I volunteered in prison ministry for a few years, and to this day I feel like I learned so much more about Christ from the prisoners I met with on Thursday nights than I ever did in any bible meeting or Sunday school class I had with churchgoers.
For many weeks while I was in prison meeting with the guys, a few of the inmates would get into a discussion of how prison sometimes makes them feel like they were being “institutionalized”.
For this blog post “institutionalized” is defined as the psychological and/or mental health effects of living for a protracted amount of time within an institution.
Well, they opened up and they let me know how they were feeling. Let me share what they talked about.
They would say the “institutional” feeling would come and go. Most of the days you wake up and do not really give a shit about anything, and there were many days you wish you were free from the system, and there were also many days you would cry for that freedom.
But then, nothing changes! We can pray to God all the time, we could be a role model to others in here and nothing ever changes. We still wake up in a cage, and nothing changes this reality. People can sit and think about us inside this so-called cage, but as long as I am in here, it will not change anything.
Then they would say to me, Brian, your efforts go a long way to keep us focused on the outside world … to keep us dreaming and desiring to be free with Christ. Then ultimately in the end, if these elements you talk about stay alive within us, then we will not end up like a lot of men who serve 15 or more years in an isolation cell.
Why? Because everything that makes us vibrant human beings who want freedom will still be operational and intact. But we both know, if we isolate ourselves from the outside world for too long, eventually we will lose interest, and become one with our environment, thus, becoming institutionalized.
That night I shed tears as I drove home. It hit me upside the head like a sledgehammer. I said to myself, holy shit! I am the one that is institutionalized. Here I am talking to these inmates about Christ and who He is, and all this time I am the one incarcerated in spiritual bondage.
I was in prison myself, a prison system called church. I would reach out to God and ask for community with others, I would seek Christ, and nothing would ever change. I would still be by myself within these walls. I was stuck in the system, I was like the men they warned me about, the ones that served 15 or more years in an isolation cell. My isolation cell was the church system. I was institutionalized. I had to get out.
I thank God for the time I spent in prison. I recommend some hard time (as volunteers, of course) for everyone. I found Christ in the prisoners way before I ever did in my fellow churchgoers.
It is a wonderful blessing to finally be free.