How A Surly Prison Chaplain’s Hostility
Led To The National Prison Invasion
A memoir by Charles Patrick Norman
Charles Norman and Jack Murphy
Zephyrhills C.I. November, 1984
After a four-hour ride in a hot prison transport van from Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, North Florida, I strained to see what my new home looked like. The driver slowed for oncoming traffic on Highway 301, and I got a good look at a relatively postage stamp-sized prison surrounded by a rectangle of chain-link and barbed-wire fences. That can’t be Zephyrhills C.I., I thought. It’s too small to be a prison. The van approached a large gate which slowly slid open, then entered a sally port.
“Git all your shit and git out,” a prison guard said.
Easier said than done. Jim Vick and I had transferred to Zephyrhills to start the Golab Program, and prison officials had approved my bringing the color TV, videocassette recorder, RCA video camera and Apple II computer we used in our program at Raiford, along with boxes of printed materials and personal belongings. No other prisoners in Florida had been entrusted with such state-of-the-art technology. When I made the agreement with Tallahassee prison officials to start the Golab Program at Zephyrhills, bringing the equipment I’d fought hard to obtain was part of the deal.
Inside the fence my friend and fellow prisoner, Jack Murphy, stood with a crowd of other men observing our arrival. A couple of men pulling hand carts materialized, the sergeant ordered the inner gate opened, and at least a dozen men poured into the sally port to help. Murf embraced me. Men quickly stacked the equipment and property onto the carts and led us onto the small compound.
The sun scorched and beat down on us that day, June 6, 1983. I had so far served five years on a life sentence with a minimum-mandatory twenty-five years to serve before becoming eligible for parole. “The Mandatory Quarter,” prisoners called it, had been instituted by the Florida Legislature in 1973, after the United States Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s Death Penalty law was cruel and unusual punishment, unconstitutional. “The Mandatory Quarter” law had been instituted as a substitute for the death penalty, the theory being that no one could survive twenty-five years in prison. Even if they did, they’d be so old and broken that they would pose no threat to society, in effect, a slow death penalty. That was the theory. No one really knew, since the law was only ten years old.
We followed the carts to the Golab classroom. I couldn’t believe what I saw.
“We’re supposed to run our program here?” I said.
They had given us the old barbershop, a room not even twenty-by-twenty feet square. A rattling old wall unit air conditioner wheezed and blew hot air into the sweltering room. No way could we fit twenty-four prisoners into such a space, for eight hours a day. I shook my head and began rethinking my decision. My family lived only twelve miles away; however, the main impetus for my leaving the relative comfort of “The Rock,” an old-style prison where we had space and a degree of freedom rarely found in such surroundings. For my family’s sake, I was determined to make it work, one way or the other.
Murf introduced me to a number of men. He’d come to Zephyrhills in January to start the Golab Program, as part of an agreement with Ron Jones, assistant secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, and Martin J. “Lucky” Stack, president of Growth Orientation, Inc., the private company with a state contract to operate prisoner self-help programs at several state prisons. Murf had been wrongly held responsible for an incident at the Easter Sunrise Service weeks before, and Warden Ray Henderson had nixed his plans to open the Golab. The contract had been signed and paid, the June first start date had already passed, and Jim Vick and I had been hurried to Zephyrhills at the last minute to get things going.
After we’d gotten situated, Jack Murphy took me on the “two minute tour” of ZCI, followed by a flock of curious prisoners. We were the new guys. I knew a number of men who’d been at The Rock, and some I’d known from the Hillsborough County Jail where I’d spent almost two years, hard time in dungeon-like conditions. Due to its proximity to Tampa, about twenty miles away, ZCI was a prime location for prisoners whose families lived in the area. We talked and renewed our acquaintances. Murf pointed out several portables, buildings housing education programs, the PRIDE Print Shop, hobbycraft, and “Cracker Beach,” the small, grassy recreation field out back where Frisbees were thrown and softball games played.
It didn’t take long to make the circuit of the small prison holding 550 men. There were surprisingly few prisoners out and about, compared to where I’d spent the past few years at Union C.I., Florida’s largest prison, with 2,600 men. Over a hundred prisoners had reduced custody, medium and minimum, and worked outside the prison on various squads: Department of Transportation road crews, Hillsborough River State Park, University of South Florida, Pasco-Hernando Community College, the water plant, and others. It seemed that most of the prisoners left on the compound were following us.
“Where’s the chapel?” I said. At Union, we had a large brick chapel with a steeple, shaded by magnolias and cedar trees. I had not seen anything that might be a smaller version.
Murf smiled. “We passed it when you came through the gate.”
We had made a circuit of the small prison and approached the front gate again. Jack pointed at a white doublewide trailer off to one side. I had assumed the modular building was an office. It was the chapel.
“How’s the chaplain?”
Murf shook his head. “I’m not saying a word, Charlie. I want you to see for yourself.”
We walked up the rickety side steps. Murf opened the narrow metal door. A blast of cold air rushed past us. At least the air conditioner worked. We entered the little chapel. The other men stayed outside.
The doublewide trailer had been converted to a church sanctuary, with two rows of wooden pews filling most of the open area. A pulpit stood at the front, with a piano and organ off to each side. The place was empty.
To our left a door stood open, revealing a small office. A gray-haired man with a bushy salt-and-pepper moustache sat behind a walnut desk that almost filled the room. Papers stacked in loose piles covered the desk. A wooden nameplate on the front announced, “Chaplain Virgil Choate.”
The gray-haired man hurriedly scribbled on some document. We stood in the open doorway. The man pointedly ignored us. Jack Murphy said nothing. I followed his lead.
After a couple of minutes the chaplain stopped scribbling and looked up at us. A sneer contorted his face like he’d smelled a bad odor. “What do you want?” he said.
Obviously, the chaplain didn’t like Jack Murphy and his celebrity status as Murf the Surf, famous jewel thief. The fact that he was serving a life sentence for a conviction for two murders rarely came up. The differences in our life sentences was that his was under the old system, without a minimum mandatory, before the mandatory quarters went into effect. Under the old system, a first degree murder conviction received either death or life. “Life” was considered seven years. If a prisoner served ten years for murder under the old system, it was considered a long time. Murf had already served about sixteen years, the then-extreme time served blamed on his notoriety. Sixteen years in prison seemed like an incredibly long time to me then. Little did I suspect that I would surpass the twenty-five years minimum mandatory sentence, leaving Murf and many others far behind, now approaching thirty-seven years in prison in the present day.
When the chaplain sneered the “What do you want” statement, Jack just looked at him. I looked at Jack. I knew him well. He was quick-witted, skilled at the cutting, snappy comeback, but he held his fire.
“Not a thing,” he said. I followed him outside. In the bright sunshine Murf and I burst out laughing.
“See what I mean?” he said. “That’s how he is. This is a good camp, with a lot of good people coming in for church programs. If we want to do anything, we have to go around him.”
Many things happened over the next few months. I had worked with Jim Vick at Union C.I. for over three years, and had brought him along to assist me with our classes. His family lived in St. Pete, and this was the only opportunity he’d had for years to get closer to home.
My fluency in Spanish proved to be a valuable asset in prison. I put together the first Spanish Golab, the entire program conducted in that language, a rare opportunity for Hispanic prisoners from Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Venezuela and Argentina to participate in an excellent self-help, self-improvement program.
I made an agreement with Golab President “Lucky” Stack to put together the “Pre-release Orientation Program (PROP),” training educated minimum-custody prisoners to conduct the Florida Department of Corrections’ (FDOC) first pre-release/transition program, writing the manual and supervising the printing in Graphic Arts. The prisoners I trained were sent to Lake City Community Work Release Center to start the program that became the basis of prison re-entry programs for decades to come.
I had participated in the Kairos Prison Ministry at Union, a three-day weekend religious program run by outside volunteers that helped change many men’s lives, including mine, and I joined the ZCI Kairos as soon as I arrived. The Kairos put on three-day weekends twice a year, and monthly “Ultreyas,” now called reunions, where Kairos volunteers and their wives came in on the first Tuesday night of each month for a two-hour program designed to keep the Kairos graduates tuned in and involved. Twice a year, they also sponsored a Kairos retreat on Saturday and Sunday, for Kairos members to meet in the chapel for prayers, grouping, and songs. The volunteers would bring in sub sandwiches, chips and sodas for lunch, which was a popular perk. I had been at Zephyrhills C.I. for about three months when they scheduled a retreat for the first weekend in September, 1983.
Eight o’clock Saturday morning, forty-five prisoners gathered on the road outside the chapel side door. We saw no Kairos volunteers arriving in the parking lot outside the fences. Thirty or more men were supposed to be here at eight a.m.
After half an hour, the side door opened. The chaplain stood there glaring at us. “What are you doing out here?” he addressed the crowd. “The chapel is closed. Get somewhere.”
Murf spoke up. “Chaplain, we were supposed to have a Kairos retreat today and tomorrow. Some of the men cancelled their visits to attend.”
“No Kairos this weekend. I got things to do, and can’t stay here watching ya’ll. Go on, now.” He slammed and locked the door behind him and headed for the exit gate.
Dejected men drifted off in different directions, with nothing to do. The prison was dead on Saturday mornings. Murf and I, along with perhaps half a dozen friends walked around the road that circled inside the prison. We talked about the sad state of affairs, of having forty-five men interested in participating in a positive Christian program, of the volunteers who’d been turned away, and a perfectly good chapel, empty, idle for an entire day.
We made our way to the little Golab classroom, which was also empty, but I had the key. We went inside to sit down and talk about the situation.
An important part of the Golab program was teaching skills that improved men’s lives. Based upon a program designed for corporate executives, the motivational, self-improvement, self-awareness and life skills techniques taught in Golab had amazing effects on prisoners who would never otherwise participate in such a valuable (and expensive) program in the free world. Setting short- and long-term goals developed the ability to control the positive direction in men’s lives . Self-evaluation, taking personal inventories of one’s strengths and weaknesses, and developing strategies to change one’s life and become a successful, law-abiding citizen upon release, gave men the hope and confidence that they could take charge of their lives and become better persons.
Another part of Golab was problem-solving. One of the first experiences the men participated in involved learning brainstorming techniques, utilizing ideas from several people to define a problem and suggest solutions, no matter how far-fetched they might be, then choose the best alternatives. Goal-setting would then come into play, to figure out how to arrive at the solution to the problem. Using a “group brain,” working together, magnifying our individual thinking processes, talking it out, writing ideas on the chalkboard, resulted in a solution no one would have come up with on their own.
“Why do we need the chaplain?” someone asked.
“Why don’t we put our own program together?”
“Why not invite the outside volunteers who run the various Bible studies and church groups to all come together on one weekend on the compound, to participate in a series of programs that will affect the entire prison population?”
The majority of prisoners did not go to the chapel, or attend the dozen or so programs sponsored by volunteers from area churches. If fifty men showed up at the Monday Night Fellowship, half of them were there to drink the coffee and eat the cookies brought by the First Baptist Church of Dade City’s volunteers. If a group of women singers came in for a program, it would be well-attended, but most of the participants came just to look. When the preacher started his sermon or lesson, they would tune him out in many cases.
It didn’t matter to the Christian volunteers what motivated men to attend services. They did not judge. They knew they couldn’t help everyone, especially if they didn’t want help. The Christian volunteers made themselves and the programs available, and anyone whose lives were changed and improved were considered victories for Jesus.
If we couldn’t get the inmate population in the small chapel, we decided we would bring the chapel to them, having groups sponsor special outdoor programs that would draw hundreds of men out of the dorms. Sounded good.
We needed a catchy, appropriate name, and a logo, a symbol. One of our guys was a clerk and aide in the graphic arts program, with access to a computer typesetter and a printing press, for educational and vocational training. All we had to do was get our nascent program approved, and find the funding for all our suggestions.
Florida equates with sunshine, so that became our favored word. This was a program put together for Christian groups, Jesus had to be included, so we settled on “Sonshine,” since Jesus was the Son of God. This would be an adventure. Very quickly “Sonshine Adventure ‘83” became the name of our program. The stylized whale logo as a symbol of the Sonshine Adventure came from the Book of Jonah, in the Old Testament. Prisoners could relate to Jonah, who’d run from God, refused to obey Him, and wound up inside a great fish. “Out of the belly of the beast cried I, and You answered my call.” (Jonah 2:2). Every one of us was in the belly of the beast, and we were calling out to God. Several artistic prisoners offered designs for the whale logo, and one was chosen. Now we had to propose a date.
We knew that whatever date we asked for, the prison administration would deny it, change it, postpone it, and otherwise interfere with it. It was the first weekend in September. We didn’t want to risk cold weather in December, since most of our activities would be outside. November usually had fair weather. So we proposed October 21, 22, and 23, 1983, barely six weeks away, not nearly enough time to put together our ambitious plans, but anticipating a month’s delay by the administration, we would get our perfect date, with good Florida weather to spare.
We couldn’t take this to the chaplain. He would rip it up. He didn’t like working on weekends. That usually worked out well, since four area churches rotated sponsoring the Sunday morning chapel services, where our family visitors were allowed to come in for the worship services with their loved ones (us).
Larry Stanley, a “free-man” volunteer, was our go-to guy. Looking like an enlarged, muscular Kenny Rogers, Larry Stanley was a former Miami Dolphin football player who attended the First Baptist Church of Dade City, owned a dry cleaners, and spent most of his off-time at the prison, sponsoring programs. He was there for Bible studies on Sunday and Monday nights, sponsored AA meetings, the Saturday night Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) program, and occasionally sat in at the Jaycee meetings when we needed him. If Larry Stanley could be sold on the Sonshine Adventure ’83, he would take it directly to Warden Ray Henderson, who was intimidated by Larry’s physical presence and reputation for violence on the football field. But the warden also knew that Larry, as an outside volunteer, was trusted and responsible. If he supported an event, he was so respected by the inmates, that it was guaranteed to run smoothly. If Larry would sign a memorandum, we would be halfway there. But first, I had to come up with a memorandum. Since I had the only available typewriter and was experienced in proposing programs, I went to work. Saturday passed quickly.
Sunday night, Jack Murphy and I asked Larry if we could speak with him in the chaplain’s office. He had the key. His friend, Dick Hodges, an IBM repairman who easily weighed-in at 350 pounds, led the Bible study of about a dozen men in the sanctuary. Jack knew Larry better than I did, and he briefly explained the situation, what had not happened on Saturday morning, our disappointment, and our idea to bypass the chaplain, go directly to the warden, through Larry, and put together something that would glorify God and hopefully change the lives of prisoners who would not otherwise ever step inside the chapel.
Larry didn’t like the chaplain, referring to him as “that pencil-neck paper pusher.” Larry had a genuine affection and regard for prisoners, and it showed. He could just as easily be wearing prison blues, but he’d never been caught, a revelation he was quick to share. That was a sentiment and belief held by many sincere volunteers, that they were obeying Jesus’ instructions to visit the prisoners, but also performing penance for deeds unpunished. “There but for the grace of God, go I” (John Bradford, Romans 12:3), was commonly heard from the most dedicated servants of God, the most law-abiding people.
Larry loved the idea. He signed three copies of the memo, one for Henderson, one for himself, and one for us. There were lines for only two signatures, Larry’s for proposing and taking responsibility for the weekend, and the warden’s. As long as the warden approved it, it didn’t matter what anyone else thought.
“I’ll see Ray tomorrow,” he said.
Monday Night Fellowship: Larry Stanley and Dick Hodges came in with Dr. Clinton Whitehurst, an 82-year old wealthy Christian and his wife, Samyna (Sam), who were both dedicated to his weekly Bible study. Dr. Whitehurst generously supported financially any positive activities. We were counting on his help.
Grinning his cat-and-canary smirk, Larry signaled us to follow him into the office. He tossed down a file folder with ten copies of the Sonshine Adventure memo signed by the warden.
“We’re good to go,” Larry said. “I told the Doctor you would need a bunch of supplies. Make me some lists.”
“What did the warden say?” I said.
“Make him look good,” Larry said. “He read every line, twice. He liked it. He said to give a copy to the chaplain.”
“The chaplain’s going to be pissed,” Murf said.
“Too bad. We don’t need him.”
We had one major problem — the date. The warden had approved the October date, with no delays. No way could we do everything we’d planned in six weeks. We were stuck with it, outsmarting ourselves. But there was one bonus prize involved that we’d never tried before. The approved enabling memo stated that all the attached memos were also approved, and directed to the various department heads. Since I hadn’t typed any other memos yet, Henderson, in effect, had given us carte blanche to do whatever we wanted. We fully intended to take advantage of his signature. First, we had to write letters to all the church leaders and volunteers to get them on board, to agree to bring in their people and participate.
Murf was close to Rev. Frank Costantino, head of “The Bridge,” in Orlando, the first private Christian work release center, and prominent prison minister. “Chaplain Ray,” the head of the International Prison Ministry in Dallas, Texas, was a world-renowned figure who provided thousands of books and greeting cards free of charge to prisoners. Chaplain Max Jones, from South Carolina, had been the chaplain at Florida State Prison (FSP) who brought Jack Murphy to Christ. Rev. Abe Brown was a beloved black preacher and high school football coach in Tampa, who led busloads of volunteers to Florida’s Death Row each month to minister to the condemned men. Rev. Henry Porter led a large group of gospel singers from his church and Christian school in Sarasota. Each one enthusiastically signed on to participate in the first Sonshine Adventure.
We went to every volunteer program in the church, and invited everyone to come in for the three-day weekend. Each group had been operating independently, isolated by their own scheduled service times, and hardly anyone knew the other volunteers. This event offered them the opportunity to actually walk the prison grounds, to visit men in the dorms, on Cracker Beach, and elsewhere, and to meet volunteers from other churches and groups, to participate in something that had never been done before, that would revitalize their own programs, and expose hundreds more men to the goodness that shown through those selfless people. Every one signed on.
We needed workers and work space to accomplish the ambitious goals we’d outlined at our original brainstorming meeting. One memo to the graphic arts instructor authorized us to use their equipment and supplies to print whatever we needed. Another memo authorized us to use all the education classrooms evenings and weekends to work on our projects. A special projects workshop that made signs was converted to a silkscreen shop to print the Sonshine Adventure logo on hundreds of t-shirts. Prisoners could have their own t-shirts screen printed, and Dr. Whitehurst purchased hundreds more for p.r., and to hand out to the volunteer participants when they came in. He also donated all the screen printing ink and supplies, enough to endow programs for times to come.
One memo authorized me to use the Graphic Arts 35mm camera at all our events, something never before allowed in the paranoid, security-conscious prison world. Ironically, I’d been entrusted with unsupervised access to a video camera and VHS recorder for almost three years, a potentially much greater “threat” of revealing secrets than a 35mm camera. I was careful never to violate that trust. Thanks to that memo and the virtually unlimited color film and processing provided by volunteers, I was able to document life behind the razorwire as it had never been documented before.
The chowhall was ordered to provide coffee, orange juice, and refreshments for all the weekend programs. Other memos authorized our family members and any other names listed to come inside the prison for the programs. Two Christian rock bands from the big Presbyterian church in Orlando would perform on the outdoor stage Friday and Saturday afternoons. The Christian Motorcycle Association, a group of long-haired bikers on Harleys, would ride their motorcycle into the prison on Saturday morning. When told what would be happening, most men scoffed, saying it would never come off. Little did they know.
The Sonshine Adventure idea did not just depend on a bunch of preachers, church people, and volunteers to come inside the prison and minister to lost souls. The prisoners would become involved, too. We had a core group of about fifty enthusiastic Christian prisoners who had signed on to become involved in recruiting other prisoners to participate in the upcoming programs.
The chaplain didn’t like it, but we had a memo authorizing us to conduct discipleship classes in the chapel every afternoon. We had role-playing exercises for men to practice sharing their faith and beliefs with other men, and inviting them to participate in the Sonshine Adventure. We had a lot of fun acting out the roles of angry men who were resistant to the positive efforts of our disciple trainees to get them involved.
We broke down the role-playing exercises into three parts, easy, medium, and hard. The easy scenario: you approach a new prisoner, greet him, shake hands, and invite him to go with you to the chapel program on Sunday morning. He agrees.
You: “Hi, how are you doing? My name is Ron. Did you just arrive?”
Him: “Yes, I did. My name is Jack. (Shake hands) I’m glad to meet you, Ron.”
You: “I’m from Sarasota. Where are you from, Jack?”
Him: “I’m from Miami.”
You: “We have a very good chapel program here, Jack. A group from the Assembly of God Church in Plant City is conducting the service this Sunday. I’d like to invite you to go with me. What do you think? Do you have any other plans?”
Him: “No, I don’t have any other plans, and I’d like to go. I’ll meet you there.”
The medium difficulty scenario advanced to a meeting between a Christian prisoner and another person who is not interested in anything to do with church. Some men would get frustrated and angry, and some would overcome the objections in a positive way, giving the others good ideas and examples to follow. The escalating challenges made the exercises realistic and prepared the men to deal with the realities of prison life. There were many hurting people who blamed God for their problems, who’d rejected their faith and upbringing, and were heading down a dangerous path of destruction. These were exactly the types of prisoners the Sonshine Adventure was created for. Building up the strength and faith of our own Christian workers was a crucial part of the plan.
The “difficult” role-playing exercises were the most fun. The strongest Christians played the roles of the angriest hostile men who wanted nothing to do with God or Jesus. They took their jobs seriously, and challenged the workers’ own faith. By the time the weeks of exercises and discipleship study were completed, we had an enthusiastic crew of prisoners who were on fire for the Lord, anxious to get out and profess their faith.
Always preparing for the unexpected, as prison virtually guaranteed, and expecting the worst, we were amazed when the weekend finally began on Friday afternoon, without a hitch. When the Christian rock band set up their huge speakers and began testing their equipment, with blasts of electric guitars reverberating throughout the prison, men came out of the dorms in droves, drawn to the outdoor stage. Soon several hundred men joined a few dozen outside volunteers, listening to the music.
The band members played hard rock and roll music, but the lyrics talked about God and Jesus. The players introduced themselves as former non-believers who had become committed Christians, and dedicated their music to Christ. Most of the prisoners had never heard of such a thing, but they liked the live music, and stayed to hear the message.
On Saturday afternoon, Chaplain Ray arrived from Texas. Unlike the faux country music cowboys with the plastic hats and exaggerated Texas accents, Chaplain Ray’s appearance suggested a gentleman rancher or a J.R. Ewing oilman look with his conservative felt Stetson and understated Western suit. His knowing smile, ever-present worn Holy Bible held in one hand while reaching out with the other to shake hands, disarmed the most hardened prisoners. He was astounded by what he saw. “The Sonshine Adventure is an idea whose time has come,” he said. “We should be doing this in prisons across America.”
No one knew at the time how prophetic his words were.
Rev. Abe Brown was known for being late. Saturday night was no different. We were getting worried until his big bus pulled up out front and dozens of men and women with his ministry began piling out, singing and clapping.
The chowhall was the largest indoor space in the institution. We had taken out the tables and packed the place with folding chairs, at least a couple hundred of them. It was standing room only, and men continued to pack in. The guards stood back and said nothing.
Words are inadequate to describe what happened over the next two hours. Church women sang. Former prisoners who’d accepted Christ and joined Abe Brown’s program in Tampa gave heartfelt testimonies of redemption. Then Abe Brown took over. A long-time, highly-successful football coach, Abe used a lot of sports metaphors in his message to the lost souls. He told us that life is like a football game. We had totally screwed up in the first half, resulting in our imprisonment. Now it was half-time, and we had a decision to make. Were we going to continue with our losing ways, or change our lives and become winners? The only way was to join the winning team, and Christ was the quarterback.
When Abe made the altar call at the end, and asked anyone who wanted to change their lives, to accept Christ, to step forward, dozens of men crowded to the front. Abe’s assistants, his “prayer warriors,” went to work, huddling with each man, praying for him, bringing him into the fold. Some of his warriors were ex-cons who Abe had rescued from the prison pit, taken them in, and given them jobs. One man, Willie Dixon, had been released from Zephyrhills C.I. the past year. Now he wore a suit and tie, carried a Bible, and prayed with men he’d served time with. It was a very emotional and joyful experience for virtually everyone.
As great as the major church/worship programs were, the one-on-one meetings between volunteers who came in from the outside, and prisoners, many of whom were just wandering around or aimlessly watching the bands and singers, had profound effects on many people, prisoners and free people alike.
Perhaps 95% of prisoners do not get visits, or have any contact with people from the outside. As hard as individual, committed Christian prisoners work to help their fellows, the men crave contact with the free world. It was amazing to see a hardcore, tattooed biker huddled with a white-haired Catholic priest, and an anti-Christian “Odinist” (pagan belief) prisoner, eyes closed, as two Pentecostal men laid hands on him and prayed for his salvation.
Another memo authorized volunteers free access to the forgotten men in solitary confinement in E-dorm. Each day volunteers made their way into the lonely cellblock and talked with the prisoners in solitary, handing out Bibles and literature, praying with them, and just being friends.
As for myself, my great experience was to meet and talk with Chaplain Max Jones. The things he said to me, I’ve never forgotten.
Max Jones had been the chaplain at Florida State Prison in the 1970’s, and led Jack Murphy to accept Jesus and dedicate his life to helping others. He had a deep, booming South Carolina voice, snow white hair, and a huge smile. I introduced myself to him, and he led me off to one side to talk. He wanted to hear my story. I talked for an hour. He intently listened.
At the end he told me, “God has a plan for your life, Charles. This is part of it. We all have our parts to play. God meant for you to be here. We are not smart enough to figure it out. But when God decides to set you free, to send you home, he will open those prison gates so wide a train could go through them sideways.”
Max Jones was truly a great man who dedicated his life to serving the Lord.
We planned a major Sunday morning outdoor chapel service for our families and friends, led by Rev. Frank Costantino, that would require a large work crew to set everything up. Eighty men volunteered to get up before dawn and transport 300 folding chairs to a grassy lawn beside the chapel. Others built a stage. The inmate choir would sing. A dozen others would serve refreshments.
Frank had preached at a Sunday chapel service a few months before. We wanted to do something special, to acknowledge his faithfulness in supporting our programs and returning for the Sonshine Adventure. We hung up a large red banner with white letters between two poles, stating, “Welcome Back, Frank.” When Rev. Frank Costantino saw the sign, he said, “I want that sign. I want to take it back to Orlando and have my kids hold it up in the driveway when I get home from work.” Everyone laughed, but Frank was serious about keeping that sign. After the service we rolled up the “Welcome Back, Frank,” sign and gave it to him. He never said if his kids actually welcomed him home with the sign.
Sunday morning at eight o’clock a line of visitors stretched from the prison’s front gate to the parking lot: prisoners’ mothers and fathers, wives and children, girlfriends, brothers, sisters, friends, and others. We had been promoting the outdoor service for weeks, and the response was overwhelming. There were so many visitors that the sergeant began waving them in, making a simple head count, dispensing with the tiresome system of checking off approved visitor cards, hurrying them through the gates and onto the prison grounds. A team of inmate greeters and ushers passed out programs and directed visitors to their seats. Never before had so many family members been allowed inside the prison. The one lieutenant in charge stood well back and observed.
Frank gave his usual inspired message laced with humor and hope. He had once been a gangster, had served a prison term, and could relate to everyone there.
Afterwards the visitors and prisoners joined the refreshment line for coffee, juice, and pastries prepared by a skilled inmate baker. That area where we’d set up the chairs was adjacent to the horticulture program, and was filled with colorful bedding plants and flowers. Visitors admired the plants and hanging baskets in the greenhouse. The lieutenant let prisoners and families enjoy the incredible opportunity to visit and fellowship without interference. The long-term prisoners who’d served many years in prison agreed that we were experiencing something that had never happened in a Florida prison before. God had blessed us all.
I took the opportunity to talk with Rev. Frank and his wife, Bunny, during the refreshment/fellowship period. Bunny had written a book, Lady In The Shadows, published by Chaplain Ray, and often spoke to the prisoners’ families at church services about the challenges of loving someone in prison. It was the first time I’d had an opportunity to talk at length with Frank, and explained how the Sonshine Adventure had come about. Frank was impressed by what I’d done in putting together the programs, and I asked his advice on how I should proceed with my Christian service. He encouraged me to study graphic arts. “The print ministry is a great calling,” he said to me. I took his words to heart.
Much more happened. It was still a long way to The National Prison Invasion, when, from our humble beginnings in a central Florida prison, over 20,000 Christian volunteers would enter over 400 prisons nationwide on a single weekend in 1986, something that had never happened before. I will take you there. First, we have to get through the intervening period.
“Sonshine Adventure ‘83” positively affected the lives of many hundreds of people, prisoners, their families, the church people, volunteers, the guards and prison administrators. Over the weekend, uncounted scores of prisoners, visitors, even prison guards came forward to accept Christ and proclaim their faith. Many others who were Christians, but had turned away from their beliefs and God, came forward to seek forgiveness and make a new commitment to their faith. They had changed.
I had changed, too. I was affected by every service, but that Sunday morning, watching a prisoner seated next to his wife, his small son and daughter on his lap, crying out, “Daddy, Daddy,” as they told him about their lives, seeing the love and joy on each of their faces, together, tears flowed down my cheeks.
On one side, I felt joy, too, that I had played a part in bringing that small family together at a special time and place, to share their love, but on the other side, I felt grief and pain that the moment couldn’t last, that in a couple of hours they would have a heartfelt parting, having to say goodbye, the wife and children returning home without the husband and father, the prisoner having to return to his cell.
I felt grief for myself, watching that little family, grief for the family I did not have, no wife, no children, no one to love me like that. Yes, my mother, aunt, and niece came to visit that day, too, and we had a wonderful few hours together, but my own family, wife and children, had been denied me, by my own choice.
I would fill that empty space in my life by dedicating myself to helping others, by using my skills to help as many men as I could get out of prison to rejoin their families. Their wives and children needed them. So many prisoners came from broken homes, so many had visited their own fathers in prison when they were children, and the cycle continued. For every man released from prison, who leads a successful, law-abiding life, who becomes a positive role model and example to his children, as a result of our efforts during that time, and the times to come, I rejoice. The adventure continues.