'I Was in Prison, but I Was Free'

Aug 11, 2017

For some, prison is a death sentence. For Zach Erlemann, a prison sentence saved his life.

Zach never considered himself a violent or compulsive person. He grew up in a good family in a nice area and was taught the difference between right and wrong. In his teens, everything was going well for a time—his grades were good, and he had plenty of friends and enough money.

Then, his addiction caught up to him. The alcohol and drug abuse depleted his bank account. His “friends” deserted him, and his emotional and mental health quickly declined. Under the control of addiction and sin, Zach became someone he can’t even recognize to this day, someone who would be sent to prison for robbery.

While in jail, Zach became depressed and suicidal as he faced 20 to 25 years in prison. After two weeks and waiting to hear from his family if a deal could be made for him to be admitted to a long-term treatment center for alcoholism and addiction, Zach was awoken one morning by the sun streaming through the window of his cell.

“The sun was shining in my eyes, but I realized it was not hurting my eyes to look into it,” Zach shared. “An overwhelming sense of peace flooded over me, and I felt enveloped by a loving force. Before, I believed that God didn’t care about me, and I didn’t care about him. But at that moment, I knew there was a God and that he cared. His love had opened the door in my heart.”

After spending almost two years in the treatment center, where he got sober, Zach was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for his crime. Scared but wanting to find ways to better himself, he started attending Buddhist meditations. Though he enjoyed sitting in a quiet, dark room, he realized something was missing and could not forget his experience in the jail cell. Something was pulling on his heart.

Once he began to attend Christian services in the prison and read the Bible, things began falling into place. He experienced the same peace he had in that jail cell and realized that God had been pursuing him, even when he didn’t know it and even when he rejected him. A short time later, Zach made Jesus Christ the Lord of his life.

“Doing things my way had led me to prison and in a deep, dark hole of sin and depression, but God met me there and redeemed me and set me free,” Zach said. “Although I was in prison, I was free. Even though I was surrounded by chaos, guards, and barbed wire, I had peace and joy.”

In May 2015 Zach was transferred to Wake Correctional in Raleigh, where he attended his first Summit service. As much as he enjoyed the sermons from Pastor J.D., it was the volunteers that made the biggest impression on him. They came sometimes 10 at a time—a lot for a single church—and exhibited a spirit of love and compassion that Zach knew came from their desire to serve the Lord and in obedience to Matthew 25:36-40, in which the righteous ask Jesus, “When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” Then Jesus tells them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (ESV).

Zach was amazed to learn that the Summit volunteers also stayed connected with and helped men who leave prison. When he was released on March 22, Zach left believing in God’s promises and has seen the Lord provide for him through the Summit and friends as he joined a small group, got a job, and started school in May.

“I think people watch TV or movies and get a stereotype for prisoners in their heads which is, for the most part, untrue,” Zach shared. “A lot of prisoners, like myself, recognize that they have strayed off the road and want to change and do right.

“In Luke 5:31-32 Christ said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ Those verses hit me hard, because I knew that I was sitting in prison for the choices that I made and that I needed Christ because I could not even stay out of prison on my own, much less live a righteous, godly life.

“I believe that a lot of people in prison feel that way. The need for a Redeemer to turn their life around is in a prisoner’s face 24/7. So although it might be a little frightening the first time to go in and volunteer at a prison, it is one of the best places to minister.”