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Prison of Shame

A Michigan State student seeks freedom after being incarcerated.

  • Author: By Emilie Vinson
  • Credits: Photographs by Guy Gerrard
  • Published: July 22, 2013
  • Ministry: Campus Ministry
  • Location: USA

Panic is the last emotion Melissa expects to feel in business class this morning at Michigan State University. She pays close attention and takes detailed notes until the professor asks, “Where were you in 2010?”

He calls on students at random, but Melissa sinks down in her chair, willing herself to be unnoticeable. She’s terrified he’s going to call on her, that he’ll ask her this gut-wrenching question in front of the whole room.

Thankfully the professor doesn’t ask. But it doesn’t matter. Melissa leaves the class and sobs.

Because she didn’t want to lie, but she didn’t want to tell the truth, either, had the professor asked. Because her answer about where she was in 2010 is shameful, awful.

Because Melissa spent 2010, 2011 and half of 2012 in prison.

For most of her life, she wanted to be someone other people admired and looked up to. “I built my hope on my image,” she admits.

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In order to uphold this perfect picture of a pretty, fun, popular girl, she had to make compromises, ranging from what she ate, to what she wore, to her relationships, to how heavily she partied. And the compromises often led to feelings of shame.

In the fall of 2008, during Melissa’s junior year at Michigan State, she and a good friend, Joe Barton, attended a party full of underage drinkers. They had arranged for a designated driver to take them home, but plans changed. Intoxicated, Melissa began to drive home.

At 1:30 a.m., she merged onto the expressway using the exit ramp instead of the entrance ramp, crashing head-on into two oncoming cars. Melissa was unconscious at the scene of the accident, but Joe was still awake. The EMT said Joe kept telling them he was fine, that they should take care of Melissa instead. He kept saying, “Melissa, wake up. Please wake up.” Joe was pronounced dead an hour later at Sparrow Hospital.

Melissa was in a coma for 11 days after the accident and, even now, she can’t remember anything that happened that night. She broke 10 ribs, shattered her pelvis, crushed her anklebone and nearly sliced her liver in half. “The doctors asked my mom if I would be an organ donor, because they didn’t believe I could survive,” Melissa says.

But she did. After seven weeks of recuperation in the hospital, she was released, desperately struggling with the fact that she was alive and Joe was dead. Three people from the other two cars were also seriously injured. It was nearly impossible for her to celebrate steps forward—the transitions from wheelchair to walker to cane. “I had never felt so unworthy before,” she says. “I felt like I should have died instead of my friend.”

Melissa walks across campus with four friends involved in Cru at MSU.

Melissa went back to MSU the next semester, trying to fit into her old life with her old friends. But it was impossible. “I was in total despair over causing my friend’s death, and the feeling of shame was confirmed over and over again as I began to experience rejection and judgment from the people I called my friends,” she remembers. “The guilt tormented me, and I was alone in my brokenness, until I decided to look somewhere else for a solution.”

In the spring, Melissa began a search for new friends by looking through MSU’s student organization website. There she stumbled across Cru and started attending a Cru Bible study on campus, hoping to find a solution to the crushing weight of guilt and shame she still felt. On her first night, the group read the story of the woman in chapter 8 of John’s Gospel who was accused of adultery and about to be stoned for her crime.

“I felt like I was the [adulteress] standing in front of everyone being judged and condemned for the severity of my sin,” she explains. “But I really heard the gospel for the first time when I read Jesus’ response to her, saying, ‘Has no one condemned you? . . . Then neither do I condemn you . . . . Go now and leave your life of sin’” (John 8:10,11, New International Version).

Melissa asked many questions, trying to process the hope that she could be completely forgiven because of Jesus’ work on the cross. “I was just so desperate for forgiveness at that time,” she remembers. “It seemed impossible with what I had done, especially knowing that I was responsible for someone else’s death.”

In the spring following the accident, Melissa wrote in her journal on April 18, 2009, “I want to commit my life to Jesus Christ.” She knew that if Jesus accomplished all He said He accomplished through His death on the cross, that if the forgiveness He offered was real, then it was worth surrendering her life to follow Him.

Within a week of that decision, Melissa learned there were warrants out for her arrest. She was accused of operating a vehicle while intoxicated, causing death and serious injury. Seven months later in a courtroom, the judge announced that her two-and-a-half year prison sentence would begin immediately. She was removed from the court in handcuffs and incarcerated.

On breaks fro her work during the week as a church secretary, Melissa loves to practice her singing in the sanctuary.

“From the moment I was taken into custody, I had to fight to believe that the gospel was still true, that I was forgiven and could walk in freedom, even though my circumstances communicated something very different,” Melissa says.

Suddenly, she was a prison inmate of the state of Michigan. She would no longer be trusted to make her own decisions—what she would eat, what she would wear, when the lights were turned out at night, or with whom she would share a room.

There was also no privacy. The first time she used a shower at the county jail, a girl walked over with a cup in her hand. The shower had no door and, while Melissa washed, the woman lifted her cup to the showerhead and filled it with hot water so she could make hot chocolate.

From there, Melissa was moved to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the only women’s prison in Michigan. She spent her first 60 days in a required new-prisoner quarantine, locked down and alone in her cell for 23 hours each day. Many nights, she woke up sobbing from intense nightmares. Sometimes she wondered if she was going to cry herself to death.

“I spent so much time in prayer, begging God to give me rest,” Melissa says. For months, she slept with a Bible she had received in the mail gripped against her chest. “I would read it, I would pray, I would be immersed in it, and I would be clutching it—almost like holding on for dear life.”

Her dependence on God was tested and deepened during this time, as she worked to combat feelings of shame with what Scripture says is true of a child of God. “God used my incarceration to completely remove me from the things I had previously placed my hope in,” she explains. “He showed me how placing my hope in those things was futile and ever changing, and they actually led to shame because of what I did to maintain them.”

On May 22, 2012, Melissa was released from prison. She smiles, remembering, “I felt like I was experiencing life for the first time, like I had new eyes.” The small things—choosing what dress she will wear, stopping at Starbucks—mean so much more than they used to.

And though freedom is sweet, reality is that life won’t ever be the way it was. The temptation to live in shame is just as real now as it was when her fellow inmate filled a cup with Melissa’s shower water.

Simple everyday things trigger painful memories. Though Melissa no longer wears Huron Valley’s prison blues, she will always wear her story in scars from the accident and surgeries required for survival. Even small talk isn’t small. Simple questions about what she was doing in 2010 make her want to hide. After one answer that doesn’t line up to the norm, the questions move on: How are you a 24-year-old junior? You took time off from college? Why?

“I am tempted to hide in shame every time I meet a new person or have a job interview, because I know these things require me to share my story, to really be known by others,” she admits.

With graduation more than a year away, she leads,a group of freshman girls through a Bible study on Monday evenings. The night before, Melissa and the other women who lead Bible studies on campus,prepare together. This week, they open the curriculum and are challenged to answer a question: “What ways has God used events in your life to rouse you to wake up and turn to Him?”

Everyday questions like these force Melissa to keep choosing: Will she hide under the weight of shame, or will she be open about her past, risk rejection and trust God to continue using her story?

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