It was a hot July that year—1994. The place was Socorro, a tiny town in New Mexico. My son Jon had just turned 17; he had just finished his junior year of high school. We were visiting Socorro under some very difficult circumstances—my mother was dying. She and my dad had moved from the big city of Albuquerque to Socorro a few years before, so they could get a little peace and quiet. The events that took place that July in that little town would dramatically and irrevocably alter our lives forever.
It all began with a knock on the door. Strange how the ringing of a phone, or the knocking on a door can turn your whole world upside down. It was the last day of my weeklong visit with my mother. I was sitting on the side of her bed, as we talked about the Lord and shared memories of happy times, when suddenly the expression on my father’s face stopped me cold. He had gotten up to answer the door—and I could see in his eyes that something was wrong. Very wrong. Oh, God, what could it be? I ran to the door to find my son standing next to a police officer, hand-cuffed. I was stunned and baffled. My son had never been in trouble with the law. He was a good student, got good grades, was well liked by classmates and teachers—and basically never gave us any problems.
The officer informed me that my son and his younger cousin, Anthony, not quite 16 at the time, had been arrested for burglary. Jon had been spending a lot of time with his cousin while we were there, whom he only saw a couple times a year. I assumed my younger sister, his mother, was keeping an eye on them. She assumed the same of me.
Burglary? How could this be possible? The officer had brought him there because some of the items that they had stolen were hidden at the house, and the boys were willing to co-operate completely with the police. The police had assured them that if they fully co-operated, they would make sure the boys would be dealt with in the juvenile system, rather than the adult system. In time, all of the details of what occurred came out. Our son had been taking drugs to deal with depression. He hid this very well—both the depression and the drug abuse. Anthony had also gotten involved in drugs, so when they got together, it naturally followed that they would end up doing drugs together. They decided to do a lot of crank, which led to them breaking into two unoccupied houses, unarmed. The plan was to steal items they could sell for more drugs. At the second house, they also stole a truck, which the police immediately recognized, and that’s how they got caught.
I will never forget the day they brought our son into the courtroom for his preliminary hearing--handcuffed and shackled at the ankles. My heart shattered into a million pieces. Two days earlier, we buried my mother. Now this. My husband and I firmly believed that because our son was a juvenile with no record, from out of state--they would probably hold him for a few months, then send him back to California to be put on probation. This seemed fair to us. Now that we knew he had a drug problem, we would get him some help.
About 6 weeks later, we flew back to New Mexico to attend our son’s trial. Only they decided not to have a trial. Jon’s lawyer decided it would be best for him to just admit guilt and sign what they called a “stipulation”— a document that stated he was a “juvenile delinquent in need of rehabilitative care.” The maximum time he was looking at, his lawyer assured us, would be two years in a juvenile facility. Given all the circumstances, this seemed like a fair proposal to us. Now we would wait for sentencing after “court-appointed evaluation”.
Meanwhile, because Anthony had gotten into some minor trouble with the law (he and another kid had broken into the high school on a dare), and was already on probation at the time the crime was committed, he was automatically sent to a juvenile facility to await his sentencing. There he was able to go to school and get some counseling. Jon was not sent there to await sentencing because he had never been on probation. Instead, he was sent to the county jail, where they had no school, no programs, no counseling.
The waiting continued—there were many delays for various reasons. More than a year and a half had passed, but neither boy had been sentenced. We made phone calls and sent packets (with pictures, letters, and a cover letter) to every organization we could think of to try to get help. All kinds of organizations. Christian organizations. Media programs such as 20/20 and 60 minutes. Even the ACLU. But all of our efforts produced nothing. We hung onto our faith, and cried out as never before to the Lord. His answer: “Trust Me. My ways are not your ways.”
Finally, the day came for our son’s sentencing. We came prepared and “prayed up”. We prayed outside the courtroom in the hours before the sentencing, pleading with the Lord, calling on the power of the Holy Spirit. We had heard through the “Socorro grapevine” that they wanted to sentence both boys as adults. The law in New Mexico was in the process of changing, because of all the “youthful offenders”, juveniles committing crimes such as murder or rape. But their crime was not an adult crime. It was violence against property, not persons. The two homes they burglarized were unoccupied—they knew the owners were out of town.
My husband and I came into the courtroom that day with letters from teachers and other community members, including a police officer friend of the family. We even had a petition pleading for mercy from the judge, which was signed by nearly 1,000 people. We found three Christian programs (in lieu of more incarceration), that were willing to take our son, where he would get counseling, be accountable, and work to make restitution for what he had done. We were told by people involved in the legal system that all of this should make a difference to the judge, and if he were reasonable, he would give our son credit for the nearly 2 years he had served in jail, and just sentence him to one of these programs, or put him on probation.
At Anthony’s hearing one month prior, about seven or eight staff members from the juvenile facility showed up—including the head warden and the facility’s counselor. They all stated that Anthony was doing well in every way in the juvenile system, and it was their expert opinion that he should just finish out his time there, about another 6 months. After hearing their testimony, even the court appointed psychologist reversed his original opinion (which was formed after spending about one hour with each boy). In each of these hearings, Jon and Anthony both had tremendous support in the courtroom from family and friends.
After hearing all testimony and arguments at Jon’s hearing, the judge announced his decision. Every eye and ear was on him—finally, what we had been waiting for, for nearly 2 years. Even some of the local media was there. As I listened, the blood slowly drained from my face; I suddenly found it hard to breathe. I heard it, but my mind could not comprehend it. My fragile heart now felt like some cruel vise was crushing it, squeezing the life out of it.
Fifteen and a half years—in an ADULT prison.
My eyes desperately sought my son’s--the agony and helplessness that I saw there caused me to weep uncontrollably.
Could this possibly be God’s will?
Was there anything else I could have done? But I had done everything humanly possible to help my son—and had prayed every way I knew how. What was going to happen to my son and my nephew, who had gotten the same sentence? Anthony was sentenced to an adult prison in Las Lunas, New Mexico. The judge at that time told us Jon could be transferred to a California prison to be closer to his family. A small consolation…but at least we would be able to visit him regularly. But we were to find out that no matter what the judge said in the courtroom that day, and no matter how hard we tried, we could not get him transferred to California. He was soon transported to the Santa Fe State Penetentiary—one of the worst facilities in the country. I remembered reading about a horrible riot there in the 80’s, where the National Guard was called in, and many inmates and guards were killed.
Just when it didn’t seem like it could get any worse, it did. About 5 months after the sentencing, another tragedy struck our family. Anthony’s mother, my dear younger sister, died of pancreatic cancer. Anthony had been told repeatedly that he would be able to see her before she died, a “special visit”, since she was too weak and in too much pain to go see him at the prison. But they waited too long, and she died. They allowed him to go to her funeral, though, shackled and handcuffed. As he stood before her open casket, Anthony leaned over to kiss his mother, weeping openly and pitifully, knowing how much pain he had caused her. It was a heart-wrenching picture of a completely broken young man. His chances of somehow making it up to her, making her proud of him again, died that day with her. He was only 16 years old, and he had just lost his mother. He was her only son.
When Anthony was taken back to prison that day, the gang leader who had been pressuring him for months to join their gang, took Anthony in his arms and wept with him. “We are your family now,” he said. Anthony was the youngest inmate there, and he told me later that he was terrified every hour he was there. In his vulnerable state, he believed the lie that he needed that gang, “for protection”.
But there was a price to pay. Before long, a rival gang member in the prison was killed. Among others, Anthony was suspected. If he tried to defend himself, his own gang would kill him. If he took the rap, the other gang would kill him. The charges were eventually dropped, but as a result of this incident, in the fall of 1996, Anthony was transported to the Santa Fe State Penetentiary to the lockdown unit, for his own protection, they said—in solitary confinement, 23 hours of every day. Jon was still in that same prison, in another unit. They could not see each other, but could write.
Time passed. Both boys had appeals going, but sometimes the wheels of justice turn very slowly. We continued to pray every day for our son and our nephew, knowing they were in a “survival mode”. We prayed they would be set free—mentally, emotionally, spiritually—and of course, physically.
Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit was methodically at work behind the scenes, breaking through the darkness within those prison walls. Anthony was still involved with the prison gang, even in his state of perpetual lockup. Jon managed to stay away from the prison gangs, but he did what he had to do to survive. His heart was far from the Lord. Both boys were raised in Christian homes, so they were raised with the truth. But they were so lost, and so very far from home – in so many ways. Besides, they figured it was probably too late for them anyway. However, God is the God of second chances, the God of mercy and forgiveness.
And He has His ways. Just when it seemed like all hope was lost, and nothing was ever going to happen—His Spirit began working, at times in most unusual ways through the most unlikely people. It was the summer of 1999. By now, Jon had been exposed to unspeakable evil, even to cellmates who openly worshipped Satan. He witnessed inmates brutally murdered right in front of his eyes—for something as insignificant as just looking at someone “wrong”. On one occasion, an older man who had been locked up for about 15 years took Jon under his wing, and offered him some advice. He was about to be released any day, and he wanted to help Jon. He told Jon to “keep to himself” and never join any gangs, no matter what they told him. He said, “They will tell you that you need them, but you don’t”. Jon listened and kept to himself, as he was advised. A few days later, about a week before this inmate’s release, the man was stabbed to death out in the yard. This is just one of many stories, of the horror that was Jon’s daily life in this very dark place.
He also saw the absolute slavery of drug addiction. Jon had used drugs to deal with depression prior to his arrest. But what he observed in prison was unlike anything he’d ever seen. Naively, I had no idea how easy it was for inmates to get drugs. Many times he saw inmates released, and then come back a short time later, due to drug-related crimes. He told me once that prison is full of men who have never grown up. I thought that was an interesting and accurate assessment.
Memories of his childhood began to come back to him in the night. Things he had learned at church and at home. He picked up a Bible I had sent him (“Free on the Inside”, which included special testimonies from inmates whose lives were turned around by the power of God.) He began to read it, like never before. He suddenly came into contact with a couple of inmates who wanted to study the Bible with him. One of them was a man from Pelican Bay, California, who had become a Christian in prison. He had been incarcerated for 18 years, and now had a degree in Theology. I thought it was interesting that he was only in Santa Fe for a couple of months, then was sent back to California. He was there long enough to make contact with Jon, and encourage him to get right with the Lord and get into the Bible.
Then I got the phone call.
It was October 31, 1999, (ironically, Halloween night). It was Jon. He said, “Mom, I’ve got something to tell you.” I could tell it was something important, and it scared me a little. He said, “Are you sitting down?” Oh, no, now what? He went on, “I have finally made a decision to get right with God. I mean, REALLY right with Him. No games. I had this experience in my cell with the Lord, and it was real. He spoke to me through His Word, and I fell on my knees before Him and prayed, and for the first time in my life, I find I am asking myself, ‘Is this pleasing to the Lord’ before I do or say or think anything. I can’t even explain it.” I was stunned. I clung to the phone, and tears of joy fell down my face as he told me about the experience he’d had that changed his heart and life.
He was alone in a cell that was located on one of the upper tiers—his entire unit had gotten locked down. He said he was looking out a small window and could see down into the yard below him. He could see inmates he knew, running around, and from his vantage point they looked really small. It occurred to him that they looked like cartoon characters. He started to laugh as he watched them. After awhile, he got tired of watching them and sat down. He suddenly noticed a book laying there—the only book allowed in that cell—a Bible. He picked it up and began to read, starting in the book of Proverbs, because he remembered hearing from someone that that book contained words of wisdom. Couldn’t hurt. And what else was there to do, anyway? Who knows, he thought…maybe he would learn something.
After some time passed, he felt compelled to start reading the book of James in the New Testament—he had no idea why. Suddenly these words seemed to leap off the pages, and gripped his very soul: “Submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinner; and purify your heart, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.” (James 4: 7-10)
He could feel God’s presence so strongly all around him, and as he read that passage he could hear the Lord’s voice speaking those words inside of him—personally, to him—in a very real way. He suddenly saw his life as it truly was, the choices he had made which led him to this place—the shame of his sin, how he had hurt so many, especially his family. How could he be laughing just a few moments before? He fell to his knees, wept, and gave his heart to God. He vowed to serve the Lord, no matter what. No turning back. No pretense. This was real. More real than anything he had ever experienced. He said from that moment on, he couldn’t stop reading the Bible, and has been reading it night and day! He said he thought and felt like a different person. He even sounded different! I began to rejoice. He said, “I have no fear now, Mom. There is nothing they can do to me. Even if I die, I know I will go to be with the Lord. He has given me this incredible peace and joy. I know it sounds crazy. I can’t even explain it. I’m actually happy in here, reading God’s Word and spending time with Him.”
Meanwhile, in another corner of that dark world, the Lord had been working on Anthony. He had gotten into some trouble when they let him out to help with haircuts. He had gotten into a fight, so now he was not even allowed out of his cell the one hour a day they normally let him out (to take a shower, and spend a little time outside in a cage). They only let him out one hour, 3 times a week. And he normally could have visits, 2 hours a week. But now, no visits. Not even during the Christmas Holiday. He couldn’t make any phone calls either. He was in the worst type of confinement that was possible. But that was God’s plan….In those lonely hours, he began to think about his life, about things he had heard in church. He picked up the Bible I had sent him about a year before (the same special one I had sent Jon). He began to read and read…and read. And suddenly, it was as if a light went on! Then he got a letter from Jon, encouraging him to give his life to the Lord. “Don’t you see, Anthony? We have been in a battle for our souls! The enemy has tried to destroy us.” Anthony has always looked up to Jon, and that was all he needed. He suddenly realized Jon was right! He got back into the God’s Word, and hasn’t been able to put it down either. He wrote in a letter to me, “I’m having my own revival in here! It’s crazy because I have known these truths about the Lord all my life, but somehow recently I have begun to feel differently about everything. It seems new to me, and is affecting me in ways like never before—Aunt Nita, I know it’s real because I have made changes in my life that everyone around me is taking notice of. I know now that no matter what happens—I want to follow Jesus. I feel this strength from the Lord, and I can only praise and glorify the name of the Lord for He is the one who has made me who I am right now.” He ended his letter with “My peace and joy is said well in Romans 5: 1-11.” ***
And that, my friends, is the miracle in Santa Fe--in the hearts of two young men. They have been incarcerated for years, and God only knows when they will be released. Yes, what happened to them was a travesty of justice. But what the devil intended for evil, God turned around and used for His good. I thought about what the Lord told me years ago, “Trust Me. My ways are not your ways.” Indeed…the Lord knew what it would take for these young men to finally turn to Him--to find hope, peace, joy, forgiveness, and a new life in Him. Praise His Holy name!!!
*** Romans 5: 1-11:
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the reconciliation.”
Update: (November, 2003) It has been over four years since Jon and Anthony turned their lives over to the Lord. On our last visit with Jon, my husband and I witnessed once again the beautiful peace and joy in his life, despite his circumstances. Because of the type of facility he had been in previously, we had not been allowed to have a “face to face” contact visit with him in almost five years. The first few years of his incarceration, we were able to have these contact visits. But then the facility went through some major changes and the regular unit, which housed over 1500 inmates, was not “up to code”. So, part of it was closed down, and part of it was turned into a “super max” prison—24 hour a day lockdown, 7 days a week—so we were only allowed to see him behind glass or in a monitor (what they call a “video visit”). There was no reason for him to be in this facility—he had not been in any trouble. I even confirmed this with the new warden. But he said due to a number of reasons, he would not be able to move Jon to another facility until a later date. Months turned into years. It was painful not to be able to hug him, to only see him in a monitor or behind glass all that time
Then one day we heard they moved him to a facility in southern N.M., where he was only locked down for part of the day. However, we could still only see him behind glass. Finally, in the early part of 2003, he was moved to a facility in Hobbs, N.M. in an “Honor Unit”, where he is not locked down, and actually has a job working in the kitchen. At last, we would be able to have a contact visit, face to face with him! So, in April of 2003, we went to see him. I cannot describe how good it felt to be able to put my arms around my son’s neck, and hug him, after so many years of not being able to touch him. The tears flowed in abundance—I wept uncontrollably—tears of relief, tears of joy.
As we sat down with Jon, we saw the amazing light in his eyes, and peace on his face as he began to tell us all that God has been teaching him, and how the Lord has given him opportunities to minister to some of the other inmates. I immediately thought of the scripture where the Apostle Paul wrote that he had learned the secret of how to stay content in any circumstances. Paul was in prison when he wrote that. Our son spoke of how he begins his day at 4am, praying for everyone he knows, and then spends hours pouring over the scriptures before he goes to his job in the kitchen. He smiled and said, “And every morning when I get on my knees, God shows up. His presence is with me.” People have actually told him he looks like he’s glowing…☺ After two days of spending this precious time with our son, my husband told him we felt as if we had been on a wonderful spiritual retreat—he ministered to us in such a special way!
July of 2004 will mark 10 years since Jon’s arrest and incarceration. We’ve heard recently that he will soon be released. Our son…finally coming home. O, happy day! What a homecoming that will be! We do not know what the future holds for Jon, but we know Who holds his future. One thing is certain—there is a call on his life. He has a real heart for youth who are heading down the wrong path…may the Lord continue to give him grace and wisdom as he reaches out to those young men who desperately need to know God’s love and truth. Amen!
Update: It is April, 2013. Jon’s release from prison took him on quite a journey, with some “bumps and bruises” along the way. Today he is working and serving full time with a ministry called “Inner City Action”, an outreach to the down and out in Stockton, California—to the homeless, to those wanting to get off drugs, to those getting out of prison, trying to put their lives back together.
God is good.
Truly, what the enemy of his soul meant for evil, God turned around for good.
We are so very proud of him, and we praise God for what He has done in our son’s life!