Rickey Lynn Lewis was executed on April 9 at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas.
He was put to death 22 years after he murdered a man and raped his fiancée. He had been to prison multiple times since 1983. He had repeatedly violated parole. He had robbed a store with a sawed-off shotgun only a few days before he assaulted the couple in 1990.
Two days after his execution, Cliff Vaughn and I watched late one afternoon as his only earthly possessions were dumped out of three onion sacks onto Bill Kleiber’s back porch.
The scattered pile included a pair of shoes, slippers, a coffee pot, bars of soap, a container of deodorant, and odd pieces of clothing – nothing of much value to most of us.
Kleiber, executive director of Restorative Justice Ministries Network (RJMN), had Lewis’ possessions because Lewis didn’t have a family to claim them.
Lewis had given them to Kleiber to deliver to Huntsville’s Hospitality House, a faith-based home that provides temporary housing for families whose members are incarcerated.
Perhaps that was Lewis’ last grasp at doing something good after a lifetime of doing lots of bad, very bad things.
Vaughn and I were in the “prison capital of Texas,” maybe even “the prison capital of the free world,” as a pastor there said. We were working on our forthcoming documentary on the role of faith in prisons.
We told Kleiber, on his back porch during our initial meeting with him, that we wanted to get footage of him the next day explaining Lewis’ possessions.
Things didn’t work out as we wanted.
The next morning we set about documenting the release of 102 inmates, 44 of whom were parolees, some with ankle monitors. Some looked young. Some looked aged, very aged. Some were Christians. One identified himself as a Muslim.
We filmed waves of inmates leaving the Walls Unit throughout the morning. A few were met by family members and friends. Most headed two blocks up the street to the Greyhound bus stop, where two charter buses were scheduled to take the men that afternoon to either Dallas or Houston.
The men wore “clown clothes,” the term they used for the clothing worn by those released. Shirts were two sizes too big. Pants were oversized. Men carried their onion sacks with one hand and held up their trousers with the other. Belts had not been provided.
Nor were belts available at the supply store next to the bus stop, a store where the men cashed their state-provided $50 checks – and purchased new clothing and cigarettes.
Kleiber was at the bus stop with coolers full of water and soft drinks. He had sandwiches for the men who had eaten breakfast that morning in the prison – at 2 a.m.
He had a bundle of church-donated clothing in the bed of his pickup truck in the bus stop parking lot. Men rummaged through the clothing piles, looking for items that fit, items that would keep them from looking clownish.
In the midst of the chaos, some men opened Rickey Lynn Lewis’ onion sacks, also in the bed of Kleiber’s pickup truck, finding valuable the executed man’s toiletries and other items. Items given for families were taken by men without families.
Wearing a brown cowboy hat, Kleiber told men that he had served time. He dispensed wisdom, admonished against foolishness, prayed readily and calmed down the anxious. He sought to “love ’em up.”
He warned the men against the predators that awaited them with nothing but more trouble. He told them to avoid alcohol and drugs. He encouraged parolees to check in with their parole officers. He even found a crutch for a young man with what appeared to be a dislocated knee, providing him much needed mobility.
He urged them to register to vote (inside the bus terminal an RJMN team helped men register to vote and to fill out free cell-phone application forms).
After the buses had departed, Kleiber took us to the prison cemetery, known locally as “Peckerwood Hill.” Rows and rows of markers covered a large field. Some dated back 150 years, and others had on them an “x” – a symbol for execution.
We walked down the hill to where a correctional official watched as trustees dug more graves. We asked where Rickey Lynn Lewis’ grave was. We were told that he was buried elsewhere.
On Sunday morning at a Huntsville church, we met a captain at the Walls Unit who supervised the execution preparations – like the one six days earlier. She told us of an upcoming execution this week – another male, another murderer – and about a woman – a murderer – scheduled for execution in July.
We had gone to Huntsville to interview those who sought to minister to those in prison.
What I unexpectedly received – in part – was a new understanding of the Bible.
I gained a fuller understanding of Matthew 25, that passage at the end of Jesus’ ministry where he told a parable about giving faith evidence in tangible actions, one of which was visiting those in prison.
Most Christians interpret that passage to mean visiting – caring for – the incarcerated, a clear faith practice that many of us evade.
Most Christians wrongfully think only of the imprisoned when we read that passage. We fail to realize that visiting those in prison includes meeting the needs of prison officials, the most stressed-out community in law enforcement.
But that story is one for another editorial.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Editor’s Note: Vignettes from the forthcoming documentary on faith and prisons will be screened at BCE’s annual ethics luncheon during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s general assembly. To order tickets, click here.