New Life on Death Row
BY BENNETT ROLAN, EDITORIAL MANAGER
Mark’s voice echoed off the stark concrete walls as he repeated the simple confession of faith. Kneeling between two rows of locked cells, Mark surrendered his life to Christ. Witnessed by guards and fellow inmates, Mark was baptized in the hallway of Polunsky Prison’s death row unit in Livingston, Texas. Though physically bound by chains, Mark found freedom in the forgiveness of His Savior.
In the eyes of the world, Mark is a felon, sentenced to spend years in solitary confinement. As a maximum-security location, Polunsky Prison inmates location, carry sentences of 20 years or greater. The facility also serves as the state’s only men’s death-row location, holding hundreds of men who may ultimately face the death penalty.
Mark lives in complete isolation, cut off from the rest of the prison population. But the magnitude of his criminal conviction is not beyond the redemption of Christ’s work on the Cross.
Through a BSF satellite group, men in solitary confinement are able to study God’s Word independently in their remote prison cells. Personal contact is restricted, but the men do get to correspond with local BSF leaders who deliver their lessons each week. Through written comments on the lesson material, BSF leaders provide encouragement and accountability to the men on death row who aren’t allowed to attend discussion groups. They also have access to their weekly BSF lecture through the prison’s radio station.
When asked in Lesson 8, “How might your current situation be an opportunity to positively influence how those around you view God?” one man in isolation answered: “By showing them that all the things may seem tuff, you can use this in a positive manner and learn about God and grow within.”
To the Lesson 9 question, “Whom can you thank for offering God’s grace and blessing to you? How will you thank God for them?” another man on death row responded:
The magnitude of his criminal conviction is not beyond the redemption of Christ’s work on the cross.
“This BSF program and the ESV Bible. Servitude.”
For these men, BSF offers a lifeline to a community with believers and a reminder that they are not alone. In the general prison population, three BSF Discussion Groups meet weekly, led by local BSF leaders.
“The men at Polunsky are worthy of our time,” Group Leader Purvis Harper said. “These men are at rock bottom. They’ve had all their chances in society and burned them all. When they have no other place to turn and are craving answers, the answer is Christ. The Lord is playing such a vital role. Many either find Christ or re-ignite their faith from past exposure, knowing they either find peace where God has put them, or live in agony, fear and frustration during their long and sometimes lifetime sentences.”
Freedom in Prison
For Purvis, a retired pediatrician and long-time BSF leader, prison ministry was an unexpected, yet undeniable, call from the Lord.
“When I retired, the Lord put it into my heart to build on a previous experience with prison ministry,” he shared. “I have seen how vital this ministry is, how the men’s lives can change when they are introduced to God’s Word.
“The entire atmosphere of 3,000 men has changed through the different Christian programs that go through. The men who are called to BSF are serious students of Christ. Their answers are so profound, so genuine and so open.
“Through their faith, they know they are paying their debt back to society and are able to say, ‘Wherever I am, I’m going to serve the Lord.’ That’s a huge step in the prison population. Through the years, Christ has transformed Polunsky from its former nickname, ‘Terrible Terrell,’ to what is now known as ‘The God Unit.’ A true miracle to the power and persistence of Christ.”
BSF Leader Purvis Harper
For one BSFer named James, God’s Word offers more than comfort. Through BSF and other Christian programs, James has discovered a purpose. In a recent conversation with Purvis, James shared that he grew up in a Christian home. Familiar with the gospel, James rejected its truth.
“He said, ‘I had the head knowledge of Christ but didn’t have the heart knowledge of Christ,’ ” Purvis shared.
In college, James rebelled against his family’s faith, seeking financial fortune above all else. When he was implicated in an illegal scheme, James was ultimately sentenced to 35 years at Polunsky. Though he continues to appeal his case and seek parole, James has discovered a sense of peace.
“When he was taken from the courtroom to the county jail, he came very close to committing suicide. He broke down and gave his life to Christ,” Purvis said.
“Now, 14 years later, James is a well-respected inmate. Nobody messes with James because he’s so genuine and does so much good for the men. He’s truly to the state where Paul was when he said, ‘Whether I live or die, I’m going to be with Christ.’ He lives that out and loves the in-depth nature of BSF. He just loves studying the Bible and actively discussing it with other men in Discussion Group.”
In prison, James uses his influence and education to minister to other inmates.
“He says, ‘God, you’ve put me here for a reason, and I am going to be faithful,’” Purvis shared.
Within His Reach
For men like Mark and James, freedom from prison is a faraway dream. As their hope of release dims with each parole board denial, God’s Word confirms that no man is beyond His reach.
One BSFer on death row wrote this about God’s promises: “John 10:29, no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. Yes, I am a child of God.”
Like the men of Polunsky, our sin separates us from God. But through the eternal reach of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are never beyond God’s grasp.
In Genesis 37 and 39, we read about Joseph, who was abandoned in a cistern and sold into slavery. In his darkest moments, Scripture repeats a simple phrase, “The Lord was with Joseph.”
In Joseph’s suffering, God had a plan and a purpose for Joseph that stretched beyond his circumstances. Through his family’s deceit and his unjust imprisonment, God was preparing Joseph to save an entire nation. But as he sat in a prison cell, unjustly accused, Joseph wasn’t consumed by the future. His focus was on the present.
For these men, BSF offers a lifeline to community with believers and a reminder that they are not alone.
Genesis 39:20–22 tells us, “… But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him. … So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there.”
Fixing his eyes on eternity, Joseph faithfully followed the Lord in his suffering. Like Joseph, we are called to seek God today, without worrying about tomorrow. So where might God be calling you to serve? Maybe it’s inviting a friend to BSF or sharing the gospel with a family member. Wherever we are, God has a plan and purpose for His people.
For the men of Polunsky, prison is a constant reminder of criminal convictions and bleak futures. But God’s Word offers hope in the darkest corner of the loneliest cell. For these believers, each day is new opportunity to share God’s grace with those who seem beyond forgiveness.
Interested in starting a BSF group in your local prison? Contact your Teaching Leader for more information.
Bennett Rolan joined the BSF staff in 2017 after working for several Christian ministries and non-profits. She loves to combine her passion for God’s Word and her journalism background to share stories of God’s Work in and through BSF. As a wife to a busy college football coach and a mom to four young children, BSF studies keep her relationship with the Lord grounded and focused. She loves to learn from fellow believers as God faithfully grows her each day.