But now it was June 1987, and I was a jailed drug dealer. I had been back to magistrate court and they had scheduled my court appearance for late October. I was living in a cell block, lockdown. There was no way out, no chance of escape. The sheriff had instructed the jailers that I wasn’t to leave the cell without handcuffs and leg irons. Occasionally, they’d let us go outside to play basketball. It’s a tough game in handcuffs; it’s tough to run in leg irons.
One day while sitting in my cell, thinking back over the past, Officer James came in to see me. He was the jailer on duty during my escape. I knew that he’d really been through the ringer over that. How could he even stand to see me?
He told me that he just wanted to deliver something that my mother had dropped off. It was the big Catholic Bible that my aunt had sent me during my first jail term. It was dusty; I had never opened it. Officer James told me that I should read it. He ministered to me and told me that I needed Jesus.
I was facing a life term in prison. It was frightening, but Officer James encouraged me. “Ricky, you’ll be fine. You’ve got everything! You’ve got Jesus!” He knew that what I had was real.
I kept seeking God through His word, the Bible. I read it all the time. I wanted to know more about Him. I wanted to please Him. Most of the police around the jail thought that I was faking, but I wasn’t. I told the sheriff that God had saved me and that He had called me to preach. He laughed, “Ha! Ha! Ha! Sure Ricky! That’s just great.”
I went to court in late October. The judge sentenced me to seven years of hard labor at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. It’s the largest prison in Louisiana. The charges in New Orleans would come later. I was sure that Angola would be my home for the rest of my time on planet Earth. My knees shook as he read the sentence; I was engulfed with fear.
I remained in West Feliciana Parish jail for several more weeks, and Officer James continued ministering. He was God sent. He helped prepare me for prison.
Inevitably, the big day came. I was transported to Hunt Correctional Institute, ARDC, for inmate evaluation and processing. It was really tough. The guards harassed us, trying to provoke us to retaliation. It was part of the classification process. They were testing us. The ARDC authorities decided that I shouldn’t go to Angola. I had grown up near there and knew some of the guards. Some of them had chased me during the escape. They were mad at me. Angola was inappropriate; it would not be my home.
They decided to send me to Washington Correctional Institute (WCI) near Bogalusa, Louisiana. I stayed at Hunt Correctional for about two weeks and then was sent on to WCI, the second largest prison in Louisiana, to begin the sentence.
A majority of the felonry at WCI was black. They ran the prison. I was a young, small, white boy, and they tested me. During the first day there, while taking a shower, a large black man told me that I had nothing to worry about. He said, “Boy, you’re mine. You’re the one for me. I’m gonna be your man. I’m gonna take real good care of you.”
I told him quick, “I’m my own man. I’m not for anybody. I can take care of myself. Don’t mess with me!”
He was staring at my naked body there in that shower. It was sickening. It was the first of many days that I’d have to defend myself. Homosexuality was prevalent in prison; it was everywhere. I never got used to seeing it; it was always nauseating. I let everybody know that I was a Christian, that I was not a homosexual, and that I could fight if I had to. I went to prison a man, was a man while there, and came out a man. I never had to fight even once, thank God.
I learned right away that I needed some different underwear. The briefs, or “catch-me’ s” as they’re referred to in prison, had to go. That’s what had caused that first confrontation. I called my grandmother and told her to bring me some boxer shorts immediately. I never liked boxers, but I wore them for four years. I didn’t want to give anybody the wrong idea, no sense starting trouble.
There were inmate gangs in prison, and they were always trying to set me up. I was considered a rich convict; my grandmother was sending me money. Some of the gang members would catch me coming out of the canteen, the inmate store, and tell me to buy them some sugar and coffee. They told me that if I would buy it, no one would mess with me. I refused, and they didn’t like it. “We’re gonna get you!” they’d threaten. I stood my ground and never bought them anything. Finally, the harassment waned and eventually ceased.
The first 90 days of prison were tough. I worked in the field all day digging up stumps. The guards would wake us up 4:00 a.m. Breakfast was at 5:30, roll call at 7:00. Every day! We were herded through the guard line at 7:00 by guards on horseback. They were armed with shotguns. They’d make sure everyone was present, then lead us into the field to dig. We’d dig with picks and shovels. There were few breaks, and sometimes the tempers would flare. I’ve seen inmates hit other inmates in the head with their shovel. Some of them were hurt really bad. I heard that an inmate had been killed in the field a few months prior. There were several inmates killed in a cell block during my incarceration. Prison is like being caged up with a bunch of animals. It’s no fun.
Right away, I got involved with the prison church, the Victory Faith Fellowship. The church was run by inmates. We had an inmate pastor, inmate deacons, elders, an inmate choir, everything. It was a great church; everyone was filled with the Holy Ghost! We met three nights per week from six to nine o’clock. We praised the Lord with song, studied the Bible, and there was even preaching. It was great. That church laid the foundation of the faith that I stand on today.
The inmate pastor, Brother Robert Early, was a powerful man of God. He had been in prison for 12 years for bank robbery and had been saved in prison. He is out of prison today and is still serving God. I was blessed to have him as my pastor. He water baptized me in a cattle trough at WCI during December 1987. It was a cold experience, but well worth it! Brother Early was a walking Bible, as were many of the Christian inmates. I had some great brothers in prison and stay in touch with most of them to this day. Many have gotten out of prison and have entered the ministry. It’s great to hear from them.
I backslid one time during my first few weeks in prison; I smoked a joint with a guy there. We got high, but it just wasn’t the same. It just wasn’t me anymore. I felt so guilty and begged God to forgive me. I must have repented at least 3,000 times.
God spoke to me during that time. He told me that I was at a cross road-to choose whom I was going to serve. He told me that if I chose sin, I would never see my family again. I would never see another day outside of prison. He went on to say, that if I chose to serve Him, He would get me out of prison. He reminded me that He was running the universe, that He could do anything. He said that my life would be good. I chose God and haven’t backslid since. I’m right with God, I’m committed to Jesus, forever.
The biggest concern that I had during those first years was my wife, Jeannie. She wasn’t saved. I had witnessed to her, had prayed for her, and had asked some of the other convicts to pray for her. I had written many long letters to her, but she just wasn’t receptive. I didn’t know what else to do. I was afraid she thought I was faking the whole thing. I felt responsible. She was a good girl; I was the one that had led her astray. I wanted to win her to the Lord more than anything.
There are steps every convict has to go through in prison. The first 90 days is spent in the field, digging, as I mentioned. Everybody goes through that. During the next 90 days, you’re assigned to a particular job. Then you go before a board which assigns you to a specific rehabilitation program, a vocational school. You learn a trade to use when you re-enter society.
I spent my second 90 days in the kitchen washing dishes. I’d have to be there every morning at 4:30 a.m. It was a good job. After this second phase, I entered a vocational training course, automobile body and fender repair. I graduated just days before my parole.
My living quarters in prison consisted of a bunk bed and wall locker in a 120-bed dormitory. It was a rough environment, no privacy at all. All of the toilets and sinks were made of stainless steel. There were no partitions between toilets, no stalls. There were no secrets in prison. Everybody knew everything about everybody.
Sometimes there would be guards watching you sit on the commode, and some of those guards were females. It was simply humiliating.
Prison is not a good life. Sometimes I would go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and walk in on two homosexuals in the act. The only thing you could do would be to go back to your bunk. You couldn’t even use the bathroom. It was quite inconvenient. During the day you could only use the bathroom at designated times. I hated that. All in all, prison is hell.
Prison was a sinful environment: cussing, fighting, gambling, drugs, and homosexuality. The dormitory stunk. You could often smell marijuana. I believe there are as many drugs in prison as there are on the streets. I steered clear of all that and stayed to myself. I’d sit on my bunk and read the Bible. There was always a lot of yelling and loud talk in the dormitory: inmates fighting in the recreation room over television channels; inmates fighting over homosexual lovers and drugs. They could find all kinds of reasons to fight. It was like living in a zoo.
But the worst thing about prison was the loneliness. It was worse than the threats, the fighting, the prison chow, the lack of privacy, the ever-present homosexuality, and the loud talk. I missed my wife. I missed my son. Loneliness can dominate your entire life in prison. It can destroy you.
I stayed faithful to God through prison. I took Bible correspondence courses from schools all around the country, prayed for fellow inmates, and cast demons out of inmates on the cell block floor. I had my trust in God and had high hopes for the future. God was going to get me out of prison. He had promised; I knew He would come through!
The best news of my life came during the second year of prison. I called home to learn that Jeannie had been saved. She was really saved! A giant weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. I praised God. I thanked my brothers who had prayed. I was elated! Things were looking up.
Near the end of my third year, the St. Bernard Parish court sent orders scheduling my appearance for trial. They would seal my fate, my destiny. I had been praying about it for three years, and had hoped that they might even forget about it, but no chance. The anxiety grew as the date approached. I asked everybody to pray. I reminded God daily that He had promised my freedom; I had held my end of the bargain. My grandmother hired me a good lawyer. He would do all that he could.
The court date finally arrived. I was taken to New Orleans. It was my first time to leave WCI in over three years. I prayed on the drive. God reminded me that He was faithful. I was optimistic; they would surely set me free!
The guards escorted me into the courtroom. I was wearing an orange prison suit, a big minus. I stood beside my lawyer. The charges were read: “The State of Louisiana versus Ricky James Sinclair, alias Kent Douglas Smith, alias James Louis Winnfield. One count possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, 14 pounds. One count possession of ecstasy, with intent to distribute, one ounce.” I was relatively calm under the circumstances. The court proceeded.
Finally, the judge read my sentence: “I’ve reviewed your file. This is your third felony
conviction. Every thing says that you’re a habitual criminal, that you can’t change. I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I’m gonna go easy on you. You are hereby sentenced to five years of hard labor at Washington Correctional Institute. The sentence is to be run concurrent with your present seven-year sentence. Don’t let me down.”
He said that he didn’t know why he was going easy on me. He didn’t know, but I did. It was God. Jesus had come through! I’ve never been more excited in my whole life. I had been given a second chance at life for the second time, once by God and once by man. Soon I would be free!
I was excited all of the way back to WCI. The guards were happy too. It was a nice ride back. I stayed at WCI for six more months.
During that six months, Jeannie backslid. It tore me up. I had to go home, somehow. I prayed, asking Godtomakeawayformetogohome,andHedid. The warden scheduled me to go before the parole board. The board reviewed my records: I had been a model prisoner. I had only been written up one time. It was a minor violation, oversleeping. I explained to the board, “I was up late studying the Bible. I just overslept.” They understood: God had blessed me again. I had paid my debt to society. They let me go home.