Heart of Texas Magazine

Spiritual Renewal in the John B. Connally Unit: An Unlikely Awakening

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Tony Maples Photography


A few miles south of Kenedy, off US Hwy 181, is a maximum security prison known as the John B. Connally Unit, a part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division. Currently, there are about 2,500 men housed inside that fence, and it has a long-standing reputation of being a very difficult and dangerous place to live. This was the unit where seven inmates escaped in 2000, and whether or not you believe in hell, I can tell you that there are places inside those buildings which are a living hell. Prison is a complex story. Some inmates are confused, or mentally ill, for whom reality is an uncertain and variable concept. An outside volunteer is kidding himself if he thinks he or she knows what their reality is. Others live squarely in reality and are quite intelligent. I don’t intend to tell you the whole story here, and this is not about crime and punishment. This story is about the life-affirming changes going on inside Connally and a spiritual renewal of unprecedented scope. The inmates included here are not representative of all the faith groups in Connally, but these are the stories I wanted to tell. As one brother in white told me recently, “We Christians are the biggest ‘family’ (gang) in the prison.”

Spiritual Renewal in the John B. Connally Unit: An Unlikely Awakening

Photo: www.pexels.com

Malek-el is a large and imposing figure of a man some would find intimidating. I find him quiet and thoughtful, and my impression of him is prayerful. Malek-el is not his given name, but the name he prefers. He was abandoned by his parents, grew up in eight different foster homes, and when he came to Connally 23 years ago, with no religious background, he was also unable to read and write. He became a follower of Islam after he was taught to read and write by a fellow inmate who was a Muslim. His life is focused on daily prayer, study of the scriptures, improving his knowledge, and acts of kindness toward his brothers in white. This is the month of Ramadan, so he fasts from sunrise to sunset each day, then gathers with 80 or 90 Muslim men in a gym for prayer and study. He keeps to himself much of the time and makes friends carefully and slowly. He is peaceful; “I have to learn to be 100% responsible for my 1% involvement, even if it is just a word I said.” He practices Islam as a follower of the Moorish Science Temple and has a deep knowledge of the Bible. His desire is to be better than yesterday, today and every day, and to be honest in all that he does.

Pat is tall and slender, with a smile and a wispy beard, and he generates an aura of peace. His Haitian mother gave him the look of a Caribbean islander and a rudimentary knowledge of French. He had been practicing Buddhism when he came to Connally 16 years ago, but he has gotten much deeper into the practice of his faith since then. Pat found the opportunity to practice dharmic principles in an environment which is contrary to them, a life-changing experience. “There was a time before I came to prison that I believed that violence was the solution to some situations. Now, I haven’t been in a physical confrontation in 17 years.” There are only about 20 Buddhists in the Connally Unit, so Pat practices the Yang Long Form of Tai Chi alone daily and attends religious events of all kinds when possible. He has attended the interdenominational Kairos Prison Ministry International program and is a weekly participant in their Prayer and Share gathering. As a founding member of the Connally Interfaith Community, Pat has established close relationships with men from all the faith groups represented. Pat has been studying under a guru in a 16-year-long course. He hopes someday to be able to share his knowledge and understanding of his faith with others in “the world” (outside the prison, or the free world).

Spiritual Renewal in the John B. Connally Unit: An Unlikely Awakening
Photo: Robert C. Deming

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