I was a gangbanger growing up on the mean streets of South-Central L.A., a tough dude you didn’t want to mess with. If you strayed onto my turf, there were consequences—usually fatal.
The cops caught up with me, and looking back, having ‘cuffs slapped on my wrists probably saved my life. When it was all over, I got tagged with a 12-year, eight-month prison term for second-degree murder and 52 counts of armed robbery. I actually breathed a sigh of relief that those were the only charges the LAPD could pin on me.
I ended up in solitary confinement inside a California lockup that housed the worst of the worst—New Folsom State Prison. My 80-square-foot cell came with a single bed and a toilet. Since I had no windows and no daylight, my cell was dimly illuminated by a heavy Plexiglas light that couldn’t be turned off, which meant that I had trouble distinguishing whether it was day or night. There was no TV, no radio, and certainly no computer. And no books because I was denied this privilege. Add this all up, and I had literally nothing to do for 23 hours a day. Talk about sensory deprivation.
No wonder guys went nuts. The prisoner next door, called Piggy, was convinced that he had a bunch of ducks in his cell, which was comical and extremely sad. Whenever he left his cell for exercise or a shower, I listened to his interaction with the guard.
“I’m not going anywhere until I have all my ducks,” he’d say.
“Piggy, you ain’t got no ducks,” the guard would reply. “Get a move on.”
And around and around it would go.
It was in this crazy environment that I experienced Jesus Christ in an amazing way. Shortly after I gave my life to Christ, I was transferred into “mainline”—the general prison population. God had a plan for me there as well. I participated in several Bible studies and a weekly chapel, but the persecution was heavy. I was the frequent recipient of “hard candy”—prison slang for a severe beating—that often landed me in the infirmary. I don’t know how I survived the stompings or wasn’t killed with a prison shank.
By God’s grace, I was miraculously paroled, which leads to a story that I love sharing. On the day I was released from prison, I passed through the last checkpoint and breathed in the air of freedom. In my arms was a box with all my belongings, including two Spanish-language Bibles. Suddenly, a man in a dark business suit and sunglasses stepped toward me.
“Darwin Diaz?” he asked, using my formal name.
“Please turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
My stomach dropped. I didn’t know what this was about. Could it be another crime that I had long forgotten about and now I had to do the time in a federal prison? I didn’t know.
The agent handcuffed me and put chains around my waist. Then he walked me over to the van.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Who are you?”
“I’m Agent Turner with the INS.”
The Immigration and Naturalization Service. This federal agency enforced laws and regulations regarding the admission of foreign-born persons to the United States. Sure, I was born in El Salvador, but I had my green card. I was legally inside the United States.
“We’re going to process you at the federal detention center, and then we’ll take it from there. We’ll give you information as we go.”
And then the van door slammed shut.
I was driven to a detention center, where I was led to a metal holding tank and met a guy from Mexico. My Spanish is rudimentary, so we conversed in English. Miguel and I swapped stories about our backgrounds, but we both knew we were looking at being deported to our home countries.
“You know what?” I said. “I’m not worried about what’s going to happen to me.”
Miguel looked baffled. “How come?”
“Because God did something to me while I was in prison, and I became a Christian. I know wherever He takes me, I’ll have peace because I’m secure in Him.”
I recalled the Bible studies in which I was taught to share my faith. A few verses from the “Roman Road” came to mind. I explained how we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and how the wages of sin is death but God wants to give us the gift of eternal life with Him if we will only believe in His son, Jesus Christ (Romans 6:23).
I was on a roll. “By the grace of God, I’m able to talk to you today, in this holding cell. I could have lost my life in prison, but God spared me. Tomorrow isn’t promised to anybody. You could lose your life back in Mexico. And then what?”
I saw Miguel thinking. Maybe he was involved in the drug cartels, where life was cheap. Maybe he witnessed shootings and decapitations and knew he could be next.
“Listen, hell is a very real thing. And eternity is a really long time. Would you like to give your life to Christ and know that when you die that you will be with Jesus, in heaven?”
Miguel didn’t hesitate. “I want to give my life to Christ,” he said.
Right there in the holding cell, I asked him to bow his head, close his eyes, and repeat the Sinner’s Prayer after me. When we were done, I gave him a hug.
Suddenly, Agent Turner approached the bars. “Diaz, step forward. It looks like we made a mistake. You’re being released.”
I looked at him, puzzled. The gate opened, and I followed Agent Turner down a long corridor. As we were walking, he said, “Diaz, can I ask you a question?”
“What happened in that holding cell?”
“I led that guy to Christ.”
He stopped walking. “I’ve been working here as a federal agent for more than 20 years. Every time I pick up guys that we’re going to deport and see them carrying Bibles, I know they’re going to be phonies. You know why I say that? Because every single time they’re talking about what girl they are going to sleep with or who they’re going to get high with when they get deported. But I’ve never seen anyone lead someone to Christ like that in the tank. That was amazing what you did.”
I was humbled and didn’t reply. But I knew I had found my calling—to share the love of Jesus with everyone I could.
Darwin "Casey" Diaz is a native of El Salvador and a former gang leader. Growing up on the mean streets of Los Angeles, he was forced to fight for his life. He was eventually incarcerated as one of the most violent criminals in California and placed in solitary confinement. His life was forever changed in that cell when one day God approached Casey in a miraculous way. Upon his release from prison, Casey landed a job making signs and today runs his own company, Cheap Signs. Casey enjoys teaching at church and sharing his story with audiences around the country. Grateful for a second chance at life, Casey is now married to Sana and is the father of three children.
To learn more please visit, www.caseydiaz.net.