Jail ministries are tough because the ones incarcerated in jails and prisons are tough. Very few prisoners are willing to admit their guilt for the crimes which caused their imprisonment, and many will say or do whatever is necessary to be released immediately. I have not been involved in an ongoing prison ministry except when Cathy and I provided support and encouragement for a young man who was an inmate in our county jail. There was not a designated jail or prison ministry of which I was aware sponsored by a church in El Dorado, Arkansas during the thirty years we lived there. My initial experience of visiting the local county jail for the express purpose of witnessing Christ occurred as a result of an emergency surgical procedure.
As a surgeon with the Surgical Clinic of South Arkansas my responsibilities included taking weekend ER surgical call one weekend per month. There were some weekends which were extremely quiet and no emergency surgeries were required but those weekends were rare. In a small town like El Dorado it was possible to hear the siren of most of the emergency vehicles as they travelled to the hospitals. Whenever I heard a siren while on call I wondered if a close friend or even a family member was being transported to the ER, and it would create in me a level of anxiety. For at least ten years after I stopped taking emergency room call I felt the same anxiety upon hearing a siren.
On one particular weekend late on a Saturday night I received a call from the Warner Brown Hospital emergency room. A forty year old woman had been admitted with multiple, severe knife wounds to the face, neck and shoulders. They reported she had lost a lot of blood but was conscious and alert. I arose from bed, dressed quickly and was in the ER in less than ten minutes. The nursing staff had done all the preliminary lab work and had called the OR team to come to the hospital in preparation for an emergency operation.
Without being too graphic she sustained major disfiguring lacerations to her face and multiple stab wounds to the neck, right shoulder and upper abdomen. Her right arm was totally paralyzed. When I asked her how all this happened her answer was, “My husband had been drinking heavily tonight, and when we began arguing about it, he went completely berserk and attacked me with his hunting knife.” She said, “While he was hurting me, his eyes were fiery red and he looked just like Satan.” In all of my years as a trauma surgeon, I had never seen such extensive knife wounds, and along with the entire emergency team had great compassion and sadness for this innocent woman. We gathered around her and prayed for her before taking her to the OR.
My surgical team had the reputation for the ability to operate quickly and efficiently, but for this particular patient with the nature and severity of her wounds, it took us in excess of six hours to complete the repairs. Throughout much of our time in the operating room many comments were made such as, “How could anyone do such a thing?”, and “I hope he has to go to jail for a long time.”, and one person even said, “If he looked and acted like Satan, I hope he joins him in hell!” The comments were made by the women present in the OR, and I could understand their indignation on behalf of this poor woman who would be forever scarred and disabled. I remained quiet most of the time, but did say, “Since they have arrested him, I wonder what he is thinking now that he has sobered up?”
I finished all of my hospital responsibilities by 6:30 A.M. and decided to go to the jail before returning home to shower and shave in preparation for church. Usually one had to have special permission from the sheriff to visit an inmate in the County Jail, but I thought the jailer on duty might be sympathetic to my request and not require prior authorization. When I told him I had a report for this inmate on his wife’s medical condition he consented to my unauthorized visit. I was not allowed into the cell which contained at least five other inmates, but I stood outside the bars speaking as quietly and privately to the man as possible.
He had mostly sobered up from the previous night’s bout of excessive alcohol, and as far as I could tell he was lucid and very sorrowful. I told him I had spent the night in the operating room repairing the damage he had inflicted on his wife, and her life had been spared. He immediately fell on his knees crying out, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry!” I did tell him the injury to her right arm resulted in complete paralysis, and it could be months or even years before she could use her arm again, if ever.
In the midst of his sorrowful weeping he asked the question, “What can I do to make up for this?” I responded by saying, “There’s a lot which needs to be done, but the best starting place is for you to repent of the shameful life you have been living, and invite the Lord Jesus into your heart.” “I’ll do whatever you say I need to do,” he cried. “If you are serious and you really want to change and have a new life you must confess, repent and ask the Lord Jesus to save you,” I told him. I helped him pray a tearful prayer of repentance while still on his knees. When he stood I could only shake his hands through the bars and told him I would be praying for him and would continue to medically assist in his wife’s healing process.
The following day I contacted the pastor of a sister church in El Dorado whom I knew would follow-up on this man and his decision. There is no way I could discern this prisoner’s heart motives, but I witnessed and heard his prayer. I also know our Savior told us in His Word, He came to set the prisoner free, and from the moment this prisoner asked for mercy, he received it in full measure. It is wonderful to know we can never fall so far down we are out of reach of our Father’s hand.