What can change hatred forged behind prison bars?
At first, Randy Stinnett resisted joining the white supremacist gang at Northpoint Training Center, a prison near Danville, Kentucky, mostly because he didn’t want to shave his head.
One confrontation flipped the switch.
While unpacking a care package in his cell, three black prisoners beat him up and stole new T-shirts and socks.
“That was it,” Stinnett said. “I told them to sign me up.”
Within a few years, the 21-year-old Stinnett was running the gang. His reputation? One of the most powerful and dangerous guys in the yard. Hatred simmered and boiled over onto anyone not in his gang.
“I hated everybody,” Stinnett said. “But on the inside, I hated myself. I was filled with sadness, pain and depression. I’d traded everything that mattered for another high. The only way to deal with something like that is by hating other people.”
Dave Thomas first saw Stinnett at Green River Correctional Complex in 2010, where he was serving time for drug-related charges. He had heard about Stinnett from other inmates, and as a black man, he knew to keep his distance.
What he didn’t know was that God was already working in Stinnett’s life.
Thomas’ life began to change before he went to prison. He knew allying himself with the right group would determine his future.
“I got involved in what I called God’s gang,” he said. “I immediately started going to chapel, joined a Bible study group and hung around them. God was transforming my mind, heart and perspective in life.”
Trying to follow Jesus didn’t mean there were no issues.
“I definitely had a major issue with white people,” Thomas said. “I felt a lot of them were against me. I would hear the phrase ‘the white man is the devil’ and felt a lot of white people were operating more like the devil—that they were a stumbling block to the African-American race.”
But in prison, Thomas began to look beyond skin color.
“I saw that they were lost. They didn’t have a relationship with God,” he said.
That was a totally new view.
“I knew Randy’s gang was led by hate,” Thomas said. “I saw them out in the prison yard, doing what they do, mostly intimidating people, selling drugs and gambling. I knew I could not have a conversation with him.”
Stinnett became more open to faith after signing up for Malachi Dads, a Bible-based program that helps dads behind bars take responsibility and break the cycle of incarceration. Stinnett was drawn in by the offer of free food.
Harrell Riley, who ran the program, told Stinnett a hard fact: Because he was in prison, his children were seven times more likely to end up incarcerated as well.
Stinnett didn’t want that.
He was alone in his cell the day he hit bottom. He didn’t know much about faith, but he got down on his knees and prayed.
“God please give me something I can see the end of,” he began. “If You help me survive prison, I’ll live my life for You.”
There is no leaving a gang.
“I realized that the same people who followed me to hell would follow me to heaven if I had the courage to lead them there,” Stinnett said. “So I started using my influence to lead men in the right direction.”
His life changed so drastically from that time on that Stinnett was paroled the first time he was eligible. He didn’t take that second chance lightly.
Before release, he became involved with Prodigal Ministries, a faith-based prison care program for men and women that is supported by Southeast Christian Church. After release, he moved into the Prodigal House in La Grange where he went to Bible studies, counseling, met with a mentor and began attending worship services at Southeast’s Oldham Campus.
He got married and began raising a family.
Thomas was in the audience the night Stinnett told his story at a Prodigal Ministries fundraiser in 2018. He made his way to the stage and introduced himself.
In many ways, they were two different men from days behind bars. Thomas is director of outreach and community transformation at Greater New Beginnings Christian Church. Stinnett owns his own plumbing company. Both are members of Southeast.
In that first conversation, Stinnett told Thomas about burying his newborn son, about mentoring other young men leaving prison, about chasing after Jesus.
He asked Thomas to meet him for lunch.
“Years ago, Dave would have been my worst enemy,” Stinnett said. “Today, he is my friend.”
The two men share their story with groups and other gatherings in this time of racial unrest and division.
“Jesus is the key to racial harmony,” Thomas said. “I want to be the person who is hard to hate. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself. Start with the one person you know. Loving your neighbor is the most powerful thing you can do. Only Christ’s love will bring reconciliation.”