Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Little Italian

What would prison be with out the classic Mafia "goombah"? His name was Tony (classic, don't you think?) and he was from New Jersey (could it get any better?) If Hollywood were making a movie of my prison experience, Tony would be played by Danny DeVito. He was short...and round...and obnoxious. And he was everything that you would expect him to be.

There's really no way to know what Tony was in for. He said it was for dealing drugs but he was another of your classic con's. He wouldn't know truth if it bit him. The rumors were that he was here in California because he had made enemies in the other institutions that had housed him because he had a major problem with gambling. Actually, the problem wasn't so much gambling...he did that quite well. His problem was paying his gambling debts...something seemed to have quite a difficult time accomplishing. So it seemed that he would stay in one place for a year or so until his debts became so great they could no longer be forgiven. Then he would find himself threatened with bodily harm and PC (protective custody) himself up and off he would go to the next "Club Fed."

For all of Tony's faults, he was good to me from the beginning. I really don't understand why. It wasn't like I befriended him in any way. For the first four months I was in prison, I didn't have my own radio and the only way you could watch TV in the day room was through the FM signal on the radio. On more than one occasion, Tony offered me the use of one of his radios so I could watch the weekend movie or a football game. He never asked for anything in return and never sent the message that I "owed" him anything. In fact, because he realized I didn't have much, he would also offer me cookies or chips on occasion.

Tony also had a difficult time accepting several of the other men who were in our unit. One of them was Chris, a young man who was in prison for a similar charge as mine...illegal pornography. Unfortunately for Chris, he hadn't heeded the advise of the counselors when he entered and he had told people why he was in prison...only he had changed it a little bit. Instead of saying he was in for child pornography, he was it was for "bestiality". Apparently, he thought that might be more readily accepted. He couldn't have been more wrong. His bed was burned on several occasions and it wasn't uncommon for other inmates to dump water on his mattress. When we had mail call, if Chris got any mail, the other inmates would immediately begin to make animal sounds. Even the guards would laugh about it.

One night, Chris tried to go into the "white" TV room to watch a movie. Tony was there and immediately got into Chris's face and in no uncertain terms, told Chris that he wasn't welcome in the TV room. Wisely, Chris turned and left the room. A little while later, I happened to be walking past the TV room and Tony called me in. He was still fuming...angry that Chris had even considered trying to watch TV in the "white" TV room, as if he was worthy enough.

Tony told me what had happened earlier and how angry he got at Chris and the reason that he was in prison. He went on to tell me how despicable 'sex offenders' were and that he noticed that I was able to be nice to just about everyone...even Chris.

For a brief second, I was afraid that Tony was going to accuse me of being a sex offender and wondered how I might respond. But that's not what Tony wanted...he wanted to know how I could treat people that way. It gave me an opportunity to share Christ's love.

Men are in prison for a lot of different reasons. Drug dealing. Robbery. Extortion. Kidnapping. Murder. Even pornography. I was able to share with Tony that all of us, even him, had done something so despicable that there were people in our society that hated us with a venomous hatred. Parents who had lost children to drug overdose wanted nothing more that all drug dealers to rot in prison...or even better, to rot in hell. Senior citizens who were scammed by 'cons' couldn't be happier if every one spent the rest of their life behind bars.

I told Tony that in God's eyes, we are all the same...we are sinners. But God gives each of us, regardless of what we have done, the opportunity for a new start...a clean start, because of the sacrifice of His Son at Calvary. And I told him that because I am a Christian, God wants me to treat others the same way the God treats me...with unconditional love.

Tony told me that he didn't know if he could do that (maybe the only words of truth I ever heard him speak) and was amazed that I could. I turned and left the room, with Tony quietly looking after me. Before closing the door, I told Tony I would be more than happy to talk to him any time if he wanted to.

I don't know if Tony every pursued a relationship with Christ or not. A short time after our conversation, he was thrown in the SHU for being wasted on pruno. He spent about three months in the hole and every day, we prayed for him. After he got out, it was only a few months later that he disappeared, apparently as a result of his gambling debts.

Like many men in prison, Tony wasn't someone that I would have wanted as a friend. He's not someone that I could honestly say that I liked for the first several months at TCI. But during those 36 months that I spent behind the razor wire, God opened my eyes and my heart to my callousness and prejudice. He helped me see that I was no different than the Tony's of the world...that is until I turned to Him. He used that time to strip me of my pride and arrogance that I had used to shelter myself my entire life.

2 comments:

Deb said...

These stories of the men whose lives changed yours and whose lives you changed in prison are my favorite. I love how open you became to people of any stripe, and I love how that openness has remained now that you're in the world again.

The only thing wrong with these stories is that I'm left frustrated that there's only one at a time to read.

Toivoa ja Elämän said...

this is an amazing story of how God used prison to come into your life and then used your life to touch others...
i wish you had the following option up for your blog, i'd love to read more by you, your other later posts were also great
you have important stuff to say, and i don't wanna miss it!