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What A Prison Fight Taught Me About Victory

Tommy Jewell

6 mins

In a world full of conflict, everything can seem like a battle. (Have you been on social media recently?) If you’re like me, you want to win every fight every time. But sometimes, “winning” isn’t worth it. Years ago, I saw how choosing not to win a fight in prison helped me find victory in a better way. If everything feels like a constant battle right now, maybe my story can help you find a way to choose the right win.

Years ago, I was in a jail cell, waiting to see where I would be placed in the state prison system. Due to overcrowding, it could take months of bouncing from county jail to county jail before I finally got to the state prison processing complex.

This waiting period is a critical time. How I acted and responded to the environment, prison officers, and the other inmates around me directly affected where and how I would be “doing time.” If I caused trouble, they would put me in a place suited for troublemakers. If I got into a fight, they would put me in a jail with others who like to fight. Basically, any action that brings attention to you often makes your time in prison worse.

I was a guilty man, but I had given myself and the situation to God. I knew I had to live with the consequences of my choices like a man of God. I just wanted to do my time, so I could get out to the life waiting for me. But sometimes, a fight finds you and tries to destroy you before you can achieve your win. While God was with me, handling things beyond my control, I still had to deal with the me-size situations that prison brought me.

Prison is often a place of false bravado. By the time most men are inside, all they have left is a reputation and ego, a distorted sense of masculinity that looks nothing like what God calls us to be. Add isolation and a daily stripping away of the most common human values, like freedom, choice, even your name (in prison, you are a number, not a name). It leaves prisoners with poor self-worth. When this fun-house mirror of manhood gets smudged or cracked, things can get very heated, very physical, very fast.

There was a verse in the Bible I tried to keep in my mind. “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18). I did my best to live peaceably with all men, officers, and inmates alike. I was very successful at it—most of the time.

But one day, some inmates were huddled together, talking and telling stories. One of the inmates told the story of the incident that got him in that same cell—an armed robbery charge. He explained how he robbed a fast-food restaurant with a water gun and was caught because his girlfriend forgot to pick him up for the get-away.

Normally, I think I apply humor in challenging situations well. But not this time.

I joked that this inmate should have gone behind the counter because he would have had access to a sink to reload. Everyone thought this was hilarious—except for the one telling the story.

There was an ugly look, some huffs, and puffs, a pause—and then the one telling the story lunged at me.

I am a man as much as any. I want to win in a fight, establish my physical dominance, and be the clear, decisive winner. But I had to keep in mind, who I was, where I was, and what my goals were. I was there not to get in trouble but to do my time and get out. That was my battle and what true victory looked like. This situation was not advancing that cause.

In this case, I was fortunate to have studied some effective self-defense. When the other man lunged for me, I locked one arm around his neck in a tight chokehold and hooked one of his arms in a chicken-wing hold. I was able to land in a seated position against a wall, giving me all the leverage in the situation. He wasn’t going anywhere unless I let him.

My fellow inmate found himself even more compromised now that all the other inmates saw him. He would move and buck as much as he could, yelling out things like, “I’m not quitting!”

I knew I was on a short timeline. Nothing goes unnoticed in a jail cell for too long. I did not want the consequences of this fight, like issues with my fellow inmates or additional charges or time.

So I offered a truce. “How about we call it a draw?”

He stopped moving, thought a second, and answered. “Yeah…Ok.”

I let him go, and we both stood up before the officers knew what had happened. He paced around, composing himself, selling his side of the story. “It was a draw. I didn’t stop fighting.”

I agreed with everything he needed to say to save face. He kept his reputation intact, I had no trouble, and life continued on. I tossed aside winning this fight for the sake of obtaining the victory I was striving for—getting out of prison and into the life God had waiting for me.

Today with so much tension in the world, I have to remember this lesson. Things can get very heated. We have to keep in mind who we are, where we are, and what our goals are.

Where do you have conflict right now? Are you fighting to save face or win something that doesn’t really matter? God has bigger plans for us than winning every small argument or fight. We have to focus on the big wins. What does God want you to do right now? Does winning every small battle bring you closer to those goals?

Don’t be afraid to throw a worldly fight to obtain a bigger victory.

Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...

What A Prison Fight Taught Me About Victory

  1. What stood out to you most about this article? Why that?

  2. How do you normally respond to conflict? List at least three default behaviors.

  3. What situations come to mind in your life where maybe it’s not worth “winning” that particular fight because there’s a greater victory if you don’t?

  4. How could you choose the humble road this week to mend a situation that’s getting out of hand?

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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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