personal, religion

September 11th and the Holdenville redemption

In July 2001, I was working as an editor and documentary filmmaker, often on celebrity-focused TV programs, when MSNBC commissioned me to make something more substantial: a one-hour film about life behind bars. The idea was for me to work with a dozen inmates, helping them record daily video diaries from their jail cells. I would then edit the footage together into a portrait of life in prison, as told by the prisoners themselves.

I jumped at the opportunity.

For several weeks, I became a regular at Davis Correctional, a medium-security facility in Holdenville, a small town not far from Oklahoma City. Every morning I would be there filming, talking to the inmates, showing them how to use a videocamera, and giving them feedback on the daily video journals they had recorded the night before. The facility itself was more clinical than intimidating. Meticulously clean, it looked more like a hospital than a penitentiary – a sterile environment that was a perfect backdrop for some forensic self-examination.

All of the participants in these “inmate diaries” were in for serious crimes, many for murder, but I found everyone surprisingly easy to talk to. Prisons are places of endless routine, so the inmates were excited at the novelty of this experiment and keen to take part. Whether they had volunteered out of boredom, a desire to be on TV, or out of some hope that telling their stories might help with parole applications, I didn’t know. But when I reviewed the batch of tapes from the first night, I encountered an unexpected problem: most of their diary entries were a little too perfect. Over and over, I kept hearing variations of the same thing:

“I’m just trying to keep my head down, do my time and stay out of trouble.”

Sometimes they’d add something about how they had got caught up in the wrong crowd, or about how much they had changed since coming to prison, or how they weren’t the same person they were back when they first got incarcerated…It was cliche after cliche and much of it sounded rehearsed. 

As I watched, I thought to myself: “what a bunch of crap.”

It seemed to me like that scene in The Shawshank Redemption, where Morgan Freeman’s character tells the parole board just what he thinks they want to hear at each annual meeting, only to see his bid denied again and again. Apparently, there really is a script of things prisoners learn to say to try to convince people to believe they don’t belong in prison. Or at least that how it came across to me. I wouldn’t say that I was your typical cynical New Yorker, but at the time, I probably wasn’t too far from it either.  I hadn’t come all this way to make a film filled with prison platitudes. I needed to get past this, and for several days afterward, I conducted clinics with the inmate volunteers, encouraging them to be as honest as possible; to go deeper. Sitting in support group-like circles, I suggested questions for them to think about as they prepared to record their diaries. “Don’t just talk about what you did or what happened to you, talk about why you did it and why it happened to you. How did you feel when you heard your sentence handed down to you? What was it like when you were first walked into your cell? Do you ever think about the victim of your crimes? Does your family still support you? Do they come to visit? How would you live your life differently if you ever got out of here?”

Nearly all of them responded well to this coaching and as they got used to the routine of recording their nightly confessionals, the truth started spilling out of them. Soon, they were providing me with some really compelling stories of lives gone wrong – often due to drugs.

One of the inmates stood out: a self-conscious young man who couldn’t have been more than 21 years old. Jedediah Chappell was exceptionally polite from the moment I met him. With his broad smile and kind, but alert eyes, he looked more like a summer camp counselor than a convict. His video diaries were different from the others; from the start, they were unflinchingly honest. Jed didn’t traffic in cliches or generalities, he was willing to unpick every detail of his life, no matter how ugly or painful.

Raised in Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma City, he started using and selling drugs when he was 12 years old, soon after his father died. He spoke about being angry with his family, with society and, as he put it, with God. One day, when he was 18 years old and low on cash, he grabbed a gun and went out to rob houses. After a few hours of breaking into empty homes, he was surprised by an Oklahoma City police officer who had been called to the scene by neighbors. Jed raised his gun to fire, but the officer was faster and shot him several times in the chest and arm.

Rushed to the hospital, Jed flatlined while handcuffed to a gurney, but was revived and miraculously began to recover from his wounds. Attempting to shoot a police officer during the commission of an armed robbery is a terrifically serious crime anywhere in the world, but especially so in Oklahoma, and Jed was sentenced to 47 years in prison. He was barely out of his teens and facing a lifetime of incarceration. 

 

Jed Inmate Diaries

In his video diaries, Jed spoke about how it was only then – when he felt he had lost everything – that he was able to find God and turn his life around. He called the day that he got shot “the best day of his life” and spoke about his time in prison as if it were an opportunity for personal growth; a break from his chaotic life that allowed him to finally take responsibility for his choices and to find a way to be closer to God. He actually seemed grateful to be there.

“There’s a lot of people that hear about jailhouse religion and think ‘well they just want to get to know God now that they’re in prison,'” he said in one video entry. “Well there is that element in prison, but there is also a sincere element where there are people who had some serious life-changing experiences – they can do nothing but come closer to God.”

Most of us have heard of jailhouse conversions. They’ve been a thing as long as there have been jailhouses and it’s hard not to be at least a little skeptical about them. Certainly, I was. Jed and a couple of the other inmates I spoke with came across as sincere but others struck me as less so.  One of the other inmates, I thought, was actually a little aggressive when he spoke about his faith. To me, it sounded like he felt his relationship with Jesus was special for him because it put him at the top of the prison hierarchy – on top of all hierarchies. After all, “there is nobody greater than the Lord and he is at my side.”

He was one of the inmates who declined to talk about his crimes.

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In between trips to the prison and reviewing and logging footage in my hotel room, I had nothing to do and nobody to do it with, so I wound up spending a lot of time in my rental car, driving around and checking out local attractions. During one of those trips, I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial Park and Museum.

At the center of the memorial is a field filled with 168 empty chairs, representing the lives taken on April 19, 1995, when white supremacist Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building. The attack was an anti-government act of revenge for the deadly 1993 raid on the compound of Branch Davidian cult members. 19 children were among those who had been murdered and a photograph of a firefighter cradling the lifeless body of a 1-year-old-child became one of the iconic images from the atrocity.

Embed from Getty Images

In interviews from his jail cell, McVeigh claimed that, had he known there was a daycare center in the building, he would have picked another target. But evidence from his trial showed he had carefully cased the premises in advance. He knew he would be murdering children, but he couldn’t quite bear to own up to that aspect of his crimes. In true jailhouse fashion, he created a script for himself that he hoped made him sound just a little bit more sympathetic, and he was going to stick to it, even if everyone who heard it knew he was lying. He wanted to be seen as a soldier fighting against an oppressive government, not as a baby-killing terrorist.

My tour guide didn’t speak much about McVeigh. Instead, he told us about the bravery of local citizens and first responders who rushed into the wreckage that terrible day, working to rescue those wounded and trapped in the aftermath of the bombing. Risking their lives, some used nothing but their bare hands to clear rubble and pull survivors free from the debris.

I found these stories deeply moving, especially the contrast between the selfless actions of these mostly-anonymous heroes who reacted without thinking, and the cynicism shown by the bomber in attempting to justify his crimes. McVeigh never expressed any remorse for the bombing and selectively gave press interviews justifying his actions, right up until his execution, which took place just two months before my visit to the memorial.

That evening, I returned to Holdenville feeling rather somber. I was lonely and a little homesick, and relieved that it was just about time to start wrapping things up in Oklahoma. I had collected enough footage to complete my documentary – there were only a few loose ends to tie up. The next day, entering through the gates one last time, I went to find each of the inmates who had participated and I thanked them for taking part and I wished them well.

It was an odd feeling – they didn’t really know me at all, but I felt strangely close to them. Every night for the past few weeks, I had been sitting alone in a hotel room, reviewing hour after hour of footage of them baring their souls; talking about their families, their hopes, their fears and their regrets, and listening while they relived their crimes and the consequences they had on their lives. It made me feel like they were personally confiding in me.

I tried to shrug off any connection I felt. I reminded myself that this was a job and these prisoners weren’t my friends. Yes, I felt a sense of responsibility to make sure I didn’t misrepresent their stories but I was also conscious that cherry-coating this story wouldn’t be right either – particularly to the victims of their crimes. I would just have to work things out as best I could in the edit room when I put all those clips together.

I went back to my hotel room, packed my bag full of taped confessions, and got on a flight back to New York City.

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Fast forward fourteen years.

It’s November 2015, just a few days before Thanksgiving, and I’m sitting on my couch, watching television when a LinkedIn notification pops up on my phone. It’s a message from someone named Jed Chappell. 

A lot had changed for me since 2001. I had given up my career in television and my wife and I had relocated from New York to London. We were both working for charities and we were busy raising a young daughter. It took me a few moments to remember where I knew that name from. Then it came back to me: from prison!

Jed’s short note said that he had been paroled back in 2003 and that he had been working for a number of years as a pastor. He had found my profile online and he wanted to know if I had a copy of the episode of Lockup: The Inmate Diaries that he had been featured in, and if I could share it with him.

Yes, of course I had a copy. I kept digital versions of all the TV shows I had worked on. But it’s an unusual thing to hear from someone you last saw in prison, so before I replied, I did some Googling to see if there was any information online about how Jed had gotten on since being released. Not only was my curiosity immediately rewarded, I wound up doing a lot of Googling because what I discovered was so extraordinary.

Here’s a sampling of what you can find if you look up “Jed Chappell Oklahoma”: a news story about Jed giving out turkeys to families in need on Thanksgiving. another featuring Jed raising money to feed at-risk youth; a link to the website of the charity City Center, created by Jed and his wife to help local families in need.

After getting out of prison, Jed had found himself having a hard time adjusting to life on the outside, when someone at his church suggested he become a youth volunteer. Jed thrived in the role; not only was he relatable and charismatic, but being an ex-con gave him credibility with the at-risk young people he was trying to get through to. Soon he became more and more involved in local restoration efforts. He got married. Became a pastor. Started a charity. Jed had found a way to turn the hardships and mistakes of his past into fuel to transform his life into something different and better.

If you watch any video of Jed sharing his story, you’ll hear some key themes emerge over and over again: his faith in God’s healing power, and how he discovered that forgiveness isn’t just granted – it’s a process that you have to take an active part in. 

Jed’s commitment to that process was so complete, that he even tracked down the police officer who had shot him all those years ago. When he eventually got him on the phone, he shocked the officer by asking him for forgiveness. In the kind of turn of events that one normally comes across only in fairy tales, Jed and the cop who shot him became (and remain) close friends.

News story

Reading all of this stunned and humbled me. Rather than just replying to Jed with a link to the film he had asked for, I found myself writing him one of the more emotional and personal emails I’ve ever sent to anyone, let alone someone who was essentially a complete stranger.

In that message, I told Jed how I hadn’t watched The Inmate Diaries since it had first aired. That it brought back too many painful memories. How, soon after I got back from Oklahoma, I was editing the film in a Manhattan TV studio when the terrorist attacks of September 11th took place. How, when I heard about some kind of incident downtown, I had grabbed my video camera – the same one he had used to record some of his inmate diaries – and headed towards the World Trade Center to see things for myself. That the stories I had heard in Oklahoma City about citizens chipping in and helping out in rescue efforts were still fresh in my mind.

I wrote about how naive I felt when I arrived on the scene and witnessed the carnage for myself. How, instead of helping anyone – when the second tower collapsed in front of me – I wound up running for my life from the tidal wave of debris, and just kept running until I got home. That I was still haunted by all the death and destruction that I witnessed that day, and by my own helplessness and inaction in the face of it.

I explained how therapists had told me I suffer from what they call survivor’s guilt, but that I don’t feel entitled to even that, because others had suffered so much worse than me. That I wasn’t a real victim. I was fine. Unharmed. That I had chosen to go down there of my own free will under the delusion that I could be some kind of helper or maybe even a hero. That I felt my trauma was my own damned fault.

smoke

I told him how The Inmate Diaries was the last TV show I ever worked on. That after September 11th, I resolved to do something different and more meaningful with my life. How I pursued a career in nonprofits, working for the United Nations, the Red Cross and other charities. That I didn’t feel like I was making a big difference in the world, but that I felt like I was trying.

I wanted everything I wrote to sound matter-of-fact, but my breath was heavy and tears stung my eyes as I typed.

I ended by thanking Jed for getting in touch and attaching a link to the video he had asked for. He sent me a gracious note in response and we both resolved to visit each other someday, should there be an opportunity for our paths to cross again. I hope there will be.

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I’ve not been in touch with Jed since then, but I think about him and his journey a lot. I still keep tabs on him online – I’ve even read his book. He’s been busier than ever: last year, I came across a story about how he and his wife’s charity has become the inspiration for a city-wide project that promises to have a huge impact on all of Oklahoma City He’s also been raising funds and giving out food to families in need during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Until I sat down to write the blog post you’re reading now, I don’t think I ever fully understood what had prompted me, out of the blue, to have shared so much of myself with Jed. At first, I assumed I had done so out of some feeling of obligation. After all, I had been privy to his taped confessions, so maybe I just felt I owed him one.

But of course, it was deeper than that. Being a witness to Jed’s transformation had, in fact, inspired me. In my email – whether I realized it at the time or not – I was acknowledging that he had shown me the power of embracing, not suppressing the things that cause you the most pain. For me, it was an epiphany.

Until my response to Jed’s email, I had never written anything about September 11th. I had always found it too hard to even talk about, much less write down. This had been the first time I had ever connected the events of that day with the way I crafted and redefined my life in the years that followed. I doubt I’ll ever be able to say that September 11th was “the best day of my life” (as Jed had told me about the day he got shot.) But at least now I can recognize it as a day that changed me for the better…eventually.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the attacks, I try to be more open about my experiences that day – to own them.  I’ve written and blogged about it several times. I’ve opened up to a few friends.  I’m even working up the courage to speak to my daughter about it, to share my story with her. I’ve never even mentioned September 11th to her before but it has become such a big part of who I am as a person that I feel obliged to reveal it to her. She’s old enough. No more hiding.

Hearing from Jed, reading about how open he’s been about his life and seeing all the meaningful work he’s done made me realize that – like a jaded prisoner – I had spent too many years of my life just trying to keep my head down and stay out of trouble.

I finally came to understand that God is there, inside the trouble. That’s where the redemption is to be found.

I just needed someone to show me how to look.

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