by Reginald Watts, Returning Citizen

Reginald Watts was just a teenager when he was arrested on charges of first-degree armed robbery. But it wasn’t his first run-in with the law, so as a repeat offender, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

 “There is a lot of darkness in prison, and that often comes from being away from your family.” he remarks in his soft-spoken voice. And after just a couple of years into his sentence, his mother passed away.  “That really hurt!” he replied in a more emphatic tone. 

That was during a time when Angola Prison near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was a really hard place to be. “Standing above 6 foot and 220 pounds Reggie looked the part of a hard man and he was ready to take on anyone who crossed him. “Hurting people, hurt people” was the feeling of the day, he recalled.

Reggie Watts, with his daughter at a Returning Hearts Celebration, Angola Prison.

But he also began to grow weary. “I was tired of being tired” he said, and it was then that he began to “get into the Word”. He suddenly had time for that. Reggie grew up being “taken” to church. He was taken, but never grew into a relationship with the Lord. But he knew there was a God that heals, and through the reading of God’s Word, Reginald Watts became a new person.

“My old world, my old ‘society’ left me that day. “My mom was gone, I had a life sentence, but I was given peace that day.” 

Many men at Angola prison have said “When the judge sentenced me to life, he had know idea I would get eternal life!”, a reference to those who have gained a similar sense of faith and purpose through a new-found relationship with Christ.

It’s a Romans 8:28 thing says Reggie. “You meant it for my hurt, but God…but God…has turned it into good.”

Throughout his incineration, Reggie has also learned to be a father, even from a distance, to his daughter who became a victim of his bad choices, a victim of an absent father.

He remembers the time his daughter visited him in prison during the Returning Hearts Celebration, a Lifeline Global event that reunites children with their incarcerated fathers for a day of fun and opportunity to bond in a way unlike any other visit. “I know she is going to ask me if she can start dating”, Reggie said, with a bit of apprehension in his voice, but thankful he still had a parenting role in his daughter’s life. 

File Photo: Returning Hearts Celebration, Angola Prison

Lifeline’s Malachi Dads program has given him, and hundreds of other men, the tools, the training and the confidence to help guide their children.

One thing that men in prison don’t like to talk about is the tears and the crying. Malachi Dads taught us that we could cry. Not only can you cry tears of pain, but also tears of joy, as you discover the spiritual concepts of not just being a good father, but a great father, even from prison. 

Reginaled Watts was released from Angola Prison in Louisiana about 9 months ago, a new person in Christ. Sentenced without the possibility of parole, now released…” with the promise of eternal life. “But God!”, he beams with a grace-filled smile.

Reggie had enrolled in the Bible Seminary program at Angola and received a degree in Christiasn Ministries and within two hours of his release, was offered a position as Chaplain at a prison in Mississippi where he gets to introduce other inmates to the one who can give eternal life!

Inmate peer-ministers, and now full-time paid chaplains are beginning to get the attention of corrections professionals around the country. 

The Religious Freedom Initiative writes: “Somewhere along the way America lost focus on the rehabilitative ideals of its earliest prisons. While never intended to be comfortable, the original ambition of incarceration was not simply to be punitive but also to be “correctional” – But a new model of corrections is quietly taking hold in the United States – built in part on the ideals of old, but also putting into place newer practices gleaned from the painful experience of warehousing inmates.”

Just as former drug addicts make the best addictions counselors, Angola’s former Inmate Ministers possess what retired Warden Burl Cain calls “the real credentials” –actual lived experience in successfully facing the challenges of prison. Cain is now the Commissioner of Corrections in Mississippi.

The Religious Freedom Initiative also noted what Texas Department of Criminal Justice Executive Director Brian Collier recently stated, speaking at a recent Texas prison seminary graduation ceremony at Darrington Unit Correctional Institution:

“I don’t have it, our chaplains don’t have it, a lot of our volunteers don’t have it. You’ve got credibility with your peers in the system, and that’s what matters…We’re excited about the changes that your work is going to bring.” 

And for this new chaplain in Mississippi, it has been a journey from life without the possibility of parole, to sharing his message of hope for eternal life with hundreds of men who know exactly where he has been, and are willing to listen.