It happened in a blur. One minute we were enjoying a night out, shooting pool. The next thing I knew, we were running from the law—wanted for murder.

I’d always looked up to my out-of-town cousin, Bobby. I was thrilled when he invited me to come along that night. The Marine Room was well known in my circle of friends as a place that didn’t card minors. At 17, a high school sophomore, I was confident they’d serve me.

Alcohol abuse was prevalent in my rural Pennsylvania home. My biological dad drank himself to death. My mom couldn’t tell me not to drink, since she did—excessively—every day. She did try to keep me home that night. “It’s too late,” she said, when we started out the door at 11 p.m. I begged Bobby to talk Mom into it. He did. We were off, along with my stepbrother Sid.

A few games of pool and several drinks in, Bobby told us he was going to rob the place. While surprised at his sudden intentions, the alcohol seemed to dull any impulse for protest. Sid and I would leave—as locals, we’d be recognized—and Bobby would commit the robbery alone.

We waited outside. It was taking too long. After several minutes, we poked our heads in the door—Bobby had brutally murdered the bar owner. He shouted, “Don’t just stand there! Help me find the money!” Before long, we were on the run.

I followed Bobby to New York City. We visited drug dens and stayed in roach-infested motel rooms. But I couldn’t escape the reality of what had happened. I decided to return to Pennsylvania and turn myself in. Bobby said, “Tell them the truth, Gene. It was all me.”

I told the detectives everything I knew—and as I did, I realized I wouldn’t be going home. Because I was present when the crime was committed, I was charged with murder. A public defender convinced me to plead guilty in hopes of receiving a lenient sentence. “Maybe you’ll be out in 10 years,” he said.

A day before my 18th birthday, the judge sentenced me: “For the rest of your natural life,” without the possibility of parole.

‘Real Men Make Commitments’

Life in prison mimics most of the stories and stereotypes you’ve heard. Violence, drugs, gangs, assaults—they’re all there. So are the characters. I met a wide and varied cast. Two men, in particular, stand out. The first was a fellow lifer, a jailhouse Jesus freak named Warner. The second was a local preacher named Larry.

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Guys called Warner “Big Moses.” He was larger than life. He’d wake up early every morning and shout, “Get up, you convicts, and praise the Lord! This is the day the Lord has made! Rise up! Rejoice and be glad in it!” Guys would shout back, “Be quiet, Moses! It’s too early!”

There are a lot of “religious guys” in prison, but Warner was the real deal. He genuinely loved his fellow inmates, and served and encouraged them. I can’t tell you how many times he posted up outside my cell, confronting me about decisions I was making. He always had a word for me—especially when it was the last thing I wanted to hear.

I met Larry when he visited as part of Prison Invasion ’86, a nationwide outreach event staged by an Orlando-based organization called Christian Prison Ministries. It’s a long story how I even found my way into those meetings, because I went kicking and screaming. God had used a number of people: my mom (who had recently come to faith in Christ), people who wrote me letters, fellow inmates like Warner, and members of the prison staff who knew the Lord.

Walking into that prison chapel was like nothing I’d experienced before. There was loud worship music playing. Volunteers from local churches lined the hall, welcoming inmates, passing out hugs like everybody was their friend. A preacher shared a gospel message and ended with an invitation saying, “Real men make commitments.” I held still.

I returned the next day. Same thing—the music, the people, their genuineness and warmth. Again, the preacher ended with those words, “Real men make commitments.” I watched as others made the commitment. I really wanted to—but I couldn’t. As the service ended, the volunteers began approaching guys to chat. I tried not to make eye contact, hoping no one would approach me.

“Hi, my name is Larry,” he began. After introductions, I asked, “How long have you been a Christian?” “Since I was 4 years old,” he replied. “And I’ve known God’s calling on my life—to be a missionary—since I was 5.” Was he putting me on? If a 4-year-old could sort out this Jesus stuff, why couldn’t I? If a 5-year-old could know his life’s direction, what was I doing at 26 without a clue?

As our time ran out, he handed me his card with an address and phone number. “Listen, Gene,” he said, “if there is anything you need—a Bible, some clothes, books to read, anything at all—you write or give me a call.” He meant it. I could tell.

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The next day—the final service—I went back, and again it ended with the familiar “Real men make commitments.” A war raged within me—Go! No, don’t go! Get up! No, don’t move! I held on to the chapel pew with a white-knuckled death grip. I pressed my feet into the floor as if they’d grown roots. I was holding on for dear life.

Chains Fell Away

Suddenly, it just happened. I was on my feet, putting one in front of the other until I was at the altar. I remember praying, “Jesus, I believe you died and rose again for me. Please forgive all my sins. I want to be saved. Jesus, come into my heart today. Amen.”

It sounds cliché, but I felt as if a ton of weight rolled right off my back, as if chains fell away and I was free.

The Scriptures promise that we become a new creation in Christ, that the old passes away and all things are made new (2 Cor. 5:17). Life in prison remained life in prison, but from the moment I believed in Jesus, the newness of life was extraordinary. God opened the doors to healing, new relationships, and ministry opportunities I never could have imagined.

The Lord continued to use Larry in my life; for the next 25 years he mentored and discipled me, never letting me lose sight of opportunities to love God and serve others, no matter my circumstances.

Meanwhile, I was actively petitioning the governor to commute my life sentence. Yet another attempt—after 32 years in prison and 2 1/2 years waiting for an answer—ended in rejection. I was discouraged, but returned to my cell as I had each time before, thanking God for protecting and providing for me. As I was giving thanks, I heard God say, “I am going to release you.” I had no idea when or how, but I rested in his promise.

Then, in June 2010, I received a notice from an attorney out of the blue. It informed me of a new Supreme Court ruling (Graham v. Florida) that could offer juveniles given life sentences the opportunity to return to court and possibly receive a lighter sentence.

On April 3, 2012—sitting at the same table in the same courtroom as three decades earlier—I finally got my release. As a 17-year-old looking squarely at a lifetime behind bars, I never would have imagined this outcome.

But God’s love is so great that nothing can separate us from it; his mercy and grace so powerful that no shackles can confine us. I’m living proof. I received a life sentence and, along the way, I found life—and freedom.

Gene McGuire is the author of Unshackled: From Ruin to Redemption (Emerge Publishing). He lives in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, where he serves as pastor for a Christian family-owned restaurant company, Babe’s Chicken Dinner House.

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Unshackled: From Ruin To Redemption
Unshackled: From Ruin To Redemption
Emerge Publishing LLC
304 pp., 19.9
Buy Unshackled: From Ruin To Redemption from Amazon