This article is written primarily to the one who has recently been released from jail or prison. The intention of the article is to provide some helpful advice to be successful. I write to let you know that success is possible after a life in prison, as long as one measures success by the right metric. For the Christian, that metric is God and His Word, and success is measured primarily by it. People and societies have their own metrics for success, and Christians must be careful to abide by society’s norms, as long as they don’t conflict with God’s. This requires wisdom and discernment.
As a fully pardoned ex-convict, my journey to success has been bumpy and blessed at the same time. I received my gubernatorial pardon on February 10th, 2005, fifteen years after the time of my release in 1990. However, for those years I carried the felony conviction, life was very challenging. I often identified with Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, as I felt unfairly discriminated against by many who worked against me. However, rather than complain or accept defeat, I worked to improve myself as best I could with what was available to me. I chose to be better rather than bitter.
Transitioning from a period of incarceration to life in a free society can be challenging. In prison, though life is difficult, it is also very structured. Inmates do not have to worry about employment, a bed to sleep on, clothes to wear, food to eat, or whether they can pay for their utilities (just to name a few things). After their release, they are under pressure to learn to adjust to the free world where they have to make it on their own, often with limited support and guidance. A productive life after prison is possible, but only for those who have determination, the right mindset, and the wisdom to succeed. My own journey of success after prison was largely up and down (as life can be). The following points reflect my own mental attitude and choices along the way, and I offer them here to any who may benefit from some or all of them.
- Study God’s Word: Learning God’s Word allows you to operate from a biblical worldview and to frame your life from the divine perspective. You are to “study to show yourself approved to God as a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). And “Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the Word, so that by it you may grow in respect to your salvation” (1 Pet 2:2). Your walk of faith is critical, and you will often face obstacles from a world that cares little about you; a world that also has satanic forces that are set against you. But God is with you and for you (Rom 8:31-39), to give wisdom, grace, and strength to advance in this world, and you must live moment by moment staying close to God and relying on Him for everything. Realize that adversity is inevitable, but stress is optional, as you can take up the shield of faith and protect yourself from the fiery darts of the enemy (Eph 6:16).
- Live God’s Word: As you study God’s Word, you must make the conscious choice, moment by moment, to apply it to your life as opportunity presents itself. Ezra was a godly person who did this, as “Ezra had firmly resolved to study the Law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). Jesus said, “everyone who hears these words of Mine and does them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt 7:24). Hearing and doing. That’s the order. You cannot live what you do not know, and learning God’s Word necessarily precedes living God’s will. But it is possible to learn it and not live it (Heb 4:1-2), which is why James wrote, “prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (Jam 1:22).
- Be Devoted to Prayer: Paul said, “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving” (Col 4:2), and “pray without ceasing” (1 Th 5:17). Prayer is essential to spiritual success as you need to have upward communication with God to express yourself to Him. Prayer is the means by which you make requests to God, believing He has certain answers ready for you, and that you just need to ask (Jam 4:2). Life can be stressful, and developing the habit of prayer allows you to alleviate the pressures by “casting your cares upon the Lord, because He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7).
- Be Thankful: Scripture states, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1Th 5:18). This is done by faith and not feelings. Though you cannot always control our circumstances, you must not allow yourselves to be controlled by them.
- Serve Others in Love: Paul wrote, “you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13), and “while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10). As Christians, we are told, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). It helps us greatly if we approach life and people with a serving and giving mentality.
- Seek Employment that is Available: As quickly as you can, find employment, as this will provide the financial resources you need to start advancing. However, realize there are many employers who will not hire felons (the reasons are many). Be polite and persistent in your pursuit, as you will eventually find something. And be willing to do menial labor for a while until something better comes along. I was a waiter for nine years, a welder for three years, and even drove a trash truck for a while. God always opened doors of employment for me, even though it was not always what I wanted. Remember, honest work done in an honest way is an honorable thing. And ultimately, “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Col 3:24), so do your work well.
- Deal With Failures: It’s inevitable that you will make some bad choices after your release. You must own them, confess them to God (1 John 1:9), accept responsibility, extend grace to yourself and get back on the path of righteousness. With a few exceptions, relapse does not lead to collapse. You must get up, look to God (Col 3:1-2), dust yourself off, and keep advancing to the spiritual and moral high ground God wants you to attain.
- Embrace Difficulties: Learning to embrace your trials by faith is important. James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam 1:2-4). God knows the struggles you will face after prison and will use them to refine and develop you into a better person, if You’ll let Him. Remember, God is more concerned about your Christian character than your creaturely comforts, and the trials you face are all under His control, being used by Him to burn away the dross of weak character and to refine the golden qualities He wants to see in you.
- Seek Spiritual and Social Support: As Christians, we are “not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb 10:25). Finding and maintaining a good support group is very important. This should first be a solid Bible church that teaches God’s Word accurately and can help you continue your spiritual advance. But having good social support helps as well, whether from family, friends, or groups that can assist you in your journey. God has a way of placing unexpected people in your path to help you, so you should not be surprised when He sends the right person your way at the right time.
- Develop a Plan: As much as possible, you should have a realistic plan on what you want to accomplish after your release and what path you might journey to get there. This may include education, job training, building a support system, and connecting with family and friends who can help.
- Be Flexible: Though you may have a plan, life often does not turn out the way you think or want, and making constant adjustments—whether large or small—allows you to be able to improvise, adapt, and succeed.
- Be Professional: There are many people who will evaluate you based on your appearance and interaction with them. Being professional in dress, speech, and conduct will work to your advantage.
- Seek Material Support: Find out what resources are available to assist with shelter, food, clothing, employment, etc. This might include family, friends, church, or other groups that can assist. Often, there is financial assistance available to help with education and job training.
- Be a Minimalist: Paul wrote, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim 6:8). It’s fine if God blesses you with more than these things, but always learn to be content with the basics (Phil 4:11-13), as this will help to keep frustration levels at bay.
- Keep Quiet About Your Past: Though some people are safe, friendly, and helpful, the world at large is not. There are many people who think, “Once a convict, always a convict.” It’s okay to share your past, but be careful who you talk to, as it may work against you. Be discerning. Not everyone is your friend.
- Avoid Old Habits and Bad Influences: One of the biggest challenges of reentry is avoiding old habits and negative influences. Stay away from people and situations that may lead to trouble. Paul said, “Bad associations corrupt good morals” (1 Cor 15:33). And Solomon wrote, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov 13:20). Choose your friends carefully!
- Let Your Past Help Others: Learn to let your past help others who face similar struggles. For over fifteen years I’ve had the privilege of teaching God’s Word in jails and prisons. For me to go back into that environment has been a blessing for me and the inmates that come to Bible class. Many have come to faith in Christ, and others have been helped in their walk with the Lord. My past experience of being in jail half a dozen times (mainly for petty drug offenses) and then going to prison allowed me to speak to others and offer helpful guidance. I’ve published two books that are specifically written for inmates, shared the gospel many times, and explained how to live spiritually while incarcerated. In this way, my past experience has been a help to others.
- Manage Your Self-Care: Solomon wrote, “One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind” (Eccl 4:6). Get good sleep, stay hydrated, eat well, get exercise, and make time to rest and play. You’re no good to yourself or others if don’t care for yourself in practical ways. Remember, your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), and you should take care of that temple as best you can. Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “It is a serious thing to remove the element of relaxation and play from any life. We cannot be normal physically, mentally or spiritually if we neglect the vital factor in human life. God has provided that our joy shall be full.”
These few points will help you maintain your Christian walk and live successfully in this world after your release from prison.
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- The Gospel Explained
- Advancing to Spiritual Maturity
- Walking with God
- Enjoying the Spiritual Life
- Knowing and Doing the Will of God
- The High Calling of God’s Servant
- The Righteous Lifestyle of the Believer
- Knowing and Doing the Will of God
- Love Your Enemies
- A Divided World Until Christ Returns
- The Armor of God
- The Life of Faith
- Reasons Why We Obey God
- The Righteousness of God
- Choosing Righteous Friends
- Choosing the Faithful Way
- What it Means to Follow Jesus
 Daniel is a good example of someone who lived a godly life in a pagan culture and was successful in God’s sight, though he sometimes was at odds with people and the culture around him.
 I was incarcerated at High Desert State Prison for sales of narcotics (marijuana), and after my release in 1990, God took me on a journey of trials and blessings, frustrations and joys, disciplines and comfort to bring to me to where I am. Today, I feel greatly blessed that God has granted me a small place of service in His plan for humanity.
 Lewis S. Chafer, He that is Spiritual (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan Publishing, 1967), 60-61.