Joy in Lockup?

Dewey WilliamsBy Dewey Williams9 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Finding Joy on Death Row: Unexpected Lessons from Lives We Discarded by Dewey Williams



Joy in Lockup?

After months of weekly trips to Central Prison, I was no longer nervous about visiting Death Row. But I did worry about who would come back to our small group meetings and whether they would openly write down their feelings and stories in that setting. The first time I’d asked them to write in a larger group setting, it was a disaster. Previously, I had hoped the group of twenty-five would benefit from the cathartic process of putting personal thoughts on paper, and I’d also hoped they’d be willing to share their ideas. But I didn’t present my hopes well and gave them too many prompts to choose from. We only had fifteen minutes to write. Only a few men wrote anything.

Now that we were working in small groups, things were going much more smoothly. Each time I would bring several sermon quotes with me, and now we were focusing on one question at a time. As usual, we had an officer watching over us.

In this particular meeting, the men and I discussed the story of Paul and Silas singing in chains inside jail as the others listened. We contemplated how Christian joy signifies God intentionally working in our lives. Paul and Silas illustrated this with songs and prayers in a time when they had no idea when or if their adversity would end. We also discussed how people have many forms of incarceration: They’re locked in their thoughts, their geography, their relationships, debt, addiction, and more.

We pondered a tough question: “Can there be joy in lockup?” I worried they might be angry when I asked it, and I wasn’t sure they would share their innermost ideas about joy. Instead, the question surprised them. They could answer it with great ease, like a student who studied for a calculus test but was asked to solve a simple arithmetic problem. They were expecting contemplation of more difficult matters. Almost all the men gave resounding positive affirmations: “Yes, there is joy in lockup!”

You would expect the residents of Death Row to cry out that their circumstances prevent them from experiencing joy, yet they testified to experiencing joy despite their failings and societal alienation. Joy had come to them through God’s prompting.

As I had been with these worshippers to preach and with the Short Journey program, we had formed a bond. Perhaps they felt a real connection to me because my sermons spoke to where they lived, and they realized my goal was not to evangelize them into heaven. The men and I both longed for this bond, and it formed the foundation upon which we built a mutual trust.

While they wrote on the paper I brought with me from outside, they wrote from a secluded residence, a place designed to rob the human spirit of positive expectations. These Christians expressed joy that superseded Death Row’s numbing and debilitating approach. The state had judged them, and while a few had hope in the appeals process, they could not turn back time on their sentencing or their actions. Still, joy persisted!

Tenderness and Roughness

When I first met George Thomas Wilkerson, he’d been incarcerated on Death Row for more than a decade, but he was only thirty-five years old. Though the Department of Correction listed him as White, I believed he was of mixed ethnicity. He was one of the brightest people I had ever met. He was not timid to speak up when he had an idea, and he was courteous and respectful to others when they shared theirs. He asked probing questions and responded with penetrating comments. He has been featured several times in the Marshall Project, an online news organization dedicated to covering the US criminal justice system.

George was indicted for the first-degree murder of two victims. He was also indicted for first-degree burglary. In 2006 he was tried and convicted of both counts of first-degree murder based on “malice, premeditation, and deliberation and also under the felony murder rule.”9

In his writings, George described the difference between human joy and divine joy and compared being “imprisoned by nonphysical things: drug addiction, anger, pride” to “the pure joy that only comes from God.” He expressed that Death Row steals humanity via alienation, and I noticed that he intentionally sought to strengthen relationships within the group. As I only saw the men inside the community room, I had no idea how they interacted in their PODs. However, like me, they sensed his solid theological knowledge and looked to him as their “in-house scholar.” He treated them as equals and valued their thoughts, and they respected him.

George surrendered his life to God through faith in Jesus Christ after his sentencing. He contrasted his selfish joy before this transformation to his present, when joy flowed through relationships with other men who’d been incarcerated and with correctional staff on Death Row.

It reminded me of the writings of C. S. Lewis, one of the most influential theologians and authors of the twentieth century (best known for The Chronicles of Narnia). Lewis shared a marvelous understanding of how God utilizes joy when he wrote, “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”10 While human awareness and engagement in joy is beneficial, initiation, and ownership of joy does not belong to us. Joy is God’s business and God’s gift to humanity.

George’s response also reminds us that “joy is a fruit of the Spirit.” Many people consider other virtues to be more important and impactful than joy. Joy is shrunken beneath other spiritual fruit: often love, peace, forgiveness, and patience. People consider joy whimsical or spontaneous and feel we are blessed only when joy’s winds blow in our direction.

I refute the notion that joy is a lesser virtue or weaker than the power of negativity. Joy persists through our personal misdeeds, through failings of the judicial system, through racial injustices, and even through attempts to take lives via lethal injection. Joy calls us to live in heavenly pursuit.

George is an avid writer and a skilled artist. He painted about joy on Death Row as a gift for me, but he couldn’t give me the canvas because of rules forbidding exchanges of items between those who are incarcerated and those who volunteer.

George presented his drug addiction before knowing Christ as a broken joy, a joy derived from the sensation narcotics can give. I’ve never been a drug user, but my joy before this Death Row experience feigned success and security when I felt anything but. George helped me see how my desire drew me away from God.

  9 State v. Wilkerson, 363 N.C. 382, 683 S.E.2d 174 (2009),

10 C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: HarperOne, 1964), 125.

Order your copy of Finding Joy on Death Row: Unexpected Lessons from Lives We Discarded by Dewey Williams