Did you ever visit anyone in prison? Or talk on the phone with an inmate there?
Sometimes those opportunities come from unexpected places. In 1983, my wife Anita and I read a TIME magazine article about the death penalty. The article quoted inmates from selected prisons around the country who were on death row, awaiting execution. I was struck by the story of one man, Mitchell Rutledge, who said he was sorry for what he had done. But the TIME article said, “The life of a foolish punk like Rutledge does not count for much. He is defective. . . . Let Rutledge sit and stew in his 8-ft. by 5 ft. pen in Alabama. Forget him.”
Mitch had been high on drugs and alcohol two years earlier when he shot a drug dealer. At the age of 21, he found himself in Holman Prison, awaiting execution in the electric chair. I couldn’t stop thinking about this young man who had led such a tragic life. I wrote Mitch a letter and he responded, beginning a friendship that has lasted to this day. Anita and I first visited Mitch in 1984, and our visits still take place regularly.
In the 32 years that my wife and I have known Mitch, he has become a leader in his prison community. He taught himself to read on death row, and after two re-sentencing hearings had his sentence reduced to life without parole. Once he was off death row, he earned his GED and then college credits. He was elected to office in the prison’s honor dorm, and his impassioned speeches to at-risk youths have been taped and distributed throughout the Alabama school system.
Anita and I tell the remarkable story of Mitch’s life in our new book, Death on Hold, to be released by Thomas Nelson Publishing on August 11th. This book is quite a departure from our usual texts on economic history, but it is the riveting story of a transformation.
By any measure, Mitchell Rutledge has been rehabilitated.
Mitch traces his rehabilitation to one event: his decision to trust Jesus Christ with his life. “You have to rehabilitate yourself,” Mitch says, “because the flow of prison life is negative. If you don’t have God as your anchor, you will probably be swept up by the overcrowding, the frustration, and the violence inside prison.”
Some argue that poverty and broken families create crime, but Mitch says they only create the conditions conducive to crime. “The issue is one of choices,” Mitch says. “We all make choices every day; I made some bad choices and now I make much better ones.” Mitch was born into poverty to a thirteen year old unwed black girl. She died when Mitch was a teenager, and he began living a life of crime in the streets.
During Mitch’s youth, he twice had contact with government programs: the public schools and Job Corps. Neither one motivated Mitch. Even though he couldn’t read, he was passed from grade to grade.
But when he was faced with a first-degree murder charge, he asked God to be a part of his life. Mitch changed from the inside out, and he began making choices that would give him a life and a future. Instead of being executed on death row, as Mitch says, “God put my death on hold.”