I Gained My Freedom—In Prison!
I DREW a deep breath of fresh air that seemed so different from that of the prison I had just left behind. It was almost impossible to believe . . . I was free at last! Free to leave the French prison of Villeneuve-sur-Lot. Free to return to my homeland, Spain.
I entered prison at the age of 23 and came out when I was 28, in 1976.
As I drew away from the prison, the pleasant sensation of regained freedom became more and more pronounced. Once more I turned around to cast a long glance at those forbidding walls. One thought dominated my mind—while still in prison, I had already achieved freedom!
During my years of incarceration, I had been held in five different penal institutions. But how did I find myself in French prisons? Certainly it was not for any noble cause. I was a delinquent. A wretched childhood in a broken home and a contradictory religious education served to shape my rebellious and bellicose personality. I certainly could not reconcile a loving God with one who tortures his creatures in an inextinguishable fire. I became a problem child. I was expelled from five different primary schools.
Born in Barcelona, I grew up in a hostile environment. When I was six years old, my parents separated, and I was entrusted to my father. However, he didn’t give me the firm direction that I needed, and eventually, because of my rebellious and unstable nature, he put me in a reformatory.
I couldn’t avoid the bitter resentment I felt toward my father. I felt abandoned. Needless to say, I didn’t leave the reformatory reformed.
French Legion or Spanish Prison?
Twice I was arrested for common criminal offenses. After that, I got myself mixed up in smuggling and had to flee to France. I was 20 years old at the time. I was picked up by the French gendarmerie (police), who gave me a choice—either join the French Foreign Legion or be handed over to the Spanish police. I chose the Legion.
Three years of service in the Legion didn’t contribute anything positive to my personality. After finishing my first military campaign, I was granted a three months’ leave. During this period, I got together with a bunch of fellow legionnaires out for a good time. To make ends meet and to support our Bohemian and reveling way of life, we had to rob. I knew that “trade” well. Some months later the police arrested us.
I was charged with several offenses, among them falsification of documents and, most serious of all, armed robbery and kidnapping. This time my desire for freedom and independence cost me a high price—an eight-year prison sentence! I was taken to the military section of the Les Baumettes prison, Marseilles, in the south of France. There I was assigned to serve meals to the convicts from cell to cell, 63 cells altogether. I also had to clean the cells and passageways.
A Strange Encounter
One day I was distributing the meals at certain cells when the accompanying officer indicated: “These are Witnesses.” At that moment I could not see them, as the meals were handed over rapidly through a hatch in each cell door. However, my first thought was, ‘If they are witnesses of some crime, how is it that they are in prison?’ Of course, they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and conscientious objectors.
Some days later, while cleaning their cells, my work companion found a book in French with a blue cover. The Witnesses had been transferred to other cells, and someone must have left it behind. He gave it to me, and I put it with my belongings. Later, during one of those boring, drab days, I started to read it. It was The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. Halfway through the second chapter, I got weary. Yet, before putting it down, I thumbed through a few more pages. The picture on page 95 caught my attention: “1914,” “Generation,” “End.” I was intrigued and read the entire chapter.
Later, I went to the library, where I knew I would find the Witnesses. Turning to one of them, I demanded, “Show me in your Bible this about 1914.” The Witness, a little surprised, told me: “First, read this other book, and you will find the answer yourself.” He handed me the book “Your Will Be Done on Earth.”
The next day during the exercise period, I asked them for more information. A Bible study was started—held daily! There was no end to my questions: “What about gambling?” “That involves greed and covetousness, and those are not Christian qualities” was the answer. (Colossians 3:5) And so it went on, question after question about habits, morals, doctrines. Each and every answer was backed by the Bible.
I had the feeling that I was untying myself from ropes and chains, as if I were escaping from a mold that had been crushing me most of my life. It seemed as if the prison walls were no longer on top of me. Those Bible truths opened up a new horizon to me. I learned that human society, “the system of things” as it exists today, will be replaced by a new society of persons who love God’s law and justice. My personality changed. In prison I began to feel free!—Matthew 24:3; 2 Peter 3:13.
A Cell-to-Cell Preaching Campaign
Proselytizing was prohibited in the prison. But, of course, I was authorized to distribute the meals to the cells. I felt the urge to share with others the same sensation of freedom that I was experiencing. (John 8:32) So whether I was sweeping the floor or distributing meals, I slipped magazines under the heavy metal doors. I even kept a cell-to-cell record so as to remember which issues of the magazines I had left. The pleasant days had begun.
From that prison I was transferred to several others, including one in Paris. I was kept there under observation for a while to determine to what degree I was dangerous. Since I expected another change of prison, I applied to be sent to Eysses in the southwest of France. I had been told that there were Witnesses there.
Indeed, there was a brother, but during the three years I was in that prison, our paths never crossed. He was in a section to which I did not have access. Yet I organized my activity the best I could. I started to distribute magazines in the prison and started several Bible studies. I was even able to conduct a study of The Watchtower with two of the inmates each Sunday. Eventually, I had three Bible studies—one with a Frenchman, another with a Spaniard, and a third with a Moroccan.
Tests of Neutrality in Prison
In any prison the spirit of solidarity is part of a convict’s ethic. There are moments when your past life, race, and nationality disappear, and each inmate feels that he is tied by a common ‘umbilical cord’ to a shared ‘placenta’—the prison. It is as if by means of one’s initiation into crime, one is invested as a member of the ‘Order of Convicts.’ This common interest obligates you to participate in prison riots—setting fire to your cell, aggressions, and strikes—whenever the popular will so decides. Yet, now I had broken with the ‘order.’ I had to remain neutral and not get involved in the other convicts’ activities.
Because of my neutrality, I suffered some reprisals. Three times I was beaten up, on one occasion a bucket of water was emptied on my bed, I received death threats. Yet, I was surprised, for that was really the least I could expect. Others had been stabbed or been badly beaten for having refused to participate in revolts. Then why did I get off lightly? As time passed, I came to realize that I had a protector. How was that?
During my transfer from Paris to the Eysses prison, I witnessed to another convict in the group. He was a prisoner with great influence, a mafioso. We started a Bible study. The Kingdom message impressed him but not enough for him to change his life. He discontinued the study. However, he turned out to be my protector! Whenever the convicts decided to organize a demonstration, he would intervene on my behalf, warning them to leave me alone. But then he was transferred to another prison.
About this time another riot was planned. They intended to set fire to the prison. I requested to be locked in solitary confinement so as to avoid possible acts of retaliation. I passed nine days incommunicado. On the tenth day a general disturbance broke out, culminating in a blaze. The devastation was complete and security forces had to intervene. Fortunately I came to no physical harm.
What was most outstanding to me was the fact that despite everything, I could organize preaching campaigns in the prison. Although proselytizing was prohibited, the prison director supported me, saying, “These ideas can’t do harm to anybody.” I also talked to the trusted prisoners of each section so that they would distribute tracts that I had typed out. They had access to areas that were denied to me. I paid for their help with jars of instant coffee.
Baptism and Free for Good
I was visited by brothers of the local French congregation. Eventually, I indicated to the brothers my desire to be baptized. Yet, how could we do it? There was no possibility in the prison. Would they let me out for such a reason? The idea seemed like a dream. A circuit assembly was to be held in the town of Rodez, very near to the prison. I took the bull by the horns and asked for permission to attend.
Contrary to all expectations, I was granted a three-day leave and was to be accompanied only by the brothers from the local congregation. Some prison officials were opposed to the decision. They were convinced that I would not return. But the permit was already granted.
May 18, 1975, I symbolized my dedication to God by water baptism. I was free for good! Of course, I went back to the prison—much to the amazement of those who had opposed my permit. After that, I was granted two more permits of up to six days each. I used those days to preach and to meet with the brothers. What a sensation of true freedom!
In January 1976, I was finally freed from prison with a three-year remission for good conduct. At last, I crossed the French-Spanish border. Five very intense years of my life were left behind. When I arrived in Barcelona, I immediately contacted a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. What a thirst I had for a normal life!
The Way to True Reform
Now I am married. We have two young sons and a daughter, and I relish what I could not savor in my childhood—a united and happy family. I recognize that Jehovah has been merciful in abundance toward me. When I read in Psalm 103, verses 8 to 14 that ‘he has not brought upon us according to our sins, what we deserve, for his loving-kindness is superior,’ then I understand that only a God of love can replace this present corrupt system of things.
From my experience, it is evident to me that prisons do not have the power to reform and never will. That power has to come from an inner force and motivation that actuates the mind. (Ephesians 4:23) There are so many who debase themselves even more in prison, and upon their release they are almost irreversibly damaged, morally and emotionally.
Happily, in my case those insurmountable prison walls had crumbled long before I was released. There is nothing that can restrict the truth of God’s Word, nor can it be imprisoned. I know that, for I gained freedom while still in prison!—As told by Enrique Barber González.
[Picture on page 21]
Former criminal Enrique Barber González studying the Bible with his wife and children