A man reaches towards a prison fence, thinking of God's word on his place, name and image.


My Time in Prison Revealed How God Designed Me

Tommy Jewell

14 mins

Of the three things on that hill - turkeys, deer, and me - one could legally be shot…me.

This was my reality during my stay at a minimum security prison. The facility was on state property, and no hunting or killing of wildlife was allowed. Deer and turkey were everywhere. Even exterminating pests could be a long process for approval. But under the right circumstances, I was fair game.

I never imagined being inside a prison, let alone being outside of the law. And to this day, I can hardly remember what led me there.

I was in the Air Force Reserves. I was about to be deployed with my unit to active duty and went to have a celebratory send-off with people I knew before I went off to war. That night, I partied harder than I normally would have. I blacked out, then woke up in a hospital with tubes down my throat and a large incision healing on my belly.

I was informed I had gotten away from the group I was with, got to my car, and got into a crash on the highway. The driver of the other car had passed away. There was no intent, but there was no doubt a tragic thing happened, and I had done it. I was now one of those people I, like much of the world, would quickly judge and move on from without a second thought. I was guilty and deserved whatever may come my way.

There’s no end to the remorse and regret that flows from the guilt of an event like this. I know God forgives, but it still storms around me. Just like when Peter was walking on the water, if it’s all I think about, I will easily start to sink into it.

Beyond that is the pain and loss of the victim’s family and friends. There is no suitable or substantial way to show regret or say, “I’m sorry.” I would do anything to get a do-over. But I don’t get one, and I have to live out my life in the best way I possibly can as I continue to pray for healing over their loved ones.

If I viewed myself according to this world, even my own prior sense of righteousness, I would have been bent and broken under its unforgiving, unyielding weight. Even without intent, taking a life is about as heavy a weight as you could chain yourself to. In the deep waters of the heart (Proverbs 20:5), I would have been pulled to a dark, cold, crushing depth, likely never to surface again.

But on that hill, after much work done by God in my heart, I walked lighter than any of those deer and with a confidence greater than any of the male turkeys during their rut. I rose above because I saw myself from a higher place…

…from heaven, through the Spirit of God himself.

Did I deserve to feel this sense of grace in that place? Do I deserve it now? Oh, hell no!

Am I smart enough to know that yet wise enough to accept it? Oh, Heavens, yes!

No matter how distorted your life is due to personal crises, relationship turmoil, financial nightmares, or even prison, God can bring your situation into focus, just as he did for me. God revealed himself in three dimensions in life that brought me freedom (then and now).

They are my place, my name, and my image.

I feel they can unleash God-given liberation at a soul level for anyone who accepts them. They may not change your present circumstance (like being behind bars), but I believe they can give you peace, confidence, and contentment no matter where you find yourself.


One place I did time was next to a dairy pasture. I vividly remember looking through the fence and razor wire and feeling jealous of the cows’ freedom behind their fence. Jealous…of cows.

Because when you enter prison, you are a ward of the state. It is a place prepared by the government for the betterment of society and the inmates to help correct the issue or attitude that brought them there…

Well, that’s what it is supposed to be.

Defining prisons as “Corrections” is a sad joke. For the most part, nothing is ever corrected, no matter how justified the incarceration is. Many take people with little to nothing outside of prison and provide them even less inside those walls. Prison is a place that puts them down and keeps them down.

God does it differently. He lowers himself to raise others higher.

God set this example in Jesus. He chose to step down from heaven and wrap himself up in the mortal mess that is our flesh. He lived a humble life, serving and sharing truth to then be killed in the meat grinder that is Crucifixion (check out Philippians 2).

All that so He can pay our sin debt so we can get to a place he prepares for us…in heaven. When it comes time for judgment on that eternal hot seat, God judges what he sees, and he sees Jesus. Amen to that!

Not only that, we get to engage in relationship with God here on Earth through the Holy Spirit. If we walk and talk humbly, serving and sharing truth, God will work through us, expressing his power despite our weakness (check out 1st Corinthians 1:18-31).

During my time on ‘the inside,’ I was simply the man who was guilty of what I had done and worked daily to better myself for life after my sentence.

But God’s divine strength was shown through my willingness to embrace my worldly weakness, allowing me the position and place to help, teach, and even ”in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth.” (2nd Timothy 2:24-25).

My place in prison became more than a dungeon I was sentenced to, keeping to myself and counting the days until real life began again. It became a breeding ground for growth in my own relationship with God and the desire to love and serve those around me in a way I had never experienced. That would NOT have been possible without God. Is there a place you find yourself alone or hidden away in shame, thinking God can’t or won’t come into?

I was in that place. But I learned God is where we are, no matter where that may be.

Psalm 139:8 promises if we “make our bed in Hell,” God is there. In love, I believe God wants to be in my life, but he will not force himself in due to that same love. But if we invite Him in, he will fill our lives with the light and life only he can provide.

Then, He can be our true resting place.


Names are given to something that matters. In prison, you are a number.

For example, say you write two letters to an inmate. One letter is addressed with their name, and the other is addressed with their inmate number. Which will most likely get to the inmate?

The one with the number. Yes, seriously. That happened to me. Letters were returned to my friends and family when they wrote to me and forgot my inmate number on the envelope. No matter how big they make your prison number, you feel as lonely as a ‘one’ or as nothing as a ‘zero’ when your name means so little.

This is not just a prison thing; it is a world thing. If you are an American citizen, is it the name on your birth certificate that proves who you are in relation to the rest of the country? No, that would be your Social Security number. What about outside of the borders of the United States? Well, you better ensure you have a valid Passport number attached to your name. In the world, especially our digital one, numbers matter because everything can be numbered.

Do numbers matter to God? I think He cares about them because they are so important to us. It’s one of the ways He connects with us. Why would an infinite God reveal himself to us as three in one (Father, Son, Holy Spirit)? Maybe because His audience is body, mind, and spirit… three in one (just my thoughts).

God did not designate the first man 001; he named him Adam. God did not have Adam classify the animals with ID numbers; he had him name them. Adam did not call the first woman 002 or just “woman”; he named her “Eve” as an individual important to him (though I will admit, I personally wouldn’t mind if mine was 007).

However real or inspired Genesis is to you, it reveals something about God’s character. Names matter. The Bible assures us not only does God call by name those he is in relationship with (an example is in Isaiah 43:1). He also has a name for us, one “known only to the one who receives it.” (Revelation 2:17). Just like that quirky nickname you get in your family or when you find a friend or group that only they call you because you belong there and belong to them.

There was one name the world was ready to put on me to define me for the rest of my days…Convict. Is there a name that brings nothing but pain and shame to you? Dumb@ss, Useless, Incapable, Failure, Mistake, etc., etc., etc.?

I had to tell myself, “Don’t you believe it!” God speaks things into existence with purpose and love; this includes you and me, the life he is calling us to, and the name he has for us. Among many others, those names he calls me are loved, chosen, overcomer, child, redeemed, etc., etc., etc.

I know that my name matters to God because I matter to God. Just as I know that your name matters to God because you matter to God.


What image is offered to the world when you are in prison? A mug shot. A rough, unhappy individual, defined by an inmate number and the earthly authority controlling you.

I was seen as a happy, lighthearted guy in there (especially by prison standards) that often had a smile on my face…never on my ‘mugshot,’ though. Inmates had an I.D. we had to wear. It had our picture (mugshot) on it. Smiles were rare, even discouraged.

Some inmates would smile, and the other inmates would give crap about it. Guys in my cell block once used me as an example to another inmate: “Even he (me) isn’t smiling in his picture.”, they lectured. Many inmates don’t see beyond this image of themselves inside their hearts when they are inside those walls.

I wasn’t beaming 24/7, to be clear. I was battling my own demons, and there were certainly days when I couldn’t fake a smile. But lucky for me (blessed, more like it!), in my heart, I was given a spirit that no grave can hold down, or cage can contain. Even when I wanted to wallow, I felt God pushing me toward greater hope.

In my walking and talking, and in my heart especially, I tried to cling to that rare thing…hope. In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, the character ‘Red’ puts it like this, “Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

This goes double for most inmates, as hope is part of the human condition, and prison is dehumanizing.

My fellow inmates were wary of my hopeful disposition. They were trying to care for me, as they did not want hope to set me up for a fall that could break the man they were looking at. Hope is looking forward to the promise of something better. It’s the carrot at the end of the stick.

Unfortunately for many of them, their life was full of sticks and no carrot. And they didn’t know I had something else: Faith.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1).

Faith, right now (even if ‘right now’ is in prison), allows you a firm footing to stand in and a handle to hold on to the hope you know is coming your way. Faith allowed me to project the image of a man living in the literal freedom coming after my sentence.

In the same way, I think you can project the image of a person living in the glory of heaven right now.

This world will fill your mind full of funhouse mirrors, distorting and bending how you see yourself in countless ways. But If we let Him, I believe God wants to shatter that mirror that speaks every lie and falsehood we have or will encounter in how we view ourselves.

And, in turn, show off the true us, the one He created, made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

God is love. Let others see love in you, and they will see you in the image God made you to be.

When your self-image is the image of what God made you to be, others see how living out that image in their own lives is possible. That’s a picture of glory no earthly filter can touch.


If I’m being honest, I often lose sight of all this now that I am outside prison. Inside there, everything was out of my hands, so it was easy for me to place everything in God’s hands, including who I was in him.

Nowadays, I am an adult with adult responsibilities that should be able to be handled by a competent adult, yet I find myself more stressed, stretched, and anxious than when I was in prison. That leads to me seeing myself as a weak, confused, (sometimes depressed) failure, far more often than when I was inside those walls. How messed up is that?

I have to continually let go of the pride that makes me fall and keeps me down and instead let God pick me up and keep me up. This allows me to see who He made me to be. It is still and will be, a work in progress. I have to repeatedly come back to and remind myself of my God-given (not me-given or world-given) place, name, and image.

They are the three dimensions of how I believe we view ourselves, whether healthily or unhealthily. And while the world will offer many options, God presents an eternal perspective of each. I believe accepting these in faith frames a picture of peace, purpose, and promise that the world’s views can’t replicate.

Disclaimer: This article is 100% human-generated.

Tommy Jewell
Meet the author

Tommy Jewell

I have held jobs requiring security clearance. I have been held in maximum security. The one thing that has gotten me through it all is God's secure hold on my life. Now I am a blessed mess of a husband/father hopelessly outnumbered by a loving wife and amazing daughters in Cincinnati.

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