as you said your followers would in Luke 21:12—“all on account of my name.” And, as much as it breaks my heart for eight and ten year old Karina and Angela to know their father’s in jail, how good to have them know their parents think something is worth going to jail for. That there are causes and purposes higher than convenience, comfort and conformity. I think we’ve shown them that before, but this was pretty graphic. Thanks, too, Lord, for the many months of preparation for this time.

What interesting people here! I was in a holding cell with a guy in for attempted murder, at least one gang member, auto theft and a few guys who looked like psychopaths. Most of the guys, though, are “normal," nice guys when you get to know them. For instance, Giovanni, aka Joe Foster, in for the white collar crimes of computer fraud and forgery—“I have this habit of playing with other peoples’ computers and switching their funds to different accounts.” A Sylvester Stallone look-alike, Giovanni has kicked the cocaine habit that drove him. I wished him well and he warmly shook my hand when we parted.

And then there was the nurse! Wow. Easily the most cantankerous person I’ve ever met. It’s clear she thinks all inmates are worse than dirt. When I was sinking down in the cell due to a low blood sugar, the guys asked me what was wrong. I explained and told them I was probably good for ten more minutes, but I could tell from experience the blood sugar was going lower and lower by the minute. (I always have a couple of granola bars with me, but of course those were confiscated along with my blood test equipment.)

One of the guys pounded on the door and said, “This guy needs a doctor!” Assuming I was faking it, the irritated guard pulled me out and hauled me to the nurse, who was disgusted with me from the beginning. She stabbed something into my finger to take a blood test on me, waited far too long to wipe off the blood (she obviously doesn’t do these often), then announced I was NOT having an insulin reaction and she would NOT give me sugar! She didn’t even believe I was a diabetic; I suggested she look at the possessions I had on hand while arrested, which included insulin, needles and blood test equipment. She didn’t bother. After all, she knew I was a liar.

It’s a funny thing about insulin reactions; I can almost always remember later how I felt, what was said to me, and even the stupid things I’ve said, now fully realizing how stupid they were! Even things that people said to me that I didn’t understand at the time, I now, remembering them, understand perfectly.

Anyway, the nurse told me to stop humming (a praise song) because it irritated her. She demanded to know what I was in for, and when I told her it was peaceful nonviolent civil disobedience at an abortion clinic, this is exactly what she said: “Don’t tell me that—armed robbery or attempted murder, okay, but not that—it really makes me mad.” I said, “So you think murder and armed robbery are better than trying to save the life of an innocent child about to be killed?”

“Yes, I do” she said. Makes me think of John 8, how Jesus said Satan is a liar and a murderer. He murders, and he lies to cover his murders. This woman, like countless others, believes the devil’s lies.

When I told her nicely there must be a mistake and would she take the blood test again, she was outraged and asked if I thought she didn’t have better things to do. Finally, when I think she could see that I was getting weaker, I made clear—even in my clouded state —that I would pass out if I didn’t get sugar soon. So finally she stalked over by a coffee pot, picked out two packets of sugar, and actually threw them at me. I got down on the floor, opened them up and swallowed the sugar.

She yelled at me, “your blood sugar can go up to 400, I don’t care.” Then she pointed to the door and said “get out”. Honestly, if this was in a novel, I’d say it was way too extreme, and the author wasn’t being realistic. But that’s exactly what happened. Finally, I let her know I didn’t appreciate her attitude. Not that she cared what I thought.

I met dozens of others, some who were at least civil, but most seemed to have an automatic contempt of anyone going in jail. What a lesson. God, preserve me from such callousness to a fellow human being, created in your image. How easily we can feed our own sense of superiority by labeling those around us as inferior, even “dirt balls” that are sub-human.

The disregard for the value of the preborn fits perfectly with the attitudes I have seen here. The lead guard who oversaw the strip search was an example. I’ll never forget his patronizing tone as the six of us men who didn’t know each other were told to strip down to nothing, bend over and go through other motions I won’t mention. He was more professional than the nurse, but his love of power and his sense of contempt was clear. The tone of voice reflected an attitude of intimidation and humiliation, whether deliberate or just unthinking. And when you’re standing there naked and being stared at and inspected, you really don’t need additional  intimidation and humiliation.

A shining exception to all this was one particular officer, Steve, who does not appear to be a Christian but is a really decent guy. He whispered to me that he supported what I had done. He lives near Gresham and gave me his phone number, written backwards on the back of my prison inventory. He wants me to call him when I get out. I sure will—to thank him for his exceptional kindness and share the gospel with him in more detail.

Right when it looked like I was “on my own” with my diabetes, Steve told me he was an insulin-dependent diabetic also, and slipped me some glucose tablets in my cell. I’d been searched twice already, so I was able to keep these till the strip search four hours later, when they were confiscated.

Steve also let me take my Bible with me, which I was able to hang onto, all the way to where I am, which is my sixth and presumably final destination here! Two cells at the court house, then transferred “chain gang” style in a van to the correctional facility, then in two holding cells with some fascinating guys. (Being chained on both wrists and both ankles, and led out of the courthouse, with camera strobes flashing at me, did seem a little much for a guy whose crime was second degree criminal trespass, blocking entrance to an abortion clinic. I guess the fact that I’m a pastor was of interest.)

The one highlight was when I was in a tiny cell by myself where they brought in a telephone, and I talked to Nanci for an hour. That was great. I tried not to describe it too fully, because the small closed-in claustrophobic conditions would drive her nuts, but it was okay for me. The change from being crowded into a room with a group of guys to total isolation was striking. Both had their advantages. 

It was 5:00 p.m. or so when I made it to where I am now. Very interesting place. There’s a window looking out to a parking garage and the Willamette and what I think is the Hawthorne bridge. I appear to be on about the eighth floor, judging by the buildings around me, at second and Madison. How strange to see the city alive now with cars and joggers. A gray overcast morning, very appropriate to the atmosphere here.

It’s been nearly an hour since the nurse gave me my injection. I was already at 100, and sinking, so if it’s another fifteen minutes until breakfast I’ll be in real trouble. The other three nurses have been quite kind, but there’s a lot they don’t understand about diabetics—like, you don’t give them insulin over an hour before a meal! I’m getting shaky and it’s hard to concentrate.

During our one hour release from the cell last night I checked over the “bookshelf”—pathetic offerings. I must donate some decent books that can get the gospel in here. Talked at length and shared the gospel with one inmate who “tried Christianity” but “turned my back on it.” Father, touch this needy man. All around are those who desperately need you, Lord. Touch them, please. Use me to touch them. They are needy, desperately needy, and there are fewer insulating layers between them and their need for you than in the business executive who thinks he has what he needs, or tries to find it in anything but you.

Even this brief time here gives me a much greater heart for prison ministries like Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship. What great potential to minister to men and women who are the chaff of life, but who are so valuable to you that you shed divine blood for them. Thank you for your grace, and the privilege of being with these men. Thank you for the freedom in Christ that would not allow me to be a prisoner, even if I was here for years. Thank you for Joseph, Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus himself, men who went to jail. My understanding is deepened, my empathy increased, my trust in the sovereign need-meeter confirmed. Lord, bring freedom to prisoners and officers and nurses alike—those who come and go here are just as much in bondage as those who cannot leave. Do a work of grace in them, Father, and use me to play a small role in it.

Breakfast at last! Thanks for sustaining me!

False alarm. It was Steve, the friendly officer at the door, on break. But that was better than breakfast. We talked for fifteen minutes. He couldn’t bring me food, even knowing I needed it. I’m going numb, but I’m holding on. Shouldn’t be long. But Steve is really interested in church and shared some tremendous stuff with me about his convictions about rescuing and his role here. You have your hand on this man, Lord.

Note written later: At breakfast, a three hundred pound prisoner seated next to me asked if I would trade my bacon for one of his pancakes. “Sure,” I said. Some of the guys were talking about what they were in for. I kept quiet at first, waiting for my blood sugar to come up, and not wanting to say “second degree criminal trespass.” Didn’t think that would send the message, “This guy’s really tough; stay away from him!” Then when they asked, I explained why I’d been arrested. A few were confused, but several guys said they believed that abortion was killing an innocent child, and people should stick up for little kids. “Yeah, that’s right,” somebody said. A tough scary guy said to me, “Good for you for doing this.” Interesting to get more support at that table than I have gotten from some fellow Christians.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of EPM's quarterly newsletter Eternal Perspectives.

More of the Story:

WATCH a video of Randy talking about the trial and related events at: www.epm.org/blog/difficult
READ Randy's court statement (referenced in the above letter) at www.epm.org/resources/statement 

"I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:35-36, 40).

Shortly after EPM started, inmates began writing to request Randy’s books. Over the years thousands of books have been given away. They are often shared with other inmates, so one book may be read by several people. Books are also requested for the chapel libraries. With each order, EPM encloses an enrollment form for Bible courses through the Mount Zion Bible Institute (www.mountzion.org), which are offered without charge. EPM ministers to a wide range of inmates, from those who are serving sentences for drug-related crimes to those who are on death row.

Many have experienced:

• Salvation in Christ
• Enhanced Biblical knowledge
• Growth in their relationship with Christ
• Great hope and encouragement
• God’s truth connecting their head to their heart
• An eternal perspective beyond their earthly experience

If you desire to donate to EPM's prison book ministry, you can give online, choosing the “Books for Prisoners” fund. You can also give by check written to EPM, note “Prison Ministry” on the memo line.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries