George Mitchell has a rap sheet with his name on it and if you care about saving ink and paper, it is best to select a small font before printing it out.
It was Mitchell’s crime that first introduced him to this prison. He had been an inmate elsewhere, but this would be the place he called home during his one year sentence.
Upon his release in January 2017, Mitchell was greeted by an ankle bracelet and nine months of probation, three of which he spent in a halfway house.
Finding a job can be a daunting task, especially when you are a felon, but he eventually secured a position at Cardinal Cabinetworks in Raleigh. He has been there ever since.
Somehow Mitchell has found himself walking through the doors of that prison again, every week in fact.
Mitchell looks different as a free man, so it may take the guards and inmates who he spent time with there a second glance to recognize him.
Who would willingly go back behind the bars that once held him captive, anyway?
In order to understand why Mitchell carries a little blue card in his wallet, a prized possession that gives him access to the prison, you have to hit rewind.
GROWING UP IN VIRGINIA
South Hill, Virginia was the place that Mitchell and his six siblings called home.
No dad. No dreams of college. And not a lot of extra money lying around — certainly not enough for the luxuries of a family vehicle or telephone.
Mitchell was looking for any way to escape that place and at 18, his ticket was the Army.
But two years later, he was out. And just like that, it was back to his roots, back to his old behavior and back to his former job title: “Drug Dealer.”
Mitchell seemed to be the common denominator when it came to trouble. And it was his “scuffles” with the hometown gangs that would be his first source of conflict.
Luckily, Mitchell caught a bus to New Jersey in the knick of time (thanks to a girlfriend who warned him that there was an indictment out for him in Virginia).
He told himself that he wasn’t going to sell drugs again. And he didn’t.
But he ended up using way more than he ever sold.
Before long, the police found out that Mitchell was wanted in Virginia and he was on what would be his first of many trips to prison.
“Get this mess off my bed,” Mitchell angrily thought to himself as he sat in his cell and looked at the Bible on his bunk. He was planning on throwing it in the trash where he thought that it belonged, but he had all the time in the world.
“My initial sentence back then was like 15 years,” Mitchell said. So he didn’t think that it would hurt to flip through the pages.
“My son…” Those were the first words he read when he opened to Hebrews 12:5.
“Man, that broke me down,” Mitchell said. “I was in my mid 20s and I ain’t never heard anybody call me, ‘my son.’ And it was like it was shouting at me, ‘MY SON!’”
He didn’t know how to pray — just the “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep” line that he had heard, despite never going to church.
“That was my first encounter with God. I felt the Lord spoke to me way back then,” Mitchell said.
But it would take many years for him to start following God, he explained. After all, Mitchell was a self-described “stubborn, stiff-necked” guy (and the whole submission and obedience thing was not exactly his style).
In 1988, he was out. Escaping that initial 15 year sentence, it was a second chance.
But he found a lot of ways to screw it up. After being released, he moved to Richmond and by 1991 he was hitched.
Before long, an “old buddy” from prison contacted Mitchell and introduced him to a businessman. Thanks to a few loopholes in the rules (and against the wishes of his wife), Mitchell was able to get into the bail-bond business.
“I didn’t know that would soon be the thorn in my flesh,” Mitchell said.
At the same time, things were getting rocky in his marriage. But it was him who was secretly smoking weed and once again, getting wrapped up in trouble.
“I was deteriorating spiritually while she was growing spiritually,” Mitchell said. “Of course, I thought she was a problem.”
By 2012, they were divorced.
WHEN WILL YOU LEARN YOUR LESSON?
Fast forward again, but not quite up to the present.
It was 2015, and Mitchell was getting his life together.
Things were going well. He was attending his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and had resisted smoking weed for awhile. No more scraping together cash from different part-time labor jobs or renting basement rooms.
He was working full-time, had his own apartment and transportation: a moped.
The workday had rolled to a close and Mitchell was lost in his thoughts. “I said to myself, ‘Man. you haven’t had a good time in a long time.’”
A bottle of Chardonnay seemed like the perfect way to treat himself.
“And before the night was over, I had a girl on the back of my moped and the police sirens behind me,” Mitchell said. “That was the beginning of the end.”
He found himself back in a place all too familiar, before a judge. This obviously wasn’t his first offense (five DUI’s is not a great record). Things were not looking pretty.
“They indicted me for habitual felony DWI,” Mitchell said.
He accepted a plea of 12 to 24 months, fearful of the alternative: 10 years. After submitting himself to substance abuse counseling at the Department of Veterans Affairs and getting help at a hospital, he started his sentence on January 25th, 2016.
“So when I went to prison this time, I got in touch with my sister,” Mitchell said. “Told her, ‘Just get me a Bible and a journal.’”
He started getting visitors, not from the traditional pools — family and friends — but from strangers involved in prison ministry.
One of those strangers was Jamie Warren. She and her husband led Project Nehemiah, a six month biblically-based life skills class, at the prison.
Somehow, George Mitchell found himself in her class. It met weekly.
THROUGH THE EYES OF JAMIE WARREN
Jamie Warren looked at the faces of the 30 men who sat before her. These were the “bad guys” who people warned you about.
They were in a little modular room on the grounds of Wake Correctional Center, separated from the regular world by tall fences, attentive guards and well-thought out security measures.
Hundreds of men had passed through Project Nehemiah since she had started working with the prison ministry in 2009. She couldn’t believe it was 2016.
When people ask Warren about the ministry, this is what she says: “It’s the difference in reading about the Red Sea parting and watching the Red Sea part. Or reading about a blind man that can’t see and knowing the blind man and being there when he gains his sight.”
Warren stood face-to-face with the men, knowing what each of them was in for.
She thought back to a man in the last Project Nehemiah group who had been sentenced to 999 years. He opted to take the life skills class anyway, knowing that all of his days would be spent behind bars.
There are murderers, sex offenders and drug dealers gathered before her.
Warren has gotten used to reading about their crimes, but one was particularly jarring.
“He is serving life. He broke into a person’s home. He raped them. He kidnapped them and killed them,” Warren said. “That is who we are afraid of. That is who is in our nightmares.”
She admits that apart from Christ, there is absolutely no way that she would be capable of having love for these men. “I would have disdain. I would have hatred.”
Warren seems naive to onlookers and even her closest friends still ask why she wastes her time going into the prison. Isn’t she scared of what they will do?
“Is your grace sufficient for this?” Warren has sometimes asked God, filled with doubt.
“I feel like He has taken me by the hand and just brought me to a front seat to watch what He is doing. That’s what it is for me. I get to sit in the front row and see Him redeem brokenness.”
So she starts the class telling the men that they are welcome here.
“I tell them, ‘The degree that I need God’s forgiveness is the same degree you need Him,’” Warren said. “Mine is no less than yours even though the newspaper or news or movies or shows or my flesh would want to believe that your sin is worse than mine.”
And then Warren and her husband spend six months walking with them, trying to get one thing through: “God is here to change your name and change everything about you. And the number that is on your chest? That doesn’t have to define you. And your sin does not have to define you. I want His grace to define you. Right? And who He is — who your Dad is — and not what you did.”
From the beginning, George Mitchell stuck out to Warren. He asked good questions, he always participated, and he had a gentleness about him.
“God was pursuing him,” Warren said. There was no other explanation.
One evening, Warren had the opportunity to bring her mother to the Project Nehemiah class. At 72, her health was ailing. She didn’t have a blue card of her own, showing that she had went through the proper prison ministry training, but they made an exception.
Warren remembers Mitchell taking a piece of paper and scribbling down a scripture and uplifting words. He handed it to her mother.
“God used him even while he was in prison to reach my mother,” Warren said. “That is a gift of his, encouragement.”
And when Warren was feeling worn down herself — wondering if she and her husband were getting through to the guys — Mitchell would encourage her, both in words and in action.
“My life is so much better because I know George. My life is fuller. I know God more because of those men.”
“That’s the biggest thing. It has changed the way I look at sin,” Warren added. “If I want to be near to Him, like I know where it is. He’s in that modular. His presence is just so strong there.”
It has been rewarding for Warren to see Mitchell put the life skills that Project Nehemiah taught him to work after he was released from Wake Correctional Center in 2017.
So George Mitchell walks through those prison doors, back into the place he once longed to escape, because he met God there. People visited him and in doing so, showed God’s love.
“My heart is to set a trail for the guys that’s in prison and to say, ‘Hey, look man. This is the real thing. God will lead you if you are willing to obey.’”
It took Mitchell a lot of what he calls “discipline” from God. He had to learn the hard way. But he is trying to change the direction of his life from this point forward.
On the day he was released, he wrote these words in his journal.
“Lord, I submit to whatever circumstances you allow in my life and trust in your good purpose because I know that my character is being shaped in Christ’s likeness. No matter what situations trouble me or whatever difficulties I may face, I will not be discouraged because I know that my spirit is being renewed by your spirit. Lord, help me to accept what you allow.”
“So that is my motto,” Mitchell said. “And that is how I am rolling.”