It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday when I pull up to the Kate Barnard Correctional Center on the east side of Oklahoma City. My pulse jumps a little at the sight of the barbed wire fences, but I have no reason to feel unsafe—I’m attending a meeting that’s open to the public. I let myself in a chain link gate and walk in holding just a notebook and a pen, though it feels intrusive to take notes at something like this. I’m the only visitor. Everyone else is here to speak on behalf of a family member or client who’s on the other side of a TV screen, in prison holding rooms across the state. It’s the second day of the Pardon and Parole Board’s monthly meetings. Here, board members hear from dozens and dozens of inmates for hours on end, each one asking for a chance at life outside the walls.
I see Adam Luck immediately, though it takes him a while to see me—he’s listening intently to every person’s case and looking family members in the eyes to thank them for being there, regardless of the results of the board’s vote. I’m at the meeting for a little under an hour, and Adam votes yes to grant parole on every case I see.
No one wants to spend their Tuesday lunch hour inside a yellow state building surrounded by barbed wire. It’s uncomfortable to look at the people on the screen, whose days and years unfold under fluorescent lighting and behind locked doors. It’s uncomfortable to hear their pleas for pardon or parole, to hear the tone of their voices while they ask for a second chance. It’s even more uncomfortable, although uncomfortable is too soft a word, when the board votes no.
The atmosphere in the room is heavy, and Adam tells me as much when we meet for an interview between cases. “It’s like being in a dark hole,” he says. And yet, people keep showing up—family members of all ages, friends from church, a six- or seven-year-old girl who steps shyly up to the camera so her uncle, in prison for selling cocaine, can see her for the first time. The thought crosses my mind that only the love of family could bring people to a place like this.
I fill up a page, front and back, with notes. But I stop writing long enough to see the faces of these family members who have also showed up, in the middle of the day on a Tuesday, in this dark hole of a room, to look into the faces of the people they love.
In almost every case, a mother is present, asking the board to grant parole to her son. “I raised him right,” one mother says. “He has a good heart.” The family members here look weary, and they look hopeful, too.
I’ve never stepped foot inside a prison or a correctional facility until now. But I know intuitively, maybe by the strong and tender way these mothers speak of their sons, that I would go in an instant if it were my son, brother, or husband whose case was up for parole. Like the family members here, I wouldn’t hesitate to offer my time, resources, or simply my presence, because that’s what we do for family.
And, though the people pleading parole today are not his biological family, it’s also what Adam seems willing to do for just about anyone who asks.
Adam is a little bit like the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World.” He holds a Masters degree from Harvard and speaks fluent Korean from his time stationed there in the military. He and his wife, Sarah, are high school sweethearts with four young boys and a baby girl on the way. During the work week, Adam serves as CEO of CityCare, a nonprofit that works to end cycles of poverty through supportive housing.
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like Adam’s life is on the rise, and in many ways, it is. I’ve joked with friends from time to time that we’ll all vote for Adam when he runs for president someday. But in the margins of his life, he follows a pattern of downward mobility, devoting hours, resources, and rooms of his house to those who have found themselves on the underside of a system that benefits a few to the detriment of many. At the heart of Adam’s life, he’s not looking for a ladder to climb. He’s looking for one to descend.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a piece of iconography I saw during my time at a residency for my graduate school program. It’s a painting of Jesus with two wood planks beneath his feet (meant to represent the gates of hell), and at the top is written, “The Descent Into Hades.” The chaplain who brought this icon tells us he’d always been given a particular reading of a formative verse in Matthew. It’s when Jesus tells Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18, ESV).
The chaplain said he’d heard this verse interpreted to say that hell will not ultimately conquer the gates of heaven—as if those of us in the kingdom of God are locked safely behind the pearly gates, and hell can’t bust its way in. But the gates in the verse are not heaven’s gates keeping hell out; they’re the gates of hell that can’t keep the Kingdom out. Some say the verse is better translated, “The gates of hell will not withstand it.”
There’s a strong human tendency—or, at the very least, an American tendency—to avoid suffering. And it’s not just our own suffering that makes us squirm; we’re uncomfortable with another’s suffering, as well. It’s why I sometimes look down at my phone when I’m waiting at a stoplight beside a homeless person. It’s also likely why I’ve never given a thought to the way people live inside prisons. We’re comfortable with firm boundaries that separate us from the world’s pain.
“Adam is a little bit like the Dos Equis ‘Most Interesting Man in the World.’”
If our worldview craves hard lines and firm boundaries, the former interpretation of that verse in Matthew makes sense; we’d need to be inside heaven’s gates, with hell safely on the other side. But the latter interpretation begs some questions of that worldview, because the means of division—the gates of hell—end up under Jesus’ feet, and the kingdom of God becomes a movement toward pain, not away from it.
This Jesus, in his very essence, is one who descends. First from the heavenly realms into a human body, then from a human body into hell. And his kingdom? It’s not on the defensive, protecting itself from the pain of the world. It’s on the offensive, seeking out the loneliest, most forgotten, darkest places and walking right on in, carrying a torchlight of unshakeable love.
Back to Adam: Although we’ve gone to church together for years, I’d never spoken with him at length about the work to which he says he’ll devote the rest of his life. When I do speak with him, he shares statistics I’ve never heard: that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, imprisoning 698 people for every 100,000. But in Oklahoma City, 1,079 people are incarcerated for every 100,000—that’s almost twice the national rate. And it means Oklahoma City’s rate of incarceration is about ten times the global average.
I know that Adam’s been engaged in the work of criminal justice reform for years now, but when I talk with him at a Sonic near the Kate Barnard Correctional Facility, I notice tears brimming in his eyes while he talks about our incarceration system. I ask him about how he got into this work, and then I ask about what I’m really getting at—what keeps this work so close to his heart.
Adam’s own family was affected by the criminal justice system; his father spent time in jail and experienced homelessness. His wife’s biological mother, too, served time in the prison system and experienced drug addiction.
“Means of division—the gates of hell—end up under Jesus’ feet, and the kingdom of God becomes a movement toward pain, not away from it.”
But it wasn’t until 2014, when he was assigned a fellowship with the Oklahoma governor as a part of his public policy program at Harvard, that Adam first entered a prison. After spending a summer studying and writing an extensive report about the criminal justice system in Oklahoma, Adam and his family returned to Boston. But they knew they’d be back, and soon enough, they were.
During his first year back in Oklahoma, Adam attended meetings upon meetings about policing, re-entry, sentencing, and more. “I was the only person who was going to all these meetings,” he says, which gave him somewhat of a crash course in public policy. He then served on the board of corrections for three years, during which time he visited every prison in the state.
“It presented such a disparity between the values I have as a person of faith and how they play out in my community. There’s a really hard reality we have to face here: We have more churches per capita than almost any other place in the world. We would hope to say that affects the metrics by which we measure the flourishing of society, the metrics by which we measure the outcomes for those on the margins, the metrics by which we offer grace and mercy to those who have made mistakes. The hard truth is that it doesn’t.”
He goes on. “Then you start to read the words of Jesus and how he talks about the captive and the prisoner. I started to read the Beatitudes differently, I started to understand grace differently. I started to think about how this makes God feel.”
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (Is. 61:1-3, ESV)
These words from Isaiah offer serious insight into how God might feel about people who are prisoners—namely, that he intends to set them free. This passage, which is packed with passionate, active language, seems to serve as Jesus’ mission statement. Jesus’ life shows us that God is not one who avoids sin or pain; God brings good news, binds up wounds, proclaims liberty, opens prisons, proclaims favor, comforts, gives beauty and gladness. In short, wherever we find ourselves the most hurt, the most bound up, the most heartbroken, the most hopeless, we can expect to find God there. And that has a whole host of implications for where, in our actual communities and cities, we can look for God at work.
Then there’s the fact that Jesus himself was a victim of an unjust incarceration system and was eventually put to death at the hands of people in that system. In the end, Jesus isn’t freeing prisoners, healing wounds, or proclaiming liberty from the top down; he’s doing it the way he seems to do most things—from the bottom up.
Jesus’ life and ministry make me wonder if freedom and healing start with our willingness to co-suffer alongside each other. Perhaps togetherness is the ultimate work of Isaiah 61.
Adam tells me that he used to read verses like Isaiah 61 as metaphorical, referring to our spiritual or emotional prisons. He reads them as literal now—passages like this inform the work he does every day. And while he knows there aren’t any quick answers for reform, he’s chosen a few key ways to engage. His governor-appointed role on the Pardon and Parole Board is one way he seeks to change outcomes for those imprisoned in Oklahoma; it’s worth noting that most of the cases he sees are non-violent drug-related charges, some of whom are given decades-long sentences. He doesn’t always vote yes for parole, he tells me, but his goal is to get more people, especially those who are in prison for drug-related crimes, out of a cell and into rehabilitation programs.
Another way forward into change? Spreading awareness. If more Oklahomans know about the condition of our criminal justice system, then presumably more people will act to reform it when the time comes to vote for new city and state officials. That’s why Adam hosts frequent tours of the Oklahoma City County Jail—about one tour per week scheduled for the entirety of 2019.
But there are smaller ways that Adam works for change, too. He makes room for those on the margins, not just in his work, but in his everyday life.
I have, to some degree, an inside view of Adam’s life, because I see him week-in and week-out at church. I see how people who have just gotten off the streets or out of prison sit with him, spend time at his house, how they smile and laugh with his four handsome, dark-haired boys. I know that he and his wife always have an available cot in their house in case someone needs a place to stay. From where I stand, Adam’s not doing the work of reform out of some ego-driven need to serve those whom society may perceive to be below him. He’s doing it because he sees these people as his people—as his family. He seems able to see beyond the divisions society would put between him—a successful, educated man—and others whose stories played out differently.
If he had an agenda, I imagine people would sniff it out a mile away. Instead, people of all backgrounds sense his humility, his open heart, and his willingness to make room for one more. In short, they feel seen and accepted, the way you’d hope to feel around family.
I sense that this stance of familial love is one major key to the work of reform. I know there are complex policies to create or dismantle, layered systems and generations of decisions that have led us to where we are in Oklahoma City and the United States at large. Adam knows this, too, and he sees how complicated and long the road ahead of him is. But what I see in Adam is a dogged determination to look at—and really see—what others would rather avoid. At every turn, Adam seems committed to co-suffering with those on the underside of systems of power.
When I ask him how he keeps going, how he combats the fatigue that can so often accompany heavy advocacy and reform work like his, he answers simply, “I follow Jesus.”
“You read the story about him stopping to heal the woman who touched the hem of his robe, and Jesus didn’t seem bothered or flustered. He always had time to stop for people,” he tells me.
What Adam follows, then, is this: Jesus’ teachings that if there is one lost sheep, love goes as far as necessary to find it; if there is one person bound up, held captive, left without hope at the bottom of a pit, love climbs down as far as necessary into the pit.
The climb up may be long and arduous, and it may be dark more often than it is light, and it may take lifetimes—but it’s a path that can be walked together.
Photos by Hunter Lacey.