Hero to Prisoner to Apologist


Each year, thousands of people convert, revert, or in some way discover the Catholic Church. For cradle Catholics—like me—who are born into the faith but for some reason or another lapse from it, reversion to the faith can certainly become an eye-opening and sometimes, more often than not, humbling experience.

People resist the faith for various reasons. Recalcitrance to parents, school officials, and even Church authority; pride, over-reliance on one’s own abilities instead of the divine mercy and Providence of Almighty God; greed and the pursuit of the things of this world, blatant apostasy and heretical teaching are among the most common. However, God works in mysterious ways, as the saying goes.

Most of the time, it is hard for us to fathom God’s reasons for allowing certain events to transpire in our lives and the lives of those whom we love and care for.

A Harrowing Journey to Faith

My journey was eye-opening, harrowing, and humbling. I was reared in a good Catholic family, attended Catholic schools, and received the sacraments.

During my high school years, like most teenagers, I thought I had infinite knowledge, immortality, and that the world and everything in it belonged to me.

The reality of the situation was that I was arrogant and ignorant of the gift that I had been given as a child: a Catholic family. My parents will tell you that I never caused them a day of trouble, but my main flaw, among many, was an absence of the knowledge of the faith. Sure, I knew the rudimentary teachings of the Church. I knew how to pray the rosary and could list the Ten Commandments, but I didn’t really understand. I was good at memorization, but not yet spiritually mature enough to internalize of God’s laws and love.

After graduating from high school, I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served eight honorable years. I served in Operation Just Cause, Operations Desert Shield and Storm, and Operation Restore Hope. Through all of those times I prayed, mainly out of fear of dying, to Our Lady. I had been taught as a child by my mother to have a devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I prayed, not with the faith that I should have possessed, but with a false faith and devotion that made me think of those words as magic charms rather than true and contrite prayers from the heart.

After my discharge from the military, I returned home to Texas and was employed as a correctional officer with the state prison system. I left the state prison system to become a law enforcement officer. At this point, my life changed dramatically.

On September 25, 1998, I, a law enforcement officer, was arrested for the crime of delivery of a controlled substance and exhibition and use of a handgun. Eleven months later, I was indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 30 years in the institutional division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. On that date I experienced the most traumatic event of my life, more traumatic than any of the conflicts that I’d bean involved with while serving in the military. I could not believe that after all of the events that I had been involved with, all of the accolades that I had acquired during my lifetime, that I had been found guilty of a criminal offense and was being sent to prison.

A week later I realized that no amount of money or any political influence could alter the course of events. I went to the rear of my cell, hardly visible to anyone, and got down on my knees and began to pray the rosary with a faith that I had never known before in my meager prayer life. Tears began to flow and I begged God to remove this cup from me. I was oblivious to everyone and everything surrounding me to the point that I heard God speak to me with perfect clarity, telling me "I will never leave you nor forsake you." I could feel his grace moving through me.

I immediately stood and dried the tears from my face. Like St. Paul on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus, I was knocked from my high horse—so to speak—and blinded. The moment God spoke to me I realized, as Paul realized when Ananias baptized him and the scales fell from his eyes, that God needed to use me and I needed to submit to his holy will. The scales of ignorance fell from the eyes of my soul.

Truth and Consequences

I began to develop a voracious appetite for knowledge, especially concerning the faith. I enrolled in college and earned three academic degrees. I began to study the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the early Church Fathers, the Summa Theologiae, and others. In 2007, upon being awarded my baccalaureate degree, I applied and was accepted to the master of arts in theology program at Franciscan University of Steubenville, which I am still attending.

My prayer life increased and became one that I had never known before in my former ways. I was introduced to devotions such as the Divine Office. I began to pray the 20 mysteries of the rosary each day and make the Way of the Cross every Friday in honor of the sufferings of our Lord. I began to watch and listen to EWTN programming—a blessing for us in prison. I became a daily spiritual communicant, participating in the Mass through radio and television with the Franciscans of the Eternal Word. I was learning and discovering the faith at an astonishing rate and developed the ability to explain the doctrines of Church teaching in dialogue with Protestants, cultists, Jews, and Muslims. I sought membership in several confraternities such as the Confraternity of St. Peter, Knights at the Foot of the Cross, and the Brothers of St. Dismas/Sister of St. Mary Magdalene. I joined the third order of the Oblates of St. Benedict and am currently completing the requirements for Marian Catechist through the Marian Catechist Apostolate led by Archbishop Raymond Burke, head of the Apostolic Signatura.

It cannot go without saying that God certainly has not forsaken me, but he has placed angels

in my path who have truly been instrumental to the mission he has given me. One of those is my prison chaplain, Linda Hill-Smith, who is also Catholic. She truly adheres to the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, ministering to men whom society has deemed to be incapable of functioning as productive citizens and whom society continues to ostracize even after their release. She is truly a light in a world of darkness and shows love in a place where love rarely exists.

I am an active catechist, teaching the RCIA to men in this prison who were baptized into the Church but have not completed the sacraments of initiation, to Catholics who know little about the faith, and to men interested in satisfying their curiosity about the Church and its teachings. I am also discerning a vocation to the priesthood.

The God of Second Chances

A wise person once said that God does not call the qualified but rather qualifies the called. Men in prison, or women for that matter, are no different than those in the outside world, who may, in fact, be prisoners in a different kind of way—to vice. Of course we need police and correctional facilities because there are certainly those who have committed deplorable crimes and are paying the price for the decisions that they have made. Even so, are these individuals incapable of conversion, reversion or spiritual transformation? Society as a whole believes so.

On the contrary, we have the examples of saints such as Paul, a persecutor of Christians, who became the most prolific writer and evangelizer of the New Testament after his conversion; and Augustine, who admitted in his Confessions that he led a life of debauchery, but upon his conversion became not only a priest of God but the Bishop of Hippo and a Father of the Church.

We, as Catholics, stand proudly and profess our faith, the faith that comes to us from the apostles. In that Creed, we proclaim that we believe in the forgiveness of sin. Throughout the Gospels, the main theme is love of God and love of neighbor; the second main theme deals with the forgiveness of sins—both offenses that we have committed and offenses committed against us. In the Our Father, we say "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Mark 11:25-26 states "And when you stand praying, forgive, that your Father in heaven may forgive you your trespasses, but if you do not forgive then neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses." These are but a few examples of what we are commanded to do.

Most people try to adhere to the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, but when it comes to visiting the imprisoned, the works are not so easy because of the ingrained attitude "they are getting what they deserve." But the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, is made up of sinners. When judging those who are paying the penalty for the decisions that they have made, we should be reminded that Christ said that he came not for the righteous but for sinners.

Our heavenly Father sent his only begotten Son into the world for the Redemption of mankind, showing that we are all worth a second chance (or more) in his eyes. Incarcerated men and women who have made a conscious decision to leave their former way of life and make Christ the beacon by which they navigate their lives are worthy of second chances. I have set my sights on that beacon and will never waver from that path again.


Russell L. Simpson served in the U.S. Marine Corps until his honorable discharge in 1995, achieving the rank of sergeant. He is an active catechist and apologist, including pursuing a master’s degree in theology from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

This article appeared in Volume 21 Number 4.