Jesse Hernandez (not his real name) shifted uneasily in the bus as it traveled the central Florida interstate that routinely dumps carloads of tourists into the paved acres of Disney World. But Jesse was not on holiday. The bus that carried him and several other prisoners turned off the interstate onto the narrow exit ramp that leads to the Orange County Jail. Past the bail-bonds business and the forbidding concrete building that housed the main “general population” of prisoners, Jesse glimpsed a two-story, almost seamless-walled building with a sign that said “Genesis.” Whatever it was, it probably wasn’t for him. All he knew was that he was headed for prison for armed robbery.

He had committed the crime in Florida (“But with a knife,” he quickly points out—“nobody even got a bruise on them.”), and he and his fiancee fled to Tennessee. But when no job materialized, and with their only income from the woman’s prostitution, Jesse surrendered. After extradition to Florida, and while waiting at the Orange County Jail for his trial, Jesse heard about the Genesis building and its rehabilitation program for over 200 inmates.

Inmates, he learned, can request a transfer to the Genesis building to be involved in one of four programs, each housed in its own “dorm”: drug-abuse treatment, alcoholism treatment, vocational training, or the Life Learning dorm. But although inmates’ preferences are usually honored, Jesse wasn’t assigned to the vocational training dorm, where he thought he could learn some marketable skills, but rather to Dorm A, the Life Learning dorm.

Life In A Spiritual Boot Camp

Chaplains Dan Matsche and Hoby Freeman run the program in Dorm A. Indeed, they act as chaplain-counselors for the entire Genesis program. An outgrowth of a “nurture cell” program begun in the Orange County Jail (and since replicated around the country), the Life Learning dorm houses 68 convicts who have committed themselves to learning how to live God’s way.

Supported by the national Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, and with the help of volunteers Bob Carroll and Jim Davis, Matsche and Freeman run the Life Learning dorm as a sort of spiritual boot camp.

Residents at the Life Learning dorm rise early, have Bible study together, participate in a Bible-doctrine correspondence course, and hear from other ex-inmates who have discovered that the key to living successfully on the street is a vital relationship with Jesus Christ. After two months of intensive training, residents like Jesse “graduate” from the program, although they may continue to live in the dorm if their sentence has not been satisfied. The entire program is voluntary, and at any time a resident may request a transfer out.

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Almost from the start, Jesse began to wonder if he belonged. There were things he liked, certainly, such as the absence of steel-and-cement cells. Gone were any glass partitions, intercom telephones, and steel bars. The walls were painted a pleasant sky blue. And as he walked down the hallway leading to Dorm A, he could look outside windows and see, hanging on the walls, artwork done by residents in art class.

The dorm itself looked more like a school than a jail, except that a guard instead of a teacher sat at the desk by the door. But he was smiling and friendly. Jesse almost expected to see an apple on his desk.

But Jesse was skeptical and uncomfortable.

“I’d done time before,” he says, “and I’d seen guys come through and pull a religious scam,” feigning faith to get an early release.

And some things bothered him. For one thing, they sang in Dorm A. Several guys were off in a corner, practicing a song. “They’re practicing for the talent show,” the guard said, jerking his head toward the group and smiling. A talent show—by convicts?

Another group pushed the chairs around a pulpit and the singing started in earnest, a different kind of singing. The men sang in a black-gospel style, clapping and cheering whenever the Spirit moved them. They sang “Soon and Very Soon,” and “In the Cross,” songs that Jesse had never heard.

He heard preaching in Dorm A, too. After the singing, a chaplain stood, opened his Bible, and talked about the tongue—how it is hard to tame, and how it can destroy a man. Once or twice inmates interrupted to illustrate a point from their experiences.

At first Jesse looked around cautiously. He was not quite sure what he was doing in Dorm A, and he couldn’t even be alone to think things through. He was assigned to a small group, and he found that he had to answer to another inmate, a “coordinator”: Not only did he have to answer to the guards, the chaplains, and even the receptionist—he had to report to another inmate.

“On my first night,” Jesse recalls, “My bunk was right across from my coordinator’s. I told him I hated this place, and he laughed. ‘So did I, at first,’ he said. ‘But give it a week. If you want to go after that, you can. You don’t have to stay.’ ”

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“So I stayed for a week.” During that time Jesse began to understand what binds men together in Dorm A. It is not a religious scam, but a lifestyle. There is a sense of togetherness, and the majority of the men feel a common bond. In the morning meetings, in the individual times of Bible study, and in private counseling with either Chaplains Matsche or Freeman, Jesse found that people really cared for him.

A Story To Tell

All of the 60 or so men in the dorm wear navy-blue cotton pullover shirts and matching cotton pants. But Jesse has learned that things were not as uniform as they first seemed.

The men of Dorm A are individuals with unique histories and their own stories to tell. Wayne, more commonly known as Wolf, takes a break from his exercise to talk. Sweat drips from his forehead, and his long, blond hair is tangled.

Wayne says he has spent most of his 38 years in prison. “But now, for the first time, I have victory over all things,” he says earnestly. “I quit smoking in here, and I’ve found victory when it comes to bad language. I’ve learned to rejoice in tribulations and trials as the Lord builds my character. I’ve always been the black sheep of my family, and I was searching for something I couldn’t find. But the Lord’s been my answer to everything.”

Dawson Wise, who is a grandfather at 38, says he has been able to find answers to his questions in the Life Learning dorm. “I’m ten times stronger because I’ve been here,” he says, folding his hands together gently. “Not only in religious principles, but in how I’ll be able to deal with life on the street.”

He laughs softly: “I figure eight months here is equal to about 20 years in church on the outside. When I get out, I’ll be able to help other people. In black churches, I see a lack of men in leadership. Our churches are not equipped to handle men out of jail, and I want to help men like myself.”

His smile softens. “My kids are growing up, and I want to be a different man to help them.”

A Reason To Continue

At his trial, Jesse pleaded guilty. “Your Honor,” the prosecutor said to the judge when Jesse was convicted, “we’d like to ask that the defendant be sentenced to a life term, enhanced to two life terms.” Because Jesse had been in trouble several times before, prosecutors were within state guidelines for strict sentencing.

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Although Jesse does not relish the idea of spending his life behind bars, he is ready to say that he does want God’s will. “The Life Learning program has given me a reason to continue in life,” he says. “I know that existing behind a fence is not life, but I’m learning to do what I can to help someone here.

“When I was in ‘general population,’ if I had an argument with someone, I’d hit ’em. But now, here, I hear, ‘Stop! Think!’ I’m still amazed at the change in myself in just eight months. I don’t see it as a mistake that I’m here. If I had been on the streets all this time, it’s possible that I’d be dead.”

By Angela Elwell Hunt, author of The Tale of Three Trees and coauthor with Charles Dyer of The Rise of Babylon: Sign of the End Times.

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