The heavy steel door behind us slammed shut with a loud clang. The stark building looked like many I’d seen in the movies with three catwalks stacked on either side connecting long rows of cells.
A retired deputy warden led our public tour of the hellhole Time magazine once dubbed “the bloodiest 47 acres in America” due to the ongoing violence there. Opened in 1836 and deactivated in 2004, the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City was the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi. “The Walls,” as it came to be known, had already been in operation for a century by the time Alcatraz was established.
The deputy warden, who had once been stabbed in the hand by an enraged prisoner, told stories of various inmates, their crimes and life, if you can call it that, inside The Walls. I was taken aback by the harshness of the cells which were barely fit for habitation by a single human, let alone the five or six that were sometimes crowded in.
Our guide directed us to the cell of James Earl Ray, who managed to escape and within a year infamously assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King. He led us down to the “dungeon cells” where in the 1800s some prisoners were kept for years in total darkness with only the briefest respite. Predictably some went virtually insane.
The tour caused me to soberly ponder what series of events could ever cause me to end up in such a place. It also induced me to think about other forms of internal misery and bondage — imprisonment of the soul — that I’ve observed in too many tormented people over the years. This type of imprisonment doesn’t come with a loud clang of a steel door. It develops slowly, imperceptibly, from the accumulation of self-diminishing choices over time.
Maybe those choices come as destructive responses to wounds that have been inflicted — an embracing of bitterness and resentment. Or perhaps they involve a willful drift toward greed and selfish pleasure in place of a healthy concern for others. They might take the form of cowardly control of others through anger or intimidating outbursts. Or maybe they constitute a series of seemingly inconsequential choices that gradually lead to addictive behaviors — behaviors which render the people in one’s life as not nearly so important as the perverse cravings that are indulged.
Common to all forms of soulish imprisonment is an underlying delusion spoken of in Proverbs —“Every man’s way is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2). All of us have a nearly irresistible propensity for justifying our own errant attitudes and behaviors no matter how destructive. Like a man blinded by dwelling in darkness too long, we can slowly become crazed by the creeping darkness in our own heart until we no longer perceive ourselves with any degree of authenticity. “The way of the wicked is like deep darkness,” says Proverbs, “they do not know what makes them stumble” (4:19).
Souls in self-inflicted prison operate behind dysfunctional walls they themselves have constructed. They’ve become tragic, hollow parodies of what they were created to be, what they could’ve been — like dead men walking.
On our tour, the last stop was the gas chamber where 40 condemned prisoners drew their final, toxic breath. The corporate human voice of society judged that the world would be better without them. We were allowed to sit quietly in death’s chair.
Unlike the convicts condemned to that that horrid end, the hopeful news for those of us in a prison of our own making is that it’s not too late. Until we draw that last breath there’s still a way out. But that way is not easy. It starts with the internally violent convulsion of a soul that breaks under the weight of conviction and regret to utter some of the most rare, but powerful words in human experience – “I am wrong, desperately wrong.”
Despite the agony of such a confession, it can work like a surgeon’s knife, creating the potential for healing. And it opens the floodgates of grace from a holy, but merciful God, who weeps for those in bondage and who, in Christ, went to the gas chamber on our behalf. To lead fully to healing and freedom such a confession must foster a humble seeking of the God who says “my ways are not your ways.” But for those who are willing, Jesus promised nothing less than “release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18).
After the sobering tour of the prison, it was a relief to do what thousands of inmates couldn’t – freely exit past the thick stone walls and reconnect with the bright world outside. To be in bondage is a deep, dark horror whether it’s a physical prison like The Walls or a self-inflicted prison of the soul. Having looked in the face of both, it’s not easy to tell the difference.
Pastor Bob Levin serves at North County Community Church, 7410 Howdershell Road in Hazelwood. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org