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Christians say they believe in good citizenship and upholding justice, but what happens when Jesus identifies more with criminals? A 4th grader gets arrested and begins a long relationship with the criminal justice system.



#11: Where the Gospel Meets Incarceration

Note: The Love Thy Neighborhood podcast is made for the ear, and not the eye. We would encourage you to listen to the audio for the full emotional emphasis of this episode. The following transcription may contain errors. Please refer to the audio before quoting any content from this episode. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Hey guys, it’s Jesse. Right now, as you are listening to this, almost 40 people are on their way to our city. I know it’s really easy to think of us as just a podcast where we tell stories about Christians going out and doing different acts of mercy and justice, but we are actually a ministry, boots on the ground. Well, right now, almost 40 people are moving here to be a part of this program. And we are looking for more folks to be a part of it for the coming year. So we actually have a deadline that’s coming up on June 11. If you apply for our September year-long program by June 11, you will actually get priority placement for the service site that you prefer to serve with. So head over to our website by June 11 and apply for our September year-long program. And now, on to the episode.


JESSE EUBANKS: So when did you first learn about incarceration?

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: Man, I first learned about incarceration probably when I was in grade school. And specifically it touched me when I was in high school. I had a friend who killed his auntie, and just learning through the process that he had to go and him being locked up. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Well, for 10-year-old Yusif Smith, his first encounter was on the way to school.

Yusif was in fourth grade. He was on the school bus. Got into an argument with another kid. The bus driver warns them to knock it off. They don’t. The argument turns into a fight, the fight becomes physical. The bus driver calls the cops. The bus gets pulled over, the cops come on board. And right there on the bus, in front of his fourth grade class, the cops handcuff 10-year-old Yusif and take him to jail. For fighting on the bus. To you and I, such action might sound extreme, but not to Yusif. And that’s because Yusif lives in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. And that country? It’s The United States of America. 


JESSE EUBANKS: You’re listening to the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. I’m Jesse Eubanks.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: And I’m Jamaal Williams. Every episode we hear stories of social justice and Christian community.

JESSE EUBANKS: Today’s episode is where the gospel meets incarceration. Now later on in this season we’ll be exploring the topic of mass incarceration. But before we do that, we need to lay some groundwork.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: So today we’re gonna look at three stages of incarceration — how you get in, what life looks like inside, and how life is changed should you get out.

JESSE EUBANKS: Welcome to our corner of the urban universe.


JESSE EUBANKS: So just a few weeks earlier, at the beginning of May, the House Judiciary Committee voted 25 to five to approve a new prison reform bill.

AUDIO CLIP: And even those who are appropriately in confinement should be given the opportunity at a second chance in life…

JESSE EUBANKS: This bill, called the First Step Act, would offer possibilities for early release, as well as improve conditions for pregnant inmates.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: And many evangelicals are starting to get on board with prison reform. This new bill was backed by Franklin Graham, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, and even Trump’s own spiritual advisor Paula White.

JESSE EUBANKS: So when it comes to prison reform and incarceration in general — what is our role as Christians? 

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: And that’s where Christians and people in general seem to get hung up. They seem to live between this tension of ‘do we love ‘em, do we move close to them — or do we do as Romans 13 say, just execute justice and come down with a hard hand?’

JESSE EUBANKS: And we tend to emphasize one or the other, so our posture towards prisoners is either extremely sympathetic or it’s hard and cold. So which one’s right?

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: Well thankfully Jesus was not silent on this issue.

In the gospel of Matthew, in chapter 25, Jesus describes the final judgment. And he likens it to a shepherd who separates his flock into two categories — the sheep and the goats.

JESSE EUBANKS: And in the story, the distinguishing factor between the two is not how you or I would tell a sheep from a goat. We know the difference by physical appearance. But Jesus, he knows the difference by character.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: So check it. In verse 33 he says he will place the sheep on his right but the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

JESSE EUBANKS: And then Jesus uses the same criteria for the goats — except they did not do these things.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: Now again some people can get hung up at this point in this passage. I’ve heard people argue that Jesus is referring to how we treat our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and honestly contextually that’s there. But when we look at the whole of Scripture and when we look at all of what the Bible has to say, this principle of moving towards a person who’s in prison, whether they’re in the body of Christ or out, is definitely there. 

JESSE EUBANKS: So you get these Christians that think things like, ‘Hey, that guy that’s in prison who’s doing time for rape? He does not deserve my kindness.’ And this is where things get tricky. We don’t wanna gloss over crimes. We don’t wanna gloss over very real, very awful things done to other people. Criminals are locked up for a reason. But the difference between the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is, the sheep were near those in need. And unfortunately for many of us, especially middle class folks like myself, we just aren’t near the effects of prison. So today? We’re getting near.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: And to do that, we’re going to hear from Yusif, the 10-year-old kid who got arrested on the school bus. And even though he’s no longer 10 years old, he is still very near to the reality of incarceration.

JESSE EUBANKS: Right, I mean here’s how Yusif describes the connection between his childhood and incarceration.

YUSIF SMITH: When I was coming up, it was a good thing to go to jail, like no one told us like ‘Don’t go to jail, it’s not cool, it’s not good,’ like going to jail and prison back then was the thing to do.

JESSE EUBANKS: So Yusif grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. And just like I might expect my kids to go to college, Yusif was actually almost expected to get locked up.

YUSIF SMITH: Nothing new to anyone in my environment, it’s like ‘okay, it happens’ and we get shot or robbed or sent to prison… Like my mother was a drug addict and uh, she like used to actually just train us to commit crimes, like she would take us to do stuff with her. It’s just part of it.

JESSE EUBANKS: I mean in fact, ever since eighth grade, Yusif’s been in and out of jail so many times that he’s lost count. It’s just kind of not that big of a deal to him. 

YUSIF SMITH: Yeah it’s a cycle. It’d be like ‘I know in thirty days I’ll get back out, I just don’t have to go to school for a month.’ So it’s like when you play monopoly and go straight to jail — ‘Aw it sucks, but I’ll get back out.’

JESSE EUBANKS: So I mean all these times that Yusif is going to jail, it’s for gun possession, it’s for violating his probation. But again, these things are just normal things. That’s just expected that this cycle’s just gonna go on and on.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: A lot of people from the outside just look in and they just think that this is the way people just want to live. But when you feel trapped, when you’re hopeless, when it’s kinda been passed on generation to generation, you resort to the extreme. Y’know, wealthy people, they need to get out of a situation and make themselves feel better, they hop on a plane and they escape and they go to a island. People who are impoverished and are poor and who are dealing with just generational brokenness in this way, you deal with that differently.

JESSE EUBANKS: Well, this cycle of going in and out of jail continues to be part of Yusif’s life. And then when he’s 19, something changes because this time he’s not gonna be getting back out in thirty days.

So Yusif, he’s 19 years old now, and all his previous jail time had been for possession of guns or for violating probation. But now he and some friends, they make this trip to Kentucky. And while they’re there, Yusif commits armed robbery.

YUSIF SMITH: The guy who I had robbed ended up calling the police on me after my co-defendant had pistol whipped his girlfriend.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: That’s like really hard and horrible. Let’s be clear here. Y’know, that’s wrong. I might even use the word like ‘hey that’s sinful, that’s wrong, that’s not the way you treat other people, and if you do those crimes you do deserve punishment.’

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah, so it’s a pretty significant crime, and remember, like, Yusif’s from Tennessee and this was the first time that he’d been to Kentucky. And while he’s in custody waiting for his court date, he realizes that the Kentucky criminal justice system and the Tennessee criminal justice system? They do not work in the same way.

YUSIF SMITH: So when the police caught us in Tennessee, they extradited us back to Kentucky. And I get locked up and I’m looking for like a bondsman’s number on the walls or something, but there’s no bondsman in Kentucky. I’m like ‘What is that?’ They said ‘You in the commonwealth.’ I’m like ‘What is the commonwealth?’

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay, so Jamaal, help me out — so he said he’s looking for what up on the wall?

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: He’s looking for the number of a bondsman. A bondsman is a person who’s recognized in a state for helping to help people reach bail. So they have those in Tennessee, but in Kentucky? They don’t. And that’s an important thing to note when we talk about incarceration — is that incarceration in our country doesn’t run on one all-encompassing system. Each state, each politician, each judge has their own set of ideas. And what’s happening in one state may not be what’s happening in another. Incarceration is always localized before it’s nationalized.

JESSE EUBANKS: Oh okay, so no bondsman means that Yusif has to come up with the bond money himself. Okay, so then on his court date, he finally receives his sentence.

YUSIF SMITH: It was a 10-year sentence but at 20%, which means after 20% of 10 years, which was two years, I went up for parole.

JESSE EUBANKS: Now this is the part of our justice system that most people are familiar with. The final courtroom cases that we see every day on the news. 

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: Yeah, but people really don’t see that that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Like there’s a whole lot more to the process that goes into incarceration. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Okay, so speaking of that process, I think we should just go ahead and take a look at that now. And to help us with that, we actually talked to a judge.

AMBER WOLF: Okay, my name is Amber Wolf and I am a district court judge in Jefferson County, Kentucky.

JESSE EUBANKS: So this is Amber, and she is actually married to my cousin. And while it might seem simple on the surface — you commit a crime, you do your time — according to Amber, it’s actually a bit more nuanced than that.

AMBER WOLF: You know, it’s a hard thing to define. Yes, the law is the law and it is in black and white, but there are a lot of intricacies to it. You know, you can’t just have a ATM machine where you stick your case in and have it spit out what your sentence is because, y’know, if the law was just the law and that was black and white then that would be all that we would need.

JESSE EUBANKS: So I asked Amber to walk me from start to finish through the process of becoming incarcerated. And it can basically be boiled down to eight stages. So, here we go.

Stage one — you are perceived to commit a crime and you get arrested. At this stage there is some discretion on the part of the police officer. Some acts are obviously criminal, while others just may depend more on interpretation.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: Man, I wish we could go more into that and talk about racial profiling and other things that go into that, but I think that’s for another episode.

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah, I think so too. We’ll have to get to that one eventually. Uh, stage two — you have a pre-trial.

AMBER WOLF: Okay, so every single person that’s arrested for any crime will go to the jail, they’ll be booked, and then there’s pre-trial services that will interview them. And they’re not gonna ask them incriminating things about their case. They’re asking them if they have a place to live, if they have assurity, if they can post bond… They do that interview but they also look at their criminal record, and then they create a score.

JESSE EUBANKS: Now, at stage three, pre-trial services decide whether you should be released or held based on your score. And that score is basically telling two things — flight risk and endangerment level.

AMBER WOLF: In fact, we now have something called the administrative release, which on certain crimes — low-level, non-violent offenses — if they score low or even moderate on the flight risk level and the danger to society level, they’re gonna be released automatically without ever being presented to a judge. 

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: So flight risk has to do with your likelihood to show or not to show up to your court date. And many people have outstanding bench warrants, meaning they’ve already missed previous court dates. And if that’s the case, you’re more likely to be held and forced to attend court.

JESSE EUBANKS: So if you are held and you’re gonna continue forward in the system, then you progress to stage four. And in that case, you’re actually presented to a judge over the phone.

AMBER WOLF: Three times a day — 6 a.m., 12:30, and then at 9:30 at night — everyone that’s arrested will be presented to a judge, an on-call judge. Today that’s me. The pre-trial services will call the judge and list every person that’s been arrested, what their crime was — alleged crime — and they’ll tell us what their score is and we have to decide what their bond is gonna be.

JESSE EUBANKS: And then just like stage three, stage five — the judge decides whether each person should be released or held on bond.

AMBER WOLF: If they are released from custody, they’ll be given somewhat like a citation. It’s like a piece of paper that tells them what their conditions are, like no drugs or alcohol, don’t possess a firearm. And so they’ll hopefully come back to court on their arraignment date if they’re release, and if they’re not released, they go to arraignment court in the jail the following day usually.

JESSE EUBANKS: So stage six is arraignment court. And whether you’ve been released from custody at any of these stages or not, everyone is expected to go to their arraignment court date. 

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: So if you don’t show up, your flight risk score essentially goes up.

JESSE EUBANKS: So here, a new judge, so, different than the one who received the phone calls, looks over your case, releases you or keeps you, and gives you a new court date. And stage eight — it’s your actual court date. So this is what we often see on TV, with lawyers and prosecutors finally entering the picture. 

AMBER WOLF: If they’re without a lawyer, so pro se, they would get a chance to talk to the prosecutor and the prosecutor may make ‘em an offer or may say we need to pass this case and bring in more witnesses or something like that. And then, y’know, if they make ‘em an offer, it’s up to them whether they want to accept it and again they can come up and say ‘I’m not sure about this, I need an attorney’ and we can give ‘em another court date so they can come back with an attorney or we can assess them for a public defender.

JESSE EUBANKS: So there’s this old New Yorker cartoon, and in the cartoon, there’s an attorney who’s sitting at their desk sort of with a look of fascination talking to the client in their room. But the caption from the lawyer says, ‘That’s a fascinating case you have, Mr. Smith. The question is, how much justice can you afford?’

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: And that’s always really the question, and I think a lot of people in just regular society miss that. They see people locked up, and it’s like, it’s not a mistake that the poor are the people who normally get locked up and a lot of times because they can’t afford a good lawyer or they’re just so hopeless going through the process that they miss dates and other things. Yeah, so justice really is in this country about what you can afford. And there’s a reason why celebrities go and get the best lawyers. You don’t see ‘em like, ‘Oh let’s just cut corners here,’ right?

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah, you don’t ever see any like rich folks going, y’know, like, ‘Yeah, you know what, I’ll forego my own private counsel and I’ll just take the public defender.’

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: That’s right, they’re like ‘Heck no. He got O.J. off, he can get me off.’

JESSE EUBANKS: And so after all eight of these stages, now at this final stage, the case is either resolved, rescheduled, or sent to a higher court. 

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: But by that time, the case has already been touched by multiple hands. You’ve got the police officer who made the initial arrest, the pre-trial services, the on-call judge, and their arraignment court judge. So trials we see in the news? Man, that’s only a small fraction of the case as a whole. The judicial system is a many-layered beast.

JESSE EUBANKS: So the process of being incarcerated is only one of these layers that we’re talking about. Because once you get incarcerated — life in prison — that is a whole other matter.

YUSIF SMITH: It’s like going to a new country and not knowing nothing, like you’re just trying to figure out what’s going on. There’s different lingo going on, different phrases, different people go about things different ways.

JESSE EUBANKS: Coming up — Yusif’s life in prison. And more importantly — who he met there. We’ll be right back.


JESSE EUBANKS: You’re listening to the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. I’m Jesse Eubanks.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: And I’m Jamaal Williams. Today’s episode is where the gospel meets incarceration.

JESSE EUBANKS: We’ve been following the story of Yusif, who has committed armed robbery and is now sentenced to 10 years in prison. Okay, so Jamaal, walk me through — what does a typical day look like for you?

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: Man, a typical day looks like for me — I get up in the morning, help my wife get the kids ready for school, go to work, come home, love on her, love on them babies, watch some ESPN, and try to close the night off with some jazz and some rest.

JESSE EUBANKS: Right, but we know that in prison that, y’know, none of those typical things are available to folks. Their whole lifestyle changes. And just like their lifestyle changes, the other thing that changes is the way that things operate state-to-state. Yusif had a brother who was in prison in Tennessee, and he had heard from his brother that you can use your cell phone to communicate with the outside world. So Yusif thought, ‘That’ll be alright, that won’t make things too bad.’ Well then he found out that in Kentucky, cell phones were not going to be an option. 

YUSIF SMITH: Because I’m like, man, I’m missing cell phones. He used to write me letters telling me ‘I heard this CD’ and ‘heard this rapper’s new mixtape’ and I’m like, man, I’m missing all that. That was like ‘Hold on’…

JESSE EUBANKS: But then there’s other things, like more simpler things, that we don’t even think about missing.

YUSIF SMITH: I miss going to refrigerator opening up the door knowing I didn’t wanna get nothing. You open the refrigerator knowing you don’t really know nothing, it’s like ‘Why did I open this?’ Yeah, I just miss doing stuff like that.

JESSE EUBANKS: And in prison there’s no dresser with all your clothes in it. You’re not getting up in the middle of the night to have a snack. You’re no longer in charge of your day. You eat when they tell you to eat, you go out when they tell you you can go out. In fact, Yusif celebrated his 21st birthday in prison. If you wanna call that celebrating.

YUSIF SMITH: I wish I coulda been at a bar somewhere getting drunk, but I had bought myself a ice cream and some like honey buns or something like that off the commissaire. I forgot what I got. 

JESSE EUBANKS: And since Yusif isn’t from Kentucky, he doesn’t have family or friends to come visit him. And his phone time is limited.

YUSIF SMITH: They have a thing called J-pay. You know how you go to Red Box and they got like a kiosk that’s set up right there? It’s like a smaller version of that mounted on the wall. It’s like text message, but it’s not as fast as a text message. To us, it is best to texting you’re gonna get because you can get in — when you log in, you got 50 minutes. But after that you’ve gotta wait 30 minutes to log back in.

JESSE EUBANKS: Now there are also things you can do in prison. There’s work out equipment, there’s classes, some prisons even have Xboxes. But prison isn’t meant to be enjoyable. And in fact Yusif told me that on an average day he’d spend about 18 hours in his cell. So imagine only being let out of your bedroom for six hours each day. For 10 years, this was going to be Yusif’s life. And so in prison, Yusif actually ends up picking up a new hobby.

YUSIF SMITH: Mainly my first couple years I read a lot to be honest with you. I read a lot of books.

JESSE EUBANKS: So Yusif picks up reading as a new hobby, but what Yusif didn’t pick up actually was new behavior outside of that. And in prison, everything about the environment was different. But inside he was still the same hot-headed youth.

YUSIF SMITH: It’d be count time and I didn’t wanna get off the phone. I’m talking on the phone during count, so I’m telling them ‘Nah, my phone call’s not over with,’ so they’ll, y’know, try to tell me to get off the phone, I cuss ‘em out or something, they’ll hang up the phone, and I’ll get in their face and argue, and that’s like three or four write-ups right there.

JESSE EUBANKS: Y’know, one of the critiques of the justice system is that it’s not really restorative, that folks go, they serve their time, they get out, but that we’re not actually cultivating any kind of restorative process for them. Here’s Judge Amber Wolf again.

AMBER WOLF: So I think we’re making those steps towards, uh, a more restorative system. It’s just not adequate yet, and it’s not, um, it’s just not where we need to be. But a big part of that problem is money and facilities, and we just don’t have adequate places, especially for mental health treatment.

JESSE EUBANKS: And so the facilities she’s referring to are drug rehab and mental health programs. 

AMBER WOLF: And so if we can’t find something other than incarceration to fix the problem for the time being, incarceration it will be.

JESSE EUBANKS: So as Christians we look at it and we are thankful that there’s laws and legal systems, but we also know that there’s limitations to those systems. And for us as Christians, that’s also why we put so much hope in our belief that Christ is the only one who truly transforms character. But despite the inadequacies of the system, there are some who still believe change is possible. And one of those people is Darin Ashley.

DARIN ASHLEY: When I get there, y’know, you’ve gotta go in through the guard gate, y’know, and they search your car and then you go in and you gotta take everything out of your pockets and you run through a metal detector. Then they pat you down after that…

JESSE EUBANKS: So Darin actually goes into prisons and does what is called prison ministry. He actually works for an organization called Prodigal Ministries, which will be important later. If you’ve never gone to a prison before, it can be kind of intimidating.

DARIN ASHLEY: You still feel like almost like you’re a criminal, but uh yeah, it’s kinda eerie-feeling. And then you go in, they lock you into the room, and you’ve gotta wait for everybody to come, so you’re sitting in the room by yourself. And you’re locked in, and you can’t get out. You gotta, you gotta call for an officer to get out.

JESSE EUBANKS: Even though it can be a bit unnerving, going into the prison systems, it’s important for Darin. And that’s because he also used to be an inmate. And it was prison ministry that actually changed his life.

DARIN ASHLEY: I was sitting down here in Jefferson County Jail, and these little boys are having Bible study in front of the jail cell every night. And uh, I decided to go up and check out what it was. Went up and hung out one night and ate all of the good food that they had and was getting ready to go back to my bunk. I had a little 18-year-old black boy look at me and tell me, ‘Y’know, Darin, he still loves you.’ And uh, that’s the night my life changed. 

JESSE EUBANKS: So Darin had this incredible experience in prison where he came to faith in Christ because of this prison ministry, but the reality is that even though his background makes him aware of the need of other prisoners to also have that opportunity, it also makes it hard for Darin to get back into the prisons as a volunteer.

DARIN ASHLEY: Well you fill out an application first, and then you send it in to the warden and he does all the background check. Y’know, being a felon, it’s hard to get back in. There’s been a couple times they turned me down. 

JESSE EUBANKS: And because of his history as a felon, right now Darin is only allowed into two prisons. And that’s just twice a year. But one of those prisons happened to be where Yusif is. 

DARIN ASHLEY: I met Yusif on the yard at Northpoint prison. Yusif is pretty cool ‘cuz he’s a, he’s a young kid and he’s got so much life ahead of him. 

JESSE EUBANKS: So one weekend Darin and some other volunteers, they come in to do a Bible study. And Yusif actually decides to go.

YUSIF SMITH: Yeah I went because everybody, whenever something different’s in prison, people are gonna go whether they actually wanna go hear the message or wanna see what’s going on or who’s coming in here or what, so especially if it’s gonna be on a sunny summer day. Might as well go out there, ain’t nothing else to do [except] sit in a cell, so I went.

JESSE EUBANKS: Well after that Bible study, another man on Darin’s team notices that Yusif reads a lot. So he goes up to Yusif and he gives him a Bible. Up until now when it came to religious matters, Yusif had actually only read the Quran.

YUSIF SMITH: See, I was initially born and raised as a Muslim. And I’ve always had some type of a belief in a higher being, y’know.

JESSE EUBANKS: But since he’s got 18 hours in a cell to kill, Yusif gives the Bible a shot.

YUSIF SMITH: I read the Bible and I got to reading and I’m like, ‘Hold on.’ It just didn’t make sense, like how is the Quran gonna agree with the Bible but contradict it at the same time? It just didn’t make sense to me.

JESSE EUBANKS: I think for a lot of folks when they think about people in prison, prisoners are just very simpletons and that they’re not going to think about deep things, y’know, they’re not — they’re only thinking about survival, like they’re almost like animals.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: We think, ‘Man, they’re here, so there’s something animalistic about them, there’s something subhuman.’ And if you believe the Bible and believe what it teaches, you know that that’s just not the case, like we’re all created in God’s image. In Ecclesiastes, it says that eternity is built into every human being’s heart. So every human being at some level is wondering about the future, wondering about death, wondering ‘Is there really a God?’ And prison, when your life slows down and you’re shut behind bars and you’ve got all this time to think about it? That like goes to a higher level now. Honestly Jesse, people who are in prison are just in the right position for Christians to minister to. 

JESSE EUBANKS: And Yusif is clearly a testimony to the fact that he was thinking very deep, profound theological thoughts, very deep, profound existential thoughts. 

YUSIF SMITH: I don’t know, I just started feeling conviction about things. 

JESSE EUBANKS: So Yusif starts thinking about all these types of things, so that actually by the time Darin visited again a year later, Yusif had actually become a follower of Christ. But despite the fact that Darin could only visit once a year, his relationship with Yusif was far from over. So fast forward yet another year. Darin makes his yearly visit, and Yusif has some more good news.

DARIN ASHLEY: And Yusif was supposed to parole out. He was excited.

JESSE EUBANKS: So Yusif had taken advantage of the different programs offered in the prison, and he had been able to cut his sentence in half. He was on his final year in prison. So he had been making post prison arrangements. 

DARIN ASHLEY: We partnered with another guy, and he’s got a transitional home up in Indianapolis. Then we found out that in Kentucky, Kentucky won’t let you parole out of state.

JESSE EUBANKS: So when he got out, Yusif was set on going to this transitional facility in Indiana. Folks from there would visit his prison, and he’d made several friends there. But when he was released, he would still be on parole for several months. And being on parole meant that he had to stay in Kentucky, where his family didn’t live, where his friends didn’t live. Well, remember the name of the organization that Darin works for? It’s called Prodigal Ministries. And it just so happens to be a transitional program in Kentucky. So Darin sets up Yusif with a place to stay with Prodigal Ministries for when he gets out, which Yusif thinks is gonna be another few weeks. But the next day at his pre-release class, the teacher actually has some really exciting news for Yusif.

YUSIF SMITH: She said ‘It all got approved. You’re good to go.’ I said, ‘I can go home?’ She’s like, ‘Yeah.’ I said like, ‘So you mean I can pack my stuff up and I’m good to go?’ She’s like, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Okay, well call and get me over here.’ I was happy. It was a whole lot of emotions. I had went to the bathroom and cried and everything, thank God and everything. I was happy.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: Oh my goodness, you’ve been locked up, put away, life has dramatically changed, and you’ve got your mind set on ‘couple weeks, I’m gonna be able to get out.’ And then it’s like wow, early release. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah, that’d be an amazing moment. 

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: And I’m impressed with Darin, the fact that you can only go to a prison twice a year. It’s like most people would just give up on a ministry like that. Only do something twice a year? What impact can I have? And he’s like, ‘Nah, the Lord can use my twice a year.’

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah, and the fact that he was faithful to it, because he was faithful to it, he was there the exact moment that Yusif really needed him. And that providential moment, there was a moment of opportunity. Yusif needed to know, ‘What am I going to do about life after prison?’ And because Darin was faithful, that moment was very clear and made available to Yusif.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: That’ll preach.

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah, that’s amazing. That’s an amazing story. Okay so, thanks to Darin, Yusif moves into Prodigal Ministries’ transitional house. And he, he was once again a free man. But just being free is still not the end of the story.

JENNIFER PARTIN: Most of our clients, it’s not their first rodeo. They have been in prison more than once because recidivism rate, return to prison rate, is very high.

JESSE EUBANKS: Next — navigating life after prison. Stay with us.


JESSE EUBANKS: Welcome back to the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. I’m Jesse Eubanks.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: And I’m Jamaal Williams. Today’s episode is where the gospel meets incarceration. So Yusif has been released from prison after serving five years and has gone to live in a transitional house through Prodigal Ministries. 

JESSE EUBANKS: The reality is when folks get out of prison, especially if they’ve been in for a long time, they’re not going back to life the way it was when they first went in. And because the outside world has continued on without you, transitioning back into society — it’s a challenge. Here’s Prodigal Ministries executive director Jennifer Partin.

JENNIFER PARTIN: Oftentimes when people are released from prison, they’ve lost all of their identification, clothing, everything. It’s just all taken. 

JESSE EUBANKS: And these aren’t the only factors. Another reason this transition period is so crucial is because of what we call recidivism. Recidivism is the rate at which former inmates reoffend and end up back behind bars. Each year approximately 650,000 people are released from state and federal prison, and about nine million people are released from jail.  And within three years of release, about two-thirds — 67.8% — of these people, they’re rearrested. 

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: And to add to that, the most recent data in Kentucky says that 40.7% of inmates released in 2013 were reincarcerated within two years. That’s almost half. 

JESSE EUBANKS: You know, so we talked earlier about the fact that the culture in prison is so dynamically different than the culture outside of prison. So when somebody’s been in prison for a long time and they’re suddenly no longer in prison, it’s just very, very difficult to adjust. And so one of the goals of Prodigal Ministries is to help folks cope and adjust to life outside of prison.

JENNIFER PARTIN: Why we’re important, is we try to learn different ways of dealing with old stuff. It’s easy to default back to something you’re familiar with. I do it every Monday when I try to eat differently, y’know? And some — I think many of our men and women have often — they live in chaos. And so when things aren’t chaotic, there might be some uncertainty there so then they begin to create chaos.

JESSE EUBANKS: In fact, we found out just how important this is. So producer Rachel Szabo  was actually with Jennifer at one of their transitional houses, and while Rachel was talking with Jennifer, another woman named Sarah was there. And Sarah is what’s called a client advocate. She acts sort of like a landlord, making sure things with the house are in order and people transitioning into the house have everything they need. And during our interview with Jennifer, suddenly Sarah chimed in.

JENNIFER PARTIN: Sarah is working on getting this house organized…


SARAH WILLIAMS: I can tell you. I, I was in prison almost six years. Do you want me to tell? 

JENNIFER PARTIN: Do you want to? I mean, if you’re comfortable with it.

RACHEL SZABO: Yeah, I mean if you don’t mind to share.

JENNIFER PARTIN: You wanna come over?


SARAH WILLIAMS: So you were saying, um — do you edit this? 

RACHEL SZABO: Yes. Yes. No pressure. 

SARAH WILLIAMS: Okay, your question was what happens to their stuff. Like I was the first person here 13 years ago when the house opened in 2005 and I did almost six years and all of my stuff was just given away and donated.

JESSE EUBANKS: So Sarah served six years in prison, leaving behind two children and a three bedroom house in southern Indiana, complete with barns and horses. But since her children couldn’t manage the property themselves, everything was just given away. Like literally everything. Her life had basically been erased. So by the time that Sarah was released, all she had was what was on her body.

SARAH WILLIAMS: I just had a white T-shirt and a pair of gray shorts and some brand new white tennis shoes that they gave me and a garbage bag with some papers and a Bible. That’s all I had.  It wasn’t for me about going back into a bad situation. There was just no situation to go to. I just literally had a white T-shirt, gray shorts, and tennis shoes. 

JESSE EUBANKS: But just like Yusif, Sarah had also learned about Prodigal Ministries while in prison. So when she was released, that’s where she came. 

SARAH WILLIAMS: They had an open house and there was one other lady had come and we had a house mother and then the community came to welcome us, to meet us. I remember there was some people that donated clothes to me and then they took all these pictures of me, which I’m glad maybe don’t exist anymore, I don’t know where they are in my white T-shirt… I had to go back out the door, picture coming in the door, picture here… And you’re just like, there’s Scripture on the floor and there was just, I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m safe.’

JESSE EUBANKS: And the transitions that were hardest for Sarah weren’t the big things you typically think of, like finding a job, though that is hard. Sarah more remembers having trouble with the little things, things that you and I probably don’t even think twice about — things like sleeping. 

SARAH WILLIAMS: First of all, when I went to sleep, it was very quiet. They said, ‘Well, didn’t anything bother you?’ and I said, ‘Nothing bothered me. It’s just so quiet’ because you’re used to, you get accustomed to, I guess all kinds of noise and just terrible conversations, banging, clanging… 

JESSE EUBANKS: She had trouble with things like eating.

SARAH WILLIAMS: You eat things that you weren’t hungry for that cause you to gain weight, so that’s like one of the things that you have to keep focused on. Having a little bit of the things that you felt deprived from, but still, y’know, you don’t want to bust out of the clothes that were just given to you. 

JESSE EUBANKS: I mean, prisoners even look forward to things like having their own underwear that’s not from the prison. 

SARAH WILLIAMS: Yeah I went to Walmart because prison underwear is not good, not, y’know, the elastic isn’t… not mine, but it also has your number on it. But I mean you can’t just have one bra or one pair of underwear, y’know, you have to need a little bit more than that, so I was really excited to get something a little more supportive.

JESSE EUBANKS: One thing Sarah pointed out is that it’s very easy for folks who are released from prison to become hoarders. Because they live with nothing and now they’re able to have things again and they don’t want to lose any of it. 

SARAH WILLIAMS: It’s like part of post traumatic stress disorder. It’s emotional consequence from just only having a few prison clothes. But I just remember all of a sudden I had so much stuff and still to this day I have so much, I mean I just have things to still give away. And um, so that’s one of the things that we try to help people with, is no hoarding.

JESSE EUBANKS: Yeah, but it’s not the stuff that actually helps in the long run. Y’know, we need things to be able to survive, but really it’s the people. It’s the relationships in our lives that we so desperately need. And folks in prison, they’re the exact same way. They often have no relationships or very, very broken ones. And that’s really what Yusif needed. He needed a relationship with God, but also just healthy relationships with other people. Because as we often say, relationships change lives. 

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: They do. The Lord created us to model him and who he is as a triune being, to be in deep relationships. And you cut that off from a person and put them in a situation where there are really just broken relationships? Man, it really can do a work on you.

Yeah, so how is Yusif doing now? Give me an update.

JESSE EUBANKS: Well today, Yusif is actually doing really well. Uh, he recently moved out of Prodigal Ministries’ transitional house. He’s now living on his own. And he is definitely enjoying his freedom.

YUSIF SMITH: Aw man, let me tell you. I been to the movies. I can’t do that in prison. I been to the mall. I’ve eaten out at restaurants, but I ain’t never been to like Applebee’s, Red Lobster, TGI Friday’s, Texas Roadhouse, Outback Steakhouse — I’m gonna make my way to those. I know it’s time — people get out of prison, they try to rush and do things too quick. You don’t enjoy it like that. You gotta give time, stretch it out, enjoy it.

JESSE EUBANKS: So at the time of his interview, Yusif was still on probation. But when he gets off probation soon, he plans to go live with his dad in California. He’s gonna use the skills that he learned actually in prison. And one of the programs he completed was a food health and safety class. And he hopes to make good use of that.

YUSIF SMITH: Like right now I work at a restaurant, so when I get out to California and I start, y’know, working in other restaurants, it’ll give me — you be surprised who you meet. ‘Man, you got this — well, they can use such and such over here.’ I might end up working at Sea World making, doing something.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: Well what I love about Yusif’s story and Sarah’s story is that it humanizes their experience. And so often when we hear of people going to prison, we just don’t see the humanity behind it, the longing, the brokenness. Maybe we hear about the physical needs, but we don’t get to hear about the relational aspect of it. And what’s amazing again about Matthew 25 is that Jesus identifies with these people. He says, ‘When you visit the least of these, you visit me.’ And as Christians, I think we often forget about this, that these are the people that Jesus would most quickly identify with because he himself knows what it’s like to be in prison. He himself knew what it was like to be embarrassed, to be stripped of everything, to not have any underwear, any clothes that he can call his own, to be under the control of another person. And he’s able to identify with our weaknesses, with the weaknesses of a prisoner. 

JESSE EUBANKS: Could you imagine what the world would think if Christians were known for being those people that are always visiting prisoners, those people that both uphold the justice system that we believe in righteous judgment, but also we’re known for incredible acts of mercy? ‘We’re here to remind you the Lord has not forgotten about you, even as you are here in prison.’

DARIN ASHLEY: They need to be loved. Most of ‘em in prison come from broken families, and they don’t know what love is. And, uh, that kind of love changes ‘em.


JESSE EUBANKS: If you would like to learn more about Prodigal Ministries, you can visit their website at To hear previous episodes of this podcast, visit


JESSE EUBANKS: Special thank you to our interviewees for this episode — Yusif Smith, Amber Wolf, Darin Ashley, Jennifer Partin, and Sarah Williams.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: Our senior producer and host is Jesse Eubanks.

JESSE EUBANKS: Our co-host today is Jamaal Williams. Jamaal was featured in episode one of this podcast – where the gospel meets racial reconciliation. You can check that out at Our producer, technical director, editor, and homeschool nerd is Rachel Szabo. 

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: Additional editing by Janelle Dawkins.

JESSE EUBANKS: Music for today’s episode comes from Lee Rosevere, Podington Bear, Blue Dot Sessions, and Daniel Burch. Theme music and commercial music by Murphy DX.

JAMAAL WILLIAMS: Apply for your social justice internship supported by Christian community by visiting Serve for a summer or a year. Grow in your faith and life skills.

JESSE EUBANKS: If you have appreciated and enjoyed this episode, please head over to iTunes, where you leave us a review. That is how other people actually find us. It actually helps our ratings in iTunes. It makes a much bigger difference than you realize, so please head over to iTunes right now and leave us a review. Which of these was a neighbor to the man in need? The one who showed mercy. Jesus tells us, ‘Go, and do likewise.’


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Prodigal Ministries

Article: 5 Myths Keeping Christians from Caring for Prisoners – Relevant Magazine

Video: Visiting Those in Prison – The Front Porch Panel Discussion

Documentary: Prison State

Article: Kentucky’s Addiction to Prison – Lexington Herald-Leader

Article: States of Incarceration – The Global Context


This episode was produced and mixed by Rachel Szabo. Additional editing by Janelle Dawkins. This episode was written by Rachel Szabo with Jesse Eubanks.

Senior Production by Jesse Eubanks.

Hosted by Jesse Eubanks and Jamaal Williams.

Soundtrack music from Murphy DX, Lee Rosevere, Podington Bear, Blue Dot Sessions and Daniel Birch.

Thank you to our interviewees: Yusif Smith, Amber Wolf, Darin Ashley, Jennifer Partin and Sarah Williams.