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(Part 1) “Only God Know”: Alabama Prisoners on God and Faith

(Author’s note: Prisoners in this series were interviewed confidentially, and are identified by randomly chosen letters to protect their safety and privacy.)

Z has been incarcerated in Ventress Prison on nonviolent charges for around two years, and not because he deserves it, though he does believe God has a reason for holding him down there.

“I’m just saying, everything happens for a reason,” he says. 

Right now, for example, “I’m probably here to connect with other people, and how me and you got connected, and just been there for other people that’s needing help, for them,” he elaborates. 

“Yeah, I believe in God and everything, gotta have faith,” he says. 

After a pause, he adds, “And I’ve been having faith, also, that I’m gonna go home, but I guess [God has] other plans, other stuff I’ve got to do here. So, I ended up having to stay a little longer. So, it just wasn’t the time to go home. I guess that’s how I look at it.” 

Z’s work-release hearings have been delayed three times as of this writing, beginning over half a year ago. 

Asked if faith has given him a sense of purpose while doing time, “Well, I always feel like that, for real,” he says, always had faith and a sense of purpose. “I was just raised” with faith. “My grandmother and mother raised me like that,” he says. 

About faith and God, Z says his mother and grandmother taught him, “basically, you can believe in God, but the main thing is, to have faith, you’ve got to believe in whatever you pray for, and whatever you said, that you really meant it. So, whatever you think, you better believe in, and if you think and believe, you can achieve your vision,” he recalls. 

“So, that’s what I think is faith also. It wouldn’t be no good to pray if you ain’t got no faith. So, that’s just like wasting prayers,” he adds. 

Commenting on the importance of faith to prisoners specifically, Z notes that faith “keeps [prisoners] from being so stressed and worried, I would say, and [helps] friendship. But I guess that’d be the main thing, not gettin stressed out and worried about these things. If you have faith, you won’t be as worried and stressed out like most people would be.” 

Asked if life has a sort of meaning that it wouldn’t without faith, Z responds, “Eh, I can’t really say that, can’t really judge nobody right there, just wouldn’t be my call right there.”

Asked his thoughts on how God, faith, and religion are invoked in society in the free world, beyond prison and beyond everyday life, by organizations like the Church, by people like politicians, on airwaves like television, Z answers, “Well, God in church means something different than – hey – actually, I forgot what it means on the money … But that ain’t really God they gettin on our money and stuff like that. And I’m sure there’s politicians that really do believe in God and pray. But, as far as the money and everything – what they got, ‘In God we trust’ – that ain’t really God.”

Asked whether a sort of community develops around faith and God in the prison, if it’s something over which prisoners bond, Z explains, “Well, yeah, you have, like, church, supposed to be able to go to church and stuff like that, but they ain’t been having church [in Ventress]. So, can’t say that now. They stopped that since the coronavirus been going on.”

Unsurprisingly, the ADOC did not list restricting church meetings in its precautionary measures announced in late March.

Asked if he has observed any differences about life in prison between those who have faith and those who do not, in God or anything else, Z replies with a laugh, “Nah, because I don’t really ask [other prisoners] if they have faith or not.” 

He elaborates: “That’s one question I don’t really ask nobody, is if they got faith or not, for real. That’d be a hard question to ask em, too, because you’d actually have to be asking a personal question, personally – ‘Do you have faith?’ ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘Yeah,’ ‘No’ – if you ain’t really asking nobody or having no conversations like that with nobody … ” (trails off) 

Asked how his faith in God keeps him going, and what else gives him faith, Z reiterates, “Just like I say, believing, and believing that whatever you think will come true. That’s about it, for real …” (pause)

“I done had – I done prayed for things that came true in the past, in my own life. So, I know prayin do work. So, that’s what gives me faith,” he adds. 

Asked what he’s praying for the most these days, Z answers, “My kids, that them and everybody’s alright out there, and be well, and down here [in prison] too, and that I don’t catch coronavirus myself up in here. Make it back home.” 

Z reiterates near the end of July’s discussion that he “don’t think God make no mistakes. So, everything that happens to you is, like, for a purpose. So, that’s what I meant. That’s all, about what I was saying as far as that … So, even though I’m down here right now, locked up on these bogus charges, there’s a reason behind that. I just don’t really see it all the way yet. But I see it a little bit, like, as far as me and you connecting up, and I’ve connected with other folks that’s been locked up something like 30 and 40 years, and even trying to help them out. So, that’s one reason I’m here, because I feel, if it wasn’t for me, they probably wouldn’t be talking to nobody else, something like that.” 

Asked how he interprets the hard times, the tragedies, bad things happening to good people, if everything happens for a reason God makes no mistakes, Z answers with a laugh, “Ay, only God know them answers. I can’t help that. That’s just like asking why lil babies die or something. Man, I don’t know.” 

And perhaps not knowing is the whole point, especially in hard times.

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