(Photo: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
One of Mississippi's most notorious criminals has made a shocking request from his prison cell saying he wants clemency because he has repented from his evil ways.
Luke Woodham has spent the last 14 years behind bars after being found guilty for stabbing and killing his mother at their Mississippi home, then going to Pearl High School and opening fire on his classmates, killing two of them and injuring seven others.
Woodham let the world know his wishes recently by placing an ad in the local paper. The public notice reads, "I, Luke Woodham, am filing for executive clemency. I am sorry for my crimes and I am asking for a chance to live the new life that God has given me."
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said in a released statement that, "I'd be flabbergasted if the parole board recommended clemency."
Prison examiners, religious leaders and bloggers are now debating online about the possibilities of prisoners repenting while serving in prison.
Questions and theories are being posted by the hundreds asking about the reality of an inmates’ transformation, whether or not someone can actually change that much and turn away from evil sin and are prisoners really being truthful when they say they have "found Jesus."
Most Christians agree that people “come to Jesus” during times of crisis, like while lying in a hospital bed, while holding on for dear life during an earthquake or a tornado, or serving a life sentence in jail.
“These moments can instantly illuminate the frailty and brevity of life, causing a sudden realization of our dependence on God,” Ruth Chodniewicz,of the Prison Fellowship organization, writes in a column about jailhouse spirituality.
“One might question the authenticity of a faith conversion made in such dire circumstances: Is the decision genuine, or is it spurred only by fear in a last-ditch effort to “make it into Heaven”?”
She says this happens with more frequency behind prisons walls to such an extent that it is being referred to as “jailhouse religion.”
“Men and women get locked up and, in a moment of regret and despair, come to faith,” Chodniewicz says. “We must also be aware of the tendency to make rash decisions without fully understanding the commitment.”
Luke Woodham's story made national headlines 14 years ago. Some of the victims from the school shooting say “there's no excuse for what Woodham did, and his apology is certainly not accepted.”
John Kneeland, a psychiatric counselor from Gulfport Memorial Hospital in Mississippi, told The Christian Post that Woodham may be calm and repentant while in prison, but he is not sure he wants him on the street.
"Generally speaking, he's guilty, he's alive, he's already had clemency," Kneeland told The Christian Post.
Woodham is not the only prison inmate to claim he has “found Jesus” inside the confines of prison. The U.S. has more than 2 million people in state and local prisons. It has long had the highest incarceration rate in the world.
There are countless stories of prisoners discovering God and building a new relationship in Christ while behind bars.
The NAACP, integral in campaigning against Troy Davis' execution, has asked supporters to fast Wednesday evening, when the Georgia inmate is expected to die by lethal injection.
In the statement, Ben Jealous of the NAACP reminded supporters of Davis' resolve, noting the Georgia inmate has frequently proclaimed: "They can take my body but not my spirit, because I have given my spirit to God."
Another inmate claiming to be a changed man in God is Albert Yancey. At age 37, he now says he has matured into the Christian man his “mother hoped he would become, having accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and savior, applying Biblical Scriptures to his life, and most importantly, sharing his life testimony in hopes of leading others to Christ.”
Yancey, a gang member found guilty of killing Frankie Sanchez in Los Angeles, also committed countless burglaries and sold drugs.
He says he has repented while inside jail. Today, he teaches others about the Biblical principles of forgiveness and doing unto others while serving a life sentence in prison for the first-degree murder.
"I'm not a pastor. I'm a teacher," Yancey said during an interview., He says he is a changed man. "My prayer is that kids idolizing Li'l Wayne and Lady Gaga understand prison is a place that is real."
Reading the Bible and thinking about God brings many prisoners new hope.
Dr. Jack Mezirow of Columbia University says inmates are given the opportunity to speak with one another about spiritual matters, which in turn causes them to think about what they believe and the reasons behind those beliefs.
He says although there are doubts, there may be a positive side to jailhouse religion.
“By taking into account a prisoner’s life experience, one can better understand their spiritual journey,” Mezirow says in an interview with Prison Fellowship about the hazards of religion in jail.
“For instance, if an inmate has never been to church, then certain red flags-like using overt Bible lingo-can help gauge their spiritual authenticity. As we focus on inmates, it is essential that our aim is to see the real change that only God can bring. “
Sam Dye, from the Prison Fellowship’s prisoner reentry program, says if faith-based volunteers are not careful, they can unknowingly create “spiritual criminals.”
“A spiritual criminal is one who wears religious values like a coat,” says Dye. “It’s external. You can take it on and take it off at will, depending on who’s around. It’s really not a part of you.”
This “spiritual jacket” can actually do more harm than good, because it denies the inmate the chance for a real, life-altering transformation. Dye cautions those in prison ministry to "avoid the trap of enabling inmates to fake spirituality."
The bottom line is that most religious leaders and prison experts agree that repenting in jail and jailhouse spirituality is possible, but there are doubts surrounding the inmates' actual motives. It is between God and the individual as only God knows the truth about a sincere heart.
To comment on this news story email R. Leigh Coleman at firstname.lastname@example.org.