“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16 NIV).
God called me into prison to be a light as an educator. And I was more than a little reluctant.
I had already worked in the Florida Department of Corrections in my early 30s, and it hadn’t been the best experience. Prison is truly a place where heaven and hell collide. It is a community within itself where darkness tries to rule and reign. For that reason, I believe the challenges of teaching behind bars far exceed those of teaching anywhere else.
Being an educator in the prison system is complicated. There were times the compound would be locked down for days, weeks, or even months, and I wouldn’t be able to see my students at all. When they could finally return to class, they had forgotten much of what they’d learned. It seemed we were constantly starting over.
The first time I worked there, I taught 18 months before leaving the system. But 15 years later, in 2013, I sensed God calling me to return. I asked Him why, and He told me that I had not accomplished the mission the first time around. I had not used my time there to be a light in the darkness; I had gone in only to fulfill my duties as a teacher.
“Go,” He said, “and do what I told you to do the first time. I’ve given you a voice; now go use it for My glory.”
I wish I could say I ran back through the prison gates in obedience, but I didn’t. Like many of God’s children, I’m thick-headed. And I gave Him every excuse as to why I couldn’t and shouldn’t return to prison. But just like God wouldn’t accept Moses’s excuses in Exodus 3 and 4, He wouldn’t have mine either.
I continued to argue with Him, and it soon felt like God was giving me a good whipping. I lost my peace, I couldn’t sleep, and I became restless. Weeks passed, and finally, my husband said, “Dietra, you need to do what God is calling you to do. You’ll be okay. He will be with you.”
On February 28, 2013, I finally put my excuses aside and accepted a position with the Florida Department of Corrections as a Title 1 educator. My job was to instruct inmates under the age of 22 in reading, math, and language. The next eight years would prove to be the most rewarding years of my life.
I began my job on graduation day, and I attended the ceremony where several inmates received their high school diplomas. I was amazed. The speakers, singers, musicians—all of whom were inmates—were so talented. I thanked God for allowing me to witness such awesomeness behind those prison walls.
Stepping into the classroom, however, presented challenges. Many of the men wanted nothing to do with school. They hadn’t gone to school when they were on the streets, they said, and they certainly were not going to go now. But Title 1 is a government-mandated program for every inmate under the age of 22.
I had my work cut out for me. It took about a week for the stares, whispers, and theatrics I had been told to expect to begin. I faced a lot of resistance, but I kept praying and, in God’s strength, held my own. It wasn’t long before I could see evidence of Jesus taking control.
One day I saw a young man writing a letter to his mother. I was impressed because not many people wrote letters anymore. The following Monday, he came to my classroom. “I know you are a woman of God,” he said, “and I told my mama about you this weekend.” He had been writing about me! And then he asked what he needed to do to be saved by God.
I replied, “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who suffered, bled, and died for your sins?” He said he did, and right there in my classroom, he prayed to receive Jesus as his Savior. The presence of the Holy Spirit was so evident. I told the young man his life would take a turn for the better. He told me he’d been a gang banger. His role in the gang was to fight and beat people up. He admitted he was tired of that lifestyle and determined not to go back. And he was true to his word, too. He worked his way up from a sixth-grade level to high school.
After his release, his mother called the institution to thank me. She said her son
was not the same man who had gone to prison. I told her the honor went to God; He alone had brought about the change in her son. Today, that young man has his high school diploma and is gainfully employed, married, and doing well. God is so amazing!
That day wasn’t just a turning point for that young man. It was one for me too. I began bringing in Bibles and formed a devotion and prayer group in my classroom. Soon 20 or more men were gathering daily in my classroom for prayer and devotions. We prayed together and cried as God showed up and showed out. It was so obvious He was moving in the hearts of those men and that He had given me an assignment. I was determined to do everything in my power to draw more souls to Jesus.
One day, the warden came to my room. He had heard what I was doing and asked me to tell him about it. So I did, and we began sharing our Christian experiences. I thanked the Lord that such a godly man was leading our facility.
Another day, a young man brought in a Victorious Living magazine for me to read. I looked at it after the students left and could not put it down. I asked if anyone else had past issues of Victorious Living, and if they did, to please bring them to me. I put all the issues on a shelf near the door in my classroom and created a sign-in/sign-out sheet. I couldn’t keep magazines on that shelf; they were in such demand.
I came up with a rule that anyone who signed out this magazine would have to share their story too. I wanted to encourage the guys to read but also to express themselves through writing and speaking. So much healing took place as they began sharing their life experiences and how they had ended up in prison. I reminded them of similar life stories in Victorious Living and encouraged them that what God had done for those authors, He could do for them too.
Teaching these men and seeing the move of God didn’t keep me from heartache, however. When I returned to work one Monday morning, I learned there had been a murder in the prison. My heart sank to my stomach. When I was told who had died, I let out a scream. That, of course, brought the officers running. You’re not supposed to show that kind of emotion in prison, especially as a staff member. But I cried until I had no tears left.
Joshua had been my student, an aspiring GED candidate. He was so bubbly and full of joy. He always came to class ready to work. I can still see his smiling face. So many inmates and staff came by my office to offer their condolences. They knew how much I loved Joshua—they had often called him the teacher’s pet.
The mood on the compound grew dark, and I felt I needed to do something to lift spirits. I contacted a friend and invited him to come speak. John (not his real name) was a believer and a former inmate. Since his release, God had blessed him immensely. Over 300 inmates attended the event in the chapel, and 15 men gave their lives to the Lord that day. I shouted and praised God until my shoes came off! He had answered my prayers; He had not let Joshua’s death be in vain.
A few days later, Satan used a student to attack me and threaten my life. This student had murdered before, and he told me clearly what he was going to do to me. But I wasn’t afraid. I was on an assignment for God. I was where He had sent me, so I knew I could trust Him to protect me. I don’t know where that young man is now, but I pray God has touched his heart and saved his soul.
So many men impacted my life during my time as an educator, but several stand out. One is Ray, a man serving a 50-year sentence for a robbery. Ray was a leader of our prayer and devotion group and a true testament of God’s goodness. He came to prison at the age of 25 and is now halfway through his sentence. Through Ray, I learned that while I am not perfect, God was using me perfectly for the assignment He had for me.
Another one, Wayne, is a 65-year-old man with a five-year sentence. He is a mighty man of God who continues to press forward despite his failing eyesight. Ray and Wayne encouraged me often when I felt like giving up.
I remember, too, a smart young man named David who had many leadership qualities. I often talked with him about being his own person and not being influenced by peer pressure. David listened and buckled down and got his high school diploma. He went back to court, and the same judge who had sentenced him granted him an immediate release. On his way out of prison, he stopped by my classroom to thank me. I pray that he is continuing down a good path.
There are so many more. Some days I was a mother, grandmother, auntie, or sister to these men. Other days, I was a counselor, physician, nurse, or preacher. Regardless of the role, I made sure to give them a safe and peaceful place where they could feel valued and loved. I thank God for choosing me to be His vessel of love and hope as an educator for all those years.
If you are one of my former students, I pray that you will be encouraged. God used you to impact my life! Keep your head up and your eyes on Him, not your circumstances. God has a plan, so keep praying and believing and receiving all that He wants to give you. Keep working hard. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Get your education, get into programs, and better yourself for the glory of God.
That goes for everyone, actually.
To those who are working within the prison system, I want to encourage you too. I know the challenges you face are unique. Even so, remember: God can use you to change the atmosphere of prison through the lives you impact. Don’t grow weary of doing good, for in due time, you shall reap a reward (Galatians 6:9). God sees your efforts.
Policies make it difficult to build relationships with inmates; sometimes it’s even prohibited. I was labeled an “inmate lover” for years. But isn’t loving people what God calls us to do? Nothing should prevent us from showing respect and treating incarcerated men and women as God intends. I believe the respect you give will be returned to you many times over by the men and women you oversee.
Finally, if you are reading my story and don’t fall into either of these categories, let me encourage you too. God calls every believer to bring light to the darkened world, to be the inside witness of the goodness of God. Sometimes, the path is easy, but sometimes He invites us to difficult, stormy places like prison.
No matter where the assignment is, go! Don’t be afraid. If God is sending you, He will open doors and provide everything you need and more. He will protect you too. Don’t miss what God has in store for you.
I’m telling you, there’s just nothing like being on an adventure with God.
DIETRA LOVETT served as an educator, minister, mother, grandmother, author, and life coach for ten years in the Florida DOC. In March of 2018, she was awarded the Title One Instructor of the Year for the Florida Department of Corrections.