When You Totally Wreck Your Life

SELF | Tommy Jewell | 8 mins

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Sometimes we find ourselves in almost impossible trouble, and it seems there is no way out. I woke up in a hospital bed with tubes running down my throat and in the worst crisis of my life. But miraculously, I was rescued. If you’re trapped in a bad situation, maybe my story can give you some hope.

I was 23 and pretty impressed with who I was and the life I was “making for myself.” I was working three jobs: security during the week, a doorman (fancy word for bouncer) at a high-end night club during the weekend, and serving my country in the Reserves as a Medic. I was often seen as the “Nicest” or “Most Dependable” guy people knew in most of my social circles, and I was close to completing the long process of joining the Secret Service. I was working hard, had a spotless past, and a bright future.

That summer, my Reserve unit was mobilized for active duty service. Afghanistan and Iraq were both active war zones, so it was only a matter of time. People I knew at the club I worked at wanted to send me off properly, so we went out. I drank way more than I normally would (I mean, come on—I was going to war, right?!), and I blacked-out.

Two days after I woke up in the hospital, I found out that I got into my car and drove the wrong way down the highway. Worst of all, I had crashed into another vehicle and killed the driver.

I was a broken, guilty mess. How could I ever repay what I’d done? The guilt, regret, and shame were crushing. Laying in my hospital bed, at my lowest point, I knew I was going to have to pay the consequences for my actions. I accepted a plea of manslaughter and was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in a maximum security facility.

While I considered myself a Christian, I’d been drifting away from my faith. I knew I didn’t deserve God’s help, but I asked for it anyway.

There’s a story in the Bible about a guy named Daniel. Daniel breaks the law (though an unjust one), and his life literally hits bottom. He’s thrown into a pit of lions. Lions that had probably not been given any lion kibble that morning. But even though he seemed to be in a hopeless situation, God intervened. God saved his life. If he could save Daniel from lions, then maybe he could save me, a man accused of wanton murder.

There were two maximum-security cells where I could start my time. In the first cell was a group of younger guys, full of false bravado, looking to build a tough reputation in prison for themselves. In the second cell was a group of older men, the ones who didn’t have to make a rep for themselves because they already had one. The officer in charge put me, a 20-something, skinny white kid, in this cell.

The other inmates tried to teach me “Prison 101.” They showed me the ins-and-outs of the culture and how to keep out of trouble. I shared my story with Jesus. For a maximum security jail, it wasn’t too bad.

Then one morning, I woke up to find someone new passed out on the concrete floor of my cell. The new arrival was sleeping off a meth binge. He slept for two days. But as soon as the new inmate was up and moving, he took no time to start drawing swastikas and racist, white power slogans on the central pillar of our room. It was in full view of the black inmates in the other cell. We found out that this man was an enforcer for the Aryan Brotherhood.

If you’re not familiar, the Aryan Brotherhood (or AB) is the one gang you would NEVER want to mess with. They hold Nazi ideals of white supremacy, and are strongly non-Christian, with one of their symbols being a three-leaf clover with the numbers 666. If the AB wanted to intimidate, hurt, or even kill someone, they brought in this guy, one of their enforcers. In other words, this was not someone looking to join a Bible study.

The AB member wanted nothing more than to start a small race war. He knew that the other cell housed some black men, and we shared a recreation yard for the one hour we were allowed out. Seeing the hate symbols, the other prisoners started shouting, gearing up for a fight. Mr. AB promised that we would all “settle this out on the yard.”

While all this was going on, I was sitting on my floor mat, reading my Bible. I had no intention of going out into the rec yard with the others. Suddenly the light dimmed, and I looked up to see all my cellmates standing over me in a semicircle. They let me know in no uncertain words that I would be going out to fight. If I didn’t, I was going to have a problem.

I knew I was not going to hurt someone, especially over skin color. I also knew I had no chance physically against the other men. I had to pray. “God, you’ve got this.”

The shouting between the cells grew louder and louder. The prison officers caught on to what was going on, and right before we were supposed to all go out to the rec yard, they locked us down for two weeks (no leaving our cell). Thank you, Jesus!

There’s no privacy in prison, so you get to know everyone whether you want to or not. Trust comes with time and close proximity. God had shown me so much grace, even though I knew I was as guilty as anyone else there. It allowed me to connect with my fellow inmates without judgment or prejudice. I was always honest about who I was, and the inmates grew to like me—even the AB member.

During the two-week lockdown, we talked. The AB member told me about his prison war stories and his life. He shared knowledge I never wanted to know, like how to make a small hand grenade with things you can find lying around in solitary. The secret ingredient is patience, apparently. I tried to do what Jesus might have done. I was a good neighbor. I listened. I read the Bible.

After a while, perhaps because he ran out of stories or got bored, he asked me what I was reading. I shared my story and told him about the Jesus I knew, the one who had helped me even when I didn’t deserve it. Before I left that facility, the man wanted to get baptized. This shouldn’t happen, certainly not with a member of the Aryan Brotherhood!

John 14:6 quotes Jesus saying, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That’s what I experienced. That’s what the AB member found. Whatever your struggle, He is the way out. Calling out to Jesus will always lead to life.

God continued to show up for me, over and over again. I was able to leave maximum security, eventually finishing my sentence in a minimum-security facility. I was able to share my story with people who may have never heard about Jesus before.

Let me be clear. I am not Daniel from the Bible story. I wasn’t imprisoned because I was sharing my faith. I was a guilty man who needed God. But I can tell you that my situation felt like I was facing lions. God protected me when I asked for help—me, a guilty prisoner. And if He was willing to do that for me, then I know that He can do it for you, too. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.


Written by

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.

Published on Aug 13, 2020
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...
  1. What strikes you most about Tommy’s story? Why?

  2. What situations in your life feel impossible right now?

  3. What if God has a way to use this time to do something purposeful before he rescues you? Look around and see where or how you can grow in your faith and share it with others in the middle of the trouble. List any ideas that come to mind.

  4. Whatever you’ve done, God wants to forgive you. There’s nothing that’s too much for Him. Write down or share with a friend all the guilt you carry—even the things you’re afraid to admit or hate to remember. Then physically or metaphorically, hand it to Him. He can trade you—all your sin for His perfect grace.

  5. Ask God to provide a way out. If you’ve never fully followed Jesus before, tell God you need Him. Tell Him you want to turn from the old ways that landed you in this situation, and you’re up for wherever He wants to take you next. Ask Him to rescue you too—not just physically, but forever.

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