Seven Lessons from the Inside Out


By Rev. Marty Shanahan, Spirit of Hope Old Catholic Community

I wear many hats: Senior Pastor, Bishop-Elect, Husband, Dad, Brother, Chaplain, Counselor, Consultant, and Grandpa. I serve as the Sr. Pastor of Spirit of Hope Old Catholic Community, which is located in Mendota Heights, MN. Our congregation shares worship space with Saint Anne’s Episcopal Church.

The other hat I wear is that of prison chaplain. I serve as the chaplain of one of the most well- known men’s state correctional facilities in the State of Minnesota, located in the Twin Cities metro area. For this article, I’d like to share the insights I’ve gained in assisting incarcerated individuals with their spiritual lives. In my six years as prison chaplain, I continue to learn and grow in my own spirituality and faith as I tend to the faith needs of men struggling to understand how their lives ended up behind bars (because no child ever dreams of being incarcerated), and where their lives will go from here. Here’s what I’ve learned, so far. I hope it inspires your own faith journey:

1. People are people and everyone hopes that their life has meaning and purpose.

In my years serving as a chaplain in the Minnesota Department of Corrections, I have learned a great deal about humanity and about myself.  Everyone — and I mean everyone — hopes in some way, shape or form that their life has meaning, impact and purpose.  We all want to be “known” for something, and most of us want to be “known” for some positive impact we have had on the world.  Incarcerated people are no different.  Most of the men to whom I provide spiritual counsel do not want to be “known” by or be “known” as the crime that landed them here. Like every one of us, incarcerated people want to make some positive impact on the world.

2. Probably 90% of what people read, think and believe about prison life is incorrect or misunderstood.

I have watched many TV shows about incarceration. Most of them deal with the spectacular or sensational side of life and or death of prison life, including, notably, the influence of gangs within prisons. My experience is that prison life is much more like our everyday lives on the outside. We all get up, eat, go to work, take breaks, try to exercise, try to find time to enjoy life a little bit between the hectic schedules of everyday life. Not much is different in here except that the room may be yours today and someone else’s tomorrow. Your entire life must fit in two 22-gallon totes, and there are consequences for not following the schedules. Yes it is, and can be, dangerous, but for the most part, it is not tremendously different than our lives.

3. I don’t believe it is anywhere in the Christian story that we should “lock someone up and throw away the key.”  

I firmly believe in the quote from Sister Helen Prejean (watch the movie Dead Men Walking), who says:  “No one should exist being known by the worst thing they ever did.” Redemption, forgiveness, hope, healing, peace, transformation are all possible. I have seen it and I know it is possible. Does it happen to and for every incarcerated person? No. But redemption, and rehabilitation does happen and can happen. I do not believe any person is a waste of God’s resources. I have witnessed tremendous compassion, outstanding selflessness, courage and fearlessness all happen right before my eyes.  Prison is a microcosm of the larger society.  It is a very intense microcosm, but I am of the firm belief that grace always triumphs in the end.

4. The experience of prison can lead a person to a deeper relationship with God.

Every crisis in our lives brings us to the edge of liminality — that place where we question our lives, our understandings, our hopes, dreams and visions, and even the place where we question our God as well. At that point, where we are pushed to the edge, we either fall into despair, or we begin to claw our way back to new meaning and purpose in our lives. Prison is often a place where an incarcerated person has enough time, safety and support that they can reach out to begin a deeper encounter with their God. Does it last? Sometimes it does, and other times, life and the temptations we all experience win out and God takes second place.

5. One thing everyone can do is to pray for all those who are incarcerated. It does make a difference!

If you want to lessen the chance that an incarcerated person will return to prison after they’ve been released, then pray. Pray every day, for those who are incarcerated, their families, their victims and their families, for a world where peace and justice are the hallmarks. No matter what you want to believe, I too have witnessed a legal system that is not always “just” and often not “fair.” Prayer does make a difference. As a person who works “inside” every day, my colleagues and I, from officers and support staff to administrative professionals, teachers, counselors and psychologists, could all use the support of your prayers. And yes, even the offenders could as well. Yes, please pray for us. All of us!

6. Imagine 9×13 feet. 

If you want to get a real flavor of life inside, put out some masking tape on the floor of your room and see how 9×13 feet feels after you put a bed, sink, desk, chair, and toilet all within that space.  Now realize that one side of that space is just bars so you see and hear everyone and they see and hear you. Two 22-gallon totes….most of us couldn’t fit two days of clothes in two 22 gallon totes, but everything – and I mean everything — your TV, radio, pictures, any papers, anything and everything except your guitar must fit into those two totes. Now imagine that three or more times a day….some stranger comes walking past, and asks you to show him or her your ID. Think you might find it to be a bit stressful?

7. God is here.

Despite what most may think, God is alive and well, and really present here behind all of the razor wire and prison bars.  Prison isn’t a God-less zone, it really can be a place overflowing with grace.  It does have darkness, evil, and sin, but so does the outside world. It may be more intense here, but the grace is as intense as well. Incarcerated people are people, and I believe they deserve compassion, care, accountability, respect and even in some cases, admiration.

I will close with some words from a sign on my office door at the correctional facility:

Pray big prayers – Dream big dreams! 

©Rev. Martin Shanahan 2016