The following is part of a series of Interviews of Prisoners and Prison Ministers by the Rev. Canon William Barnwell of Kairos Prison Ministry. We will publish a series of interviews Barnwell conducted with prisoners about Kairos as part of our Christianity at Work project. The first article in this series can be found here.

“Prisons are such loveless places. You always needed to hear God’s Word.”

November, 25, 2011, New Orleans

WHB: I am talking in our home with Lawyer Winfield, Jr., about his life, his prison experience and his time with Kairos—particularly Kairos #53 at Angola Penitentiary. 

Remember, Lawyer, this is your story. Tell me about how you grew up–where were you and what was important to you? How did you end up in prison, and what has Kairos meant in your life?

I grew up in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, in the Desire Housing Project. It was the biggest public housing development in America. A world within itself. A community set off to itself, with mainly poor people. I came up with both my parents. My father was born in 1900 in Tickfaw, Louisiana, and came here in the 1920s. He married my mother, who was fresh out of high school, when he was almost 40 years older than my mother.

I was born in 1956. My childhood: these massive economic struggles in raising us. My Daddy fathered 13 children and I am the seventh child, one of three sets of twins. I have two sets of sisters who are twins, and I had a twin who died during childbirth. My mother was a homemaker. It was always very, very difficult to make ends meet—keeping a roof over our heads, keeping the utilities turned on. I can remember many days of hardships. There was one particular time when the power was cut off. My parents had to go to one of our relatives’ homes, across a park. My father was carrying a pot of beans and he dropped it! My mother cried: it was all that we had to eat. Those kinds of things are peppered throughout my childhood.

The Desire Housing Project: you were living among people who had the same experiences, experiencing the same level of hardship. There was also a lot of crime. You were constantly exposed to drugs—a lot of the way it is now, but back then heroin and marijuana were very common. There were a lot of addicts.  I was also exposed to a lot of different kinds of criminals. Persons who shoplifted, stole cars, burglarized homes, rapists, armed robbers. The whole list of common crimes. On the other hand there were a lot of upstanding persons who lived there, who lived clean lives and were law-abiding citizens.

But from a very early age it appeared to me that the criminals in my community were more glorified. They were the guys who could fight best, who got the greatest respect. Their presence was more commanding on the stoops and porches. The girls were more infatuated with the thuggish guys.

Through the mind of a child, the surface of the community—competing forces: what’s going on inside the home and what’s going on outside your door. My parents were Christian ministers, always active at church (we all went to church), Bibles were present in the home. They tried to communicate to us God’s purpose for our lives. Unfortunately, out of all my siblings I was the one who didn’t get the message. I went in the wrong direction. I ran with guys who were involved in crime. I emulated their behavior—I was part of their social group. I became disinterested in school after the 8th grade, at Carver Middle School. I dropped out.

Prior to dropping out, I cut class. Gradually I moved towards the criminal lifestyle. Petty crimes—stealing cars, stealing out of stores, burglaries. In 1974 I was first arrested as an adult (prior to that I was arrested as a juvenile and sent to the Youth Study Center). I was out of control, doomed to spend a substantial proportion of my life behind bars. I had been caught with a stolen car. I spent three months in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), and was given a suspended sentence of ten years and placed on probation for five years. If I violated probation I’d have to return to prison and serve the entire ten year sentence.

In 1976 that happened. I was taken into physical custody, held at OPP for a few months, and then sent to Angola for the first time. I spent five years there. This was the first time I experienced an adult prison. It was a cruel, brutal place. The men preyed on other men. “Man’s cruelty to man.” Different dimensions of cruelty. Inhumane manner in which prison officials would deal with you, also. They would even condone or encourage sometimes men’s cruelty to each other.

It was a very sad experience. I got to see just what prisons were like. Angola was ranked among the very worst prisons in America. It had just had begun to lose its ranking as the most violent in America, but it was extremely dangerous. I saw such things as men forcing other men to become their sexual slaves. I never personally had that problem, thank God. I seemed to have an ability to know how to handle myself so I wasn’t pressured in that way by anybody. The things I had learned in my community had prepared me to be destined to go to prison. It also helped me be prepared for that problem.

WHB: How did that work, that you were prepared for life in prison?

In the Desire community your courage is tested at a very early age, because fighting was very common. You are so quickly forced by your peers and by older persons to define your manhood, based upon your skill at fighting and your willingness to fight. It was one of the main events every day: some child was going to fight. A lot of aggression. You watch, and you have older people encouraging you—“You can’t let that guy do that.” Or you were taught how to fight. Fighting was something being encouraged. Caught up in that kind of environment prepared me to take care of myself.

And growing up, other men tell you about Angola. That happened so often to where you develop a vision of what it is like! I was so bombarded with stories about Angola from guys who’d served time there that when I actually got to Angola I felt I had been there before. Déjà vu. I had been there before—the stories had been so vivid. And you had so much respect for the strong, older guys and they had reputations for being strong guys at the prison. They were legends in the community.

So I didn’t have problems with guys taking advantage of me in prison, the way some of the other guys were having. I always had a good ability to adapt. I don’t know where that came from. I am still extremely grateful that I was raised up in a loving family. Poverty, hardships, and all the troubles—I always was loved. That’s the thing I’m most grateful for. Later in life, and even now, I am still learning the value of being loved.

That was my first experience at Angola, from 1977 to 1982. I was out from February, 1982 until December, 1982. I then spent one year at OPP on an aggravated battery charge. I got out at the end of 1983. I was always somebody destined for something far better than what I chose for myself. When I was younger, I stood out from among my parents’ children. I was the one who was projected to go furthest in life. I was among the most intelligent of the children and had a good knack for language—oral and written activities. My comprehension and perception were always pretty good. When I was actually interested in school, I always did very well.

When I came home from prison in 1982—to be quite honest with you—the experience of prison the first time around was enough for me. Angola—and OPP too, which was like a miniature Angola prison—was horrible.

WHB: Yes, I used to lead inmates’ groups in OPP. I know something of what you are talking about.

Everything you were going to encounter at Angola, you were going to encounter at OPP. If you could make it through OPP, you could make it through Angola. They didn’t call it “The House of the Rising Sun” for nothing. [Recorded by Woody Guthrie, the song tells of life gone bad in New Orleans, in Orleans Parish Prison.] In 1982 when I came home I intended to change my life. I didn’t really return to a life of crime, initially. My sister’s boyfriend was being abusive to one of my sisters. Him and I had a fight and I stabbed him.

At the end of my next time in jail, after that, I came out intending to be a law-abiding citizens. There was really inward change in me. I wanted a better life for myself. I continued to feel the love of my family, and I became aware of my relationship to God. I had been exposed to the Word of God. I had attended church. I had had fellowship with other Christians. That had always been part of my life. Even in prison for the first time I would always read my Bible. When I came home the second time, I wanted to do the right thing—get a job, raise a family, go back to college.

Unfortunately, things did not work out. I was living in the Ninth Ward in the Desire Housing Project in 1984. My mother had moved into an assisted living facility—Gordon Plaza—in Press Park, right by Desire schools.  The apartment where we had grown up, which was a four bedroom apartment, she left to me, my oldest brother Bertrand (now deceased), my brother Kevin who is right under me, and my uncle (my mother’s brother). None of us had jobs. My uncle had retired from the Winn Dixie warehouse. He was a good guy but had psychiatric problems and was an alcoholic. Bertrand was unemployed and Kevin was sporadically employed.

I began to spend a lot of energy looking for employment. Sometimes I didn’t even have bus fare. I would have to walk from the Ninth Ward to Canal Street and back looking for jobs. [About three miles each way.] I was turned away because I was an ex-con or I didn’t have the right qualifications. I did that from 1984 until 1985. I had met a young lady and she had gotten pregnant for me. There was so much pressure on me. After a year and a half of this, I felt I had no other option than to return to a criminal lifestyle to support myself.

There were nights when I slept in hallways. There were days when there was no food in the home. We were living in the apartment illegally because my mother’s lease was gone. They just didn’t check. Such awful circumstances. Do people really know what it feels like to really want to do the right thing? And to be deprived of the opportunity of generating an income? You have to have the means to support yourself.  If it comes to a point where you try and try as much as you possibly can, you are going to do whatever it takes.

Some people would say, well, I’ll sleep under a bridge. I’ll go to the mission, and I can be content with that. But I couldn’t do that. That wasn’t going to solve my problem. I needed a job, a place of residence. You have to have these fundamental things to be responsible for yourself. You can’t blame a person if under those circumstances they are pushed into a state of desperation.

“If there’s some way to produce money to take care of my family,” you say. I didn’t feel justified in going back to a life of crime. I just want to go on the record that I felt compelled…I began to engage in armed robberies. One day I got caught, put on trial, and was found guilty of three armed robbery offenses. I was sentenced to 99 years for each offense for a total of 297 years. When that happened, I had truly reached the end of my rope.

I had begun to think that my life would end in prison—that I would die in prison. I had the kind of sentence that covered several life spans. Without divine intervention or a great thing to happen to benefit me, then ultimately I would die in prison. When an individual is placed in that kind of extreme predicament, you are required to go to a different level of thinking.

Your circumstances appear to you to be a matter of life and death. In reality your life is subject to end in a place where you don’t want to be—prison. The worst of places. You don’t want your life to end in prison. You are cut off from being able to pursue and to have and to enjoy any of the true goodness of life. That is surely a momentous thing.

Once you actually transfer to Angola the enormity of your circumstances becomes magnified exponentially. Everybody around you is experiencing the same thing. The vast majority of inmates are serving life sentences. You have a life sentence and you are faced with the most dreaded of circumstances: that you will die in prison. You are side by side with everyone else facing that probability. It’s really a bizarre existence: extremely unnatural. It creates extreme pressure. The environment up there is one of intensified tension around you, in your living environment, at all times. It’s extremely difficult for a man to cope with living there with no hope of ever leaving. I’ve seen men lose their sanity because they had to deal with that harsh reality.

I had to deal with that reality also. People cope with their hardships differently. Some people cope better than others who have less ability to manage daily life. Guys like me—thank God—we gravitate to whatever positives are there: college courses, vocational courses, religious programs, or a good book you can grab to read from the library. I read a vast variety of books. We apply ourselves to learning the law. We pour ourselves into these things. Your days are filled with these things, to keep you from being preoccupied with things you cannot immediately change.

The thing you want most of all, which is to alleviate yourself of your physical bondage—you can’t change that. So these other things give you something to work with. They give you encouragement and build you up academically and spiritually. One time I read a book about the history of Russia. I was fascinated by that. I am fascinated by the history of anything. I read a lot of natural history, American history, African history.

WHB: You got interested in a lot of things at Angola. What finally happened to you to get you on track, to get out of Angola and be where you are today? Something made a difference for you.

First and foremost my willingness to submit myself to God. To seek God and carve out a relationship with Him in the midst of all the troubling, despicable, God-awful circumstances of my life. The inhumanity of it, which is all that Angola is about. When I was sentenced to 297 years I knew that I had gotten myself into something I couldn’t get out of. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to get beyond that. Those enormous consequences made me realize that I truly needed God.

My family have been effectual prayer partners. They would minister to me a great deal, visit me, read Scripture. It was an inside/outside effort. I had my family ministering to me, and then there were a lot of ministries coming into the prison ministering to me. I had sense enough at that point to realize that I needed God. God was really reaching out to me too, through the people he had anointed and inspired to reach me. My fellow prisoners could also communicate something to me of God.

That, coupled with the severity of my circumstances—I began to submit myself to God and explore His word. To incorporate the precepts and principles and standards that were included in his word.

WHB: Let me see if I’ve got this right so far. Growing up you received a lot of love from your family. You had an experience of God in Scripture and the church growing up. You moved as a young man into crime. Later when you received the three life sentences, you thought you’d never get out of prison again. The only thing that saved you was a new relationship with God that you were gradually developing through the support of your family, through different religious groups that would come in, and through your fellow prisoners. You were gaining an openness to the God who was really trying to reach out to you.

That’s correct. Let me add that before I was actually transferred to Angola and while I was awaiting my trial date, we began to conduct Bible studies in the prison. I found myself having a good ability to interpret God’s word. Oftentimes I would become the leader of our Bible studies. It was a foundation for my having a relationship with God.

I was also accumulating a lot of knowledge about the law, and some skills: litigation, and the development of people’s circumstances into cases. I became somebody highly sought after. Before I transferred to the camp at Angola my name preceded me. Guys would flock to me, help me pack my stuff.

WHB: You were a real leader.

Yes, and a peacemaker. I remember one time two guys were in a knife fight, stabbing each other. I was a friend of one of the guys. Another inmate was friends with the other guy. We grabbed them before they could kill each other. In other cases I would see a guy arguing and knew that was going to lead to violence. I would always try to mediate it, get them to make peace between themselves. I knew we were already caged up like animals; our situations appeared hopeless. What sense did it make to make matters worse by attacking each other? Making enemies of each other? If anything, we needed to bond together. We didn’t need to do things to worsen our circumstances or hurt ourselves.

Over the years I felt I was maturing in my relationship with God. I had more commitment and willingness to submit to God’s instructions for my life. I would always consult his word—I had read the entire Bible. I actually have a lot of study guides, Christian literature. These books helped to supplement what we were reading in the Bible, whatever God’s spirit was giving me in the revelation of His word. I have developed a true love for God and God’s word.

In 1998 when I first encountered Kairos I had been incarcerated for roughly 13 years. Within those 13 years I had come in contact with a vast list of ministries coming into the prisons, conducting services. When they had call-outs for services, I would basically always go to the call-outs. You always loved to interact with persons coming from the outside.  It was especially important when they were men or women of God. It was so helpful to interact with them and have their prayers and support. A lot of times it was like you were playing host to persons that God wanted you to be with more than he wanted you to be with anybody else.

These were the people who you felt loved you more than anybody loved you. Prisons are such loveless places! You always needed to hear God’s word. But until I encountered the Kairos ministry I never felt the sustaining measure of God’s love. Other ministries would arrive: they would have a call-out and preach for two or three hours and then leave. You feel great about how they convey the word, and you worship and praise with them. But when they are gone it’s over.

With Kairos it is not over. The Kairos approach is to break forth and demonstrate God’s love in greater proportion. Because you-all don’t just come (you have to leave eventually, we know that). But, you come and you stay for days! Nobody does that. What that did for me is give me greater evidence of an unquestionable, convincing example that God’s love can be demonstrated through the act of kindness and compassion of a human being.

It’s not just that you bring yourselves. You-all come with a submissive and caring and unselfish attitude. You interact with the prisoners in a way that makes them feel comfortable, that somebody really cares about them. Not just for the moment, but in a way that’s more genuine and this has a lasting impact upon the mind and spirit of an individual.

WHB: Around my table (I’ve done Kairos before and it happens every time) after about 20 hours—this long time we are together—you forget who is the inmate and who is the free volunteer. That must have a healing effect not just on the inmates but on the volunteers as well.

I love great preachers; but you know to put this in its simplest terms: Kairos was so dynamic in my life. The love of God is most effectively felt and received by people when it is demonstrated. Kairos demonstrates God’s love. Good preaching and Bible study is a momentary thing. But Kairos comes, and it’s like you-all just pour out your love in a flowing stream.

When you contrast that with a traditional religious service—even though that’s of great value also—but when you’re dealing with men in prison who are in cruel and hopeless circumstances, what Kairos does is more meaningful. Those kinds of circumstances require something like Kairos. The men in there need someone to convene with them, commune with them, sit down and eat a meal with them.

WHB: At least from the outside volunteers’ point of view, we are all pretty much on an equal basis—we are all in prison for those long days.

So the first time I experienced Kairos—you know, I’m a verbal person. I’m usually not at a loss for words. The first time I experienced Kairos I was dumbfounded. Wow! I hadn’t believed that it was possible for people who were strangers to me, people of God, to demonstrate that degree and purity of God’s love.  In my lifetime I’ve seen people preach about God until they were blue in the face. But when I look at their lives and see what they do towards people, see the great lack of demonstrated love… That’s what Kairos does. They don’t just talk about love. They walk the walk in other words. It’s the most effective and purified thing I have experienced in terms of me being able to see God’s love reflected in other people.

WHB: So, jumping ahead a little bit, you had these three life sentences and here you are—we’re enjoying this conversation in my living room. And you’ve been out of prison for almost five years. What happened? You’re about to get your Tulane college degree and go on to law school.

I’m on the threshold, by the Grace of God and my willingness to live the kind of life God has set forth for me. In the year 2007 I was paroled. I had written a speech for my parole board. I was part of Toastmasters’ International—president of the local chapter once I transferred from Angola to WCI [Washington Correctional Institution, near Bogalusa, LA]. I had perfected what I thought was a spectacular speech. But when I went on the parole board in July 2006 I heard a small voice tell me, “Just be quiet.”

I was blown away—the chairman of the parole board looked at my record. “You are a model prisoner. If you could do the same thing in the community that you’ve done in prison, you can’t fail.” He was very impressed with the things I’d accomplished while I was in prison. I had participated in many positive things. I had accumulated college credit. I became a literacy tutor. I became an inmate counselor. I helped people with the law. I worked on religious events. I took part in Kairos. A long list of positive things.

I was paroled to a half-way house in September 2006. I left WCI and went to Lafourche Parish to a half-way house and was on work release. I began working in the oil industry on the docks and in warehouse work and shipping at Port Fourchon. February 2007 I was fully released. My little brother in Baton Rouge was the only one who was capable of taking me in, so I was paroled there. At that time I worked construction for ten months, and then I was laid off. Things got rough for a while—I couldn’t find consistent work. So I relocated to New Orleans in August 2008 to find employment.

I have found work here and there, but nothing sufficient to sustain myself. So with the encouragement of my fiancée (I met her in 2008 and we’re engaged now), I returned to school in 2009 at Tulane University. It is still extremely difficult—I received an eviction notice the other day.

But at the conclusion of this semester I will have my Bachelor’s degree. I am scheduled to take the LSAT. I am partially enrolled right now in Loyola’s law school. I intend to start in the fall of 2012. But I recently had the magnanimous opportunity to become involved with Kairos #53 at Angola.

I had asked my parole officer if I could actually go into the prison, but unfortunately that didn’t work out. But I was asked to stay on the team and I must say, I was thrilled. It was like getting a full view of the behind-the-scenes Kairos work—the internal details, what you-all do on the outside to make the experience work. It was inspiring—one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced. I was deeply honored. I was blown away when I was on the inside and was a recipient of all the love and preparation for such a wonderful program.

From time to time a certain name of a prison brother will pop up in my mind, and I’ll say to my fiancée, “Oh wow, how do you think David Landor is doing? He’s from Lafayette and he’s doing a life sentence.” Or I might think of my little friend from Baton Rouge, Billy Robinson. He’s doing a life sentence. There’s a lot of guys back there I’m still fond of and think about and pray for. I have aspirations of some day just reaching back to encourage them. I am one of a chosen few; I think that God truly has special plans for my life. Though I can’t see it all, I don’t think it’s just a coincidence or a matter of luck. I had 297 years to serve and now I am free. It’s not a matter of coincidence or luck that I was an eighth-grade dropout and now I’m finishing my Bachelor’s degree in one of the best universities in the South. And I’m applying to another very good university to go to law school, Loyola. I don’t think any of it is due to man. These things that have happened to me are part of God’s plan for my life.

WHB: But, you had to be part of that plan. God had this plan for you, but you could have not gone along with it.

Yes, I decided to go along with God’s will. And Jesus Christ did the greatest example—from what I came to understand about Jesus Christ is that—he is the one God sent forth to give us an example of what He expects of us. He… Jesus was willing to put the will of his Father first and that set a standard. God wants you to put him first in your life. That’s what I pursue each day. Just the effort to do that is one of the main factors that allowed the transformation of my life, my character. Prior to that, I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I was pursuing the things that I thought were best for me. I was making decisions outside of the plan that God had designed for me. It was a sea change when I abandoned my way and pursued God’s way.

The Kairos ministry is so significant because they really help persons to not only see examples of God’s love, but they inspire you to pursue the things of God. The concept of living and learning what life is about through the power of the Spirit and word of God. Kairos demonstrates God’s love. It brings me back to where in the Bible it says, “He who does not know love does not know God.” [1 John 4:8.]

A concluding message: I want people to know that the love of God and any effort that a man or a person can sincerely make to emulate that love and to just purely love people the way God desires that we love them is the ultimate experience of life. It contributes more to the life of people, and it has done more for my life than anything else that I have experienced. I got some measure of God’s love through my family. I’ve got the measure of that through the various persons and ministries I have met along the way.

And I am still in great need of that. I still struggle out here. I still find it difficult to find gainful employment to support myself and my family. But I want it to be known that I have a determination to stick with the things of God, to stick with the plan that God has for my life, and to maintain a focus on reaching the goals and fulfilling the aspirations for goodness for myself and for my community, and for my country. For my brothers and sisters in Christ–and for those who don’t even know God.

My commitment is to strive to make life better for myself…and to try to make an impact of positivity wherever I may go, so that when people look at me they will be able to see some example of what God has done for the life of a person. These are the two greatest of all resources–the Spirit of God and the love of God!

Later, when I asked Lawyer how most inmates seem to get along pretty well across color lines, he said, “When you are locked up for years and years, your primary identity is that of prisoner. Color, age, background, things like that are not so important. You are first and last an always an inmate, or as they call us, a ‘convict.’”

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