JACKSON, Tenn. – March 7, 2005 – In a former life, Jerry Hughes was a criminal. In a former life, Jerry Hughes did the reprehensible – and earned 30 years in prison as a result.
“God has forgiven me so much,” Hughes said. “I feel horrible about what I did, but I can’t go back and change it. I can’t harp on it because he’s forgiven it and he’s forgotten it. It feels great to know you’re forgiven, especially when you’ve done something as bad as I’ve done.”
Hughes, 63, is a different man now.
He still lives in prison, but he walks with God. And he’s using the abilities he knows God gave him to make himself a better person.
Hughes received a diploma in Christian ministry from Union University in a Feb. 25 ceremony at the Turney Center Industrial Prison and Farm in Only, Tenn., where he is incarcerated. His instructor, Phil Mitchell, and Charles Fowler, Union’s senior vice president for university relations, were on hand to award Hughes with the diploma.
Other inmates at the ceremony celebrated the completion of their General Educational Development courses or various vocational training. Only Hughes had completed a college program.
“God gave me the intelligence to learn and he expects me to learn,” Hughes said. “All praise goes to him.”
Hughes began taking the classes through Union’s R.G. Lee Center for Christian Ministry in 1999. He had been in the state’s penitentiary system for 13 years at that point, and the classes had an immediate impact on him.
Though he made a profession of faith as a boy and was baptized when he was 8, in Hughes’ words, “It didn’t take.”
“I came back to Christ through this program,” he said. “I’ve tried to live for him ever since. I’m totally dependent upon him, and I trust him absolutely and completely. A lot of that trust I built through this program.”
Mitchell, pastor of Adamsville (Tenn.) First Baptist Church, has taught Hughes for the past six years.
“Jerry’s a good student,” Mitchell said. “He does well on tests. His papers are well written, and he always hands them in before deadline. He’s really been faithful to the program.”
A prison setting might be intimidating for some, but Mitchell welcomes the opportunity to teach men like Hughes. He likes the academic challenge it presents. He enjoys the fellowship.
“I like those guys, too,” Mitchell said. “I’ve made some good friends. I enjoy being around them, believe it or not.”
Hughes said he and his classmates have a great amount of respect for Mitchell and the work he does with them.
“I think the world of Phil Mitchell,” Hughes said. “He has done so much for me. He’s got a style that’s perfect for the types of classes that he teaches. I think everybody in class really appreciates it.” A
s much as can be expected, Hughes has adjusted to his life of confinement. His weight ballooned to 326 pounds shortly after he began serving his time, but now’s he’s a fit 170 pounds. His eating and television watching are under control, he said, due in large part to his spiritual disciplines.
Hughes starts his day at 3:30-4:00 in the morning and spends about three hours reading his Bible and praying before he begins his day. He works on the newspaper staff at the prison and writes a regular column.
And although he has completed his diploma in Christian ministry, Hughes isn’t done with college classes. He wants to continue his study and has his eyes on completing an associate’s degree in his current setting. When he gets out, he’d like to finish his bachelor’s degree.
Hughes isn’t sure when that will be. Although the state says he has nine or 10 more years to serve, Hughes knows the state isn’t the ultimate authority on such matters.
“Until Yahweh decides to get me out,” he said. “When he decides it’s time for me to go, I’ll go.”
Until then, Hughes will keep working to make a new life for himself – a life far removed from what he used to be.
“Yahweh’s completely changed my life,” Hughes said. “I’m no longer the person I was. I thank and praise him every day for that.”