A New Mission Field: Children in Prison

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Today I welcome Philip Smith, co-founder and CEO of Hope Unlimited for Children.

From earlier posts, you may be aware that Hope recently agreed to explore the possibility of joining the state of Espirito Santo in looking for ways to transform their children’s prisons. As with any new endeavor, we are always aware of the possibility of “mission creep,” — and taking our focus away from the street children we serve. In an effort to prevent that from happening, Philip visited one of these prisons to ask the question, “Are these our children?” This is what he found – in his own words:

Last week I finally had an opportunity to visit a facility in the youth prison system where all the alleged abuses occurred. This facility has been closed to us for the past eight years.

The warden proudly showed me all the training facilities, but did not want to show me inside the cells, inventing one excuse or another. I did not care about the facilities; I wanted to look in the eyes of the children and test our calling in this new direction. The warden finally relented when I sighed under my breath about the Governor’s great disappointment when he heard that I had wasted my trip and we had to postpone our talks.

Going through several iron doors, we finally arrived at a concrete courtyard containing three concrete barracks. Each of the three barracks, or blocks, consisted of a mess hall connected to a short hallway with about 10 cells going off of each side. Thousands of cockroaches, dead and live, littered the courtyard. The blackened walls were filthy, testimonies to the mattress burnings of past rebellions. Iron plates with bolts the size of my fist covered holes where the boys had tried to dig out. Rotting food was strewn everywhere. When I walked up to each block, some of the boys ambled towards the front room to talk to me through the bars. None wore shirts, adding to the sub-human atmosphere. Sporting amateur tattoos, many had pierced eyebrows and lips. Given this culture, I thought, it was no wonder there were so many rebellions.

I have honestly never seen such hopelessness in the eyes of young people. I picked out a few of the toughest looking ones and spoke to them. They all said they had no idea when they would get out; they had no plans for the future, they had nothing to live for. Once we got past the posturing, they were not belligerent, just resigned; and I could tell that underneath they were just kids like ours. After speaking with Davi, Marcos, Joziel, and Patrick, I promised to pray for each one, and tell my friends to pray for them. I could tell it meant a lot to them.

I later visited the nearby girls’ block, and had similar impressions. There, I promised to pray for Ludimela, Natali, Emily, Camila, and Bianca. Camila, about 14, asked me to also pray for her daughter, Riana, age 2, promising to pray for my Isabella in turn. Bianca gave me her wristband in exchange for a promise to not forget all of them. I keep it in my laptop case.

I went there to confirm a calling, or at least test my passion for this cause. It was confirmed. My heart broke for these young people and their hopelessness, and I sensed their hungriness. They were at the bottom of the barrel, with nowhere else to turn. These are precisely the young people Hope was founded to serve; the young people who were at the core of my father Jack Smith’s heart when he said “yes” to God and committed the remaining years of his life to the cause. It’s possible that there may be reasons to not embrace this new direction, including operational concerns or financing. But as far as mission is concerned, I am now convinced that serving these kids is right on.

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