Carolina Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith thought he understood forgiveness — and then he visited the largest maximum-security prison in the United States.
“Spending time with the people at [Louisiana State Penitentiary] led me to question my own views of forgiveness,” Smith wrote recently for The Undefeated. “As a follower of Christ, I believe that we are forgiven. But I had to ask myself, ‘Am I really forgiving others? If my forgiveness is conditional, is it real?’ … Many of the men at Angola had already found peace through Christ, which allowed them to feel forgiven. As I prayed with them at the end of our visit, worshipping alongside men who had committed violent crimes and were now paying their debt to society, I witnessed the power of real forgiveness.”
Louisiana State Penitentiary is named Angola after the former slave plantation the jail sits on. It is the largest maximum-security prison in the country, and had a sordid history in the late 1800s of loaning out prisoners to run local plantations. It was once called “the bloodiest prison in America.” It continues to be a source of controversy, and is currently being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 1995, Burl Cain became warden of Angola and immediately attempted to change the jail’s violent culture. Cain encouraged spiritual growth within the prison, going so far as to partner with New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to create a satellite campus in the prison. From his efforts violent incidents in the jail plummeted.
As Smith toured the prison, he saw some of the results of Cain’s efforts, both physical and spiritual.
“As we passed a church on the property that was built by the men, for example, I was struck by what they had accomplished — and what it demonstrated,” Smith wrote. “I saw two incarcerated men working on a building with all of the tools they needed: hammers, nails, screwdrivers, screws, it was all there. It was a striking visual that remains stamped in my memory. Although I strongly believed that it was wrong that they were working for pennies on the dollar, their ability to do so conveyed a sense of collaboration and responsibility that led me to also believe they had hope.”
Smith visited the prison through the High Ground ministry of Len Vanden Bos, a chaplain for the Buffalo Bills. Vanden Bos takes current and former NFL players, along with Christian leaders, to prisons to spread the Gospel and encourage people who are incarcerated.
“In today’s culture NFL players are considered ‘the most of these,’” Vanden Bos told Sports Spectrum Magazine for the Fall 2018 issue. “They have money, fame, everything the world says is important. At the other end of the spectrum are these inmates. They are forgotten by society and poor – exactly who Jesus would call ‘the least of these.’ When these two groups get together, something powerful happens. The inmate suddenly has this ‘I’m not forgotten’ moment, while the NFL player gets a dose of perspective on life he can’t get anywhere else.”
For Smith, this perspective was about more than the power of forgiveness, but the state of America’s incarceration system. After commenting on many of the positives he saw in Angola, Smith also detailed some negatives.
“I don’t mean to glorify this prison. It is a prison, after all, and people are held in cells and often forced to work in sweltering heat with little money. And as we continued to walk through the prison grounds, I saw men working, some for as little as 2 cents an hour, making T-shirts for the government and license plates for every driver in Louisiana, or raising cattle to be sold on the market … I feel strongly that this is modern-day slavery, and it is wrong.”
While Smith acknowledges that finding solutions is complicated, his time at the prison not only reminded him of the power of personal forgiveness, but the role he has in advocating for justice, forgiveness and mercy at an institutional level as well.
“Many men and women who deserve second chances remain in prison because of politics or because they are considered a high-profile case in their state,” he wrote. “It’s not fair to the incarcerated men and women or the bodies that govern them.”
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