Shortly after my job in the chapel began, Chaplain Lawrence Nevels thought that God had gifted me for teaching others, so he allowed me to lead classes while he supervised. I developed and led the praise band and began building a lending library. I also applied to the College of Business at Ohio University and was the first correspondence student ever accepted.
One day when walking to work with a big smile on my face and my Bible tucked under my arm, another inmate yelled: “I bet I can knock that smile off your face.”
“You didn’t give me the smile,” I said, “so you can’t take it from me either.”
Walking on I realized what that smile was. I was doing what God wanted me to do, and He had given me the peace that John Wiseman told me about six years earlier.
In 1997 I graduated from Ohio University through correspondence. Chaplain Nevels, Bill Wilder, Gary Koly, and a few other godly men encouraged me to continue my education and pursue Bible training. After a thorough search of accredited graduate schools, I applied to Reformed Theological Seminary, at that time home to renowned Systematic Theology Professor R.C. Sproul. I felt foolish completing the lengthy application process; the cost of a master’s degree at that time exceeded $30,000. I was making $17 per month! Then, for the first time in four years, my lawyer came to see me.
“Mike, great news,” he said, uncharacteristically cheerful. “The Ohio Supreme Court overturned a case identical to yours. You can have a new trial if you want one.”
“Of course, I want a new trial.”
“I just need your permission to file for it.”
I walked across the prison yard with a new spring in my step, and then it occurred to me that I had not prayed about the decision. If released from prison, I wouldn’t be able to go to seminary. Due to parole restrictions I would not be allowed to leave the state to attend the seminary in North Carolina. I returned to my cell and knelt down beside my bed and prayed:
“Lord, show me what You want me to do. If it is Your will that I prepare for ministry, You have to do two things: One, You will have to deny the appeal, because if I am released I will not have the time or ability to take classes; and two, You will have to somehow pay for my education.”
While waiting on a response from both the seminary and the Ohio Supreme Court, I decided to write the great American novel. Armed with an electric typewriter and a vivid imagination, I wrote a Christian, pro-life, murder mystery, banging out the first draft in about six months. I sent it off to an agent and received a letter back.
Dear Michael, while your plot is compelling, your prose is terrible. It is as if you have no formal training whatsoever. You need to write in the active voice.
I didn’t even know what that meant. I found a book on writing in the prison library, then retyped the 320-page manuscript and sent it off to a publisher. While I was waiting on a response, I received a letter from my attorney stating that the Ohio Supreme Court chose not to review my case. As a discretionary appeal, they were not required to accept it, and they didn’t. I felt disappointed, but I knew God’s sovereignty extended even over the courts. This decision did not catch Him by surprise. And after all, didn’t I pray about this? Was this God’s answer? Even though I didn’t understand, I trusted Him.
The very next day I received an acceptance letter from the admissions office at Reformed Theological Seminary. The day after that I received a letter from their financial aid office stating that I had been granted a full scholarship, including books. God’s answer indeed!
Over the next several years, I diligently pursued my studies and continued to work on my book. Then in 1999 a Christian publishing company offered me a two-book deal, which I eagerly signed. I published under the pen name Michael Andrew, thinking that the world might not be ready to accept a writer taking the moral high ground from a prison cell.
The following year I wrote a short story entitled Jesus Barabbas. Inspired by a sermon preached at the prison chapel by a volunteer named John Schmid, the two-thousand-word tale told the story of Jesus’s crucifixion through the eyes of Barabbas. I wrote the story in a single sitting and sent it off to War Cry, the Salvation Army’s national magazine. A couple of months later I received an acceptance letter along with a check for $300. Every month for the next six years when the new issue of the War Cry arrived at the chapel, I tore through the pages searching for my story but never found it.
A few months later I read in Writer’s Digest about the Malice Domestic mystery-writing contest held annually by St. Martin’s Press. The first prize was a two-book deal with a $10,000 advance. The article said that thousands of writers entered each year. I read the contest rules and decided to give it a shot. Over the next few months I banged out a classic who-dun-it mystery, much in the style of Agatha Christie. I mailed off the manuscript and waited for a reply.
I went about my normal routine, and then out of the blue I received a letter from St. Martin’s Press. I ripped open the envelope:
This year’s decision was agonizingly close between your manuscript and the one we ultimately declared the winner. Both works displayed imaginative creativity and a mastery of the craft that we do not typically see. . . . Instead of awarding you a second-place mention, we respectfully request that you allow us to hold on to the manuscript for a year and re-enter it in next year’s contest. The panel of judges feels strongly that if we follow this course, you will be next year’s winner.
Since I had nothing else to do for the next year I agreed. The following May when the top finishers were announced in the New York Times, my name appeared in second place. Very disappointing. But a week later I began to receive letters from literary agents offering me their services. After much prayer I signed with the Helen Rees Literary Agency in Boston.
My first eligibility for parole occurred in 2002. Over the course of my thirteen years of incarceration I had earned two associate degrees, a bachelor’s degree, and several graduate credits. I had two novels published, amassed 23,000 community service hours, completed every program the prison system offered, and had not been cited for a single rule infraction. Hundreds of letters of support streamed in, including a compelling letter from the detective who led the prosecutor’s investigation for my case:
I can state emphatically and passionately that Michael Swiger has been sentenced and punished unfairly and disproportionately when the facts and circumstances are reviewed objectively. I write this letter in utter disbelief that Michael Swiger remains incarcerated. . . . I cannot reiterate strongly enough that Michael has been mistreated by the justice system which I have always strived to uphold.
Detective Bruce Van Horn later said this was the only letter he ever wrote on behalf of an inmate.
On the morning of my parole hearing, I sat nervously in the hallway outside the conference room, reviewing my file and praying. I watched the inmate scheduled before me enter the room. I knew him well as we had served all of our time together. He had not completed any community service or any educational programs and had been thrown into solitary confinement for extended periods for fighting and failing drug tests. Forty-five minutes later he bounded out of the room, thrusting his hands over his head.
“They paroled me, Swigs,” he shouted before hugging me. “I’m going home.”
If they just released him, I felt really good about my chances. I entered the room and sat down across the table from a middle-aged man in a dark brown suit. He placed a pair of reading glasses on the bridge of his nose, opened a manila file on the desk, and read a statement of my case.
“Is this your case?” he asked.
“Could you step out for a moment? I need to call Central Office.”
Less than three minutes later the door opened.
“You may step back in and we will continue.”
I sat down and opened my folder, prepared to discuss my institutional record.
“Mr. Swiger, the parole board has decided to extend your sentence for an additional sixty months.”
“Did you even look in my file? If you give me the opportunity—”
“I can give you more time, if you’d like.”
“Good. We’re done here.”
I walked out of the room in stunned silence. I knew God was sovereign, and I knew I could trust Him; I just didn’t understand why. Early on my journey of faith I discovered a verse that time and again brought me great comfort: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (isaiah 55:8–9).
The distance between heaven and earth is infinite. If my brain were the size of a thimble, and God’s thoughts the size of the ocean, I simply lacked the intellectual capacity to dump His ocean of thoughts into my thimble-sized brain. This truth drove home a simple yet profound reality: an infinite God cannot be fully understood by finite human beings. I only had the ability to understand what He chose to make clear to me. This meant that many things in life—things that did not make sense to me—si mply fell outside of my ability to understand the will and workings of God. During confusing and troubling times I found great comfort knowing that God, being wiser than I, had His hand on the wheel of life, knew about me and my circumstances, and I could trust Him. More and more I began to understand that, ultimately, shaping my soul was more important than my temporary, physical inconveniences.
Recognizing that being like Jesus was more important to God than my physical comforts, when life’s disappointments knocked me down I focused on being more like Jesus and doing what God had asked—doing everything as service to Him. I continued my daily routine of reading the Bible and Our Daily Bread. During these times I often encountered a passage or anecdote that spoke to my situation and encouraged my heart. I also found comfort in reaching out and helping other inmates—whether volunteering as a literacy tutor or teaching a new-believers Bible study. When I focused on others instead of myself, God lifted my spirits and restored to me a deep sense of peace. I was learning that not only were loving God and loving others the two greatest commands, obeying them was giving me peace when everything else was frustrating and confusing.
Two years later my attorney showed up unannounced for a visit. As I walked into the visiting room, he stood with a broad, beaming smile, and handed me a bundle of papers.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“The Ohio Supreme Court overturned your case.”
“That’s impossible,” I said. “I don’t even have an appeal pending.”
“It’s all right there,” he said, pointing to the papers.
“There was a capital murder case in Cleveland, and relying on your case, he was tried before a single judge. Only he was found guilty and given the death penalty. Therefore, he had a constitutional right to a direct appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court. In deciding his case the Ohio Supreme Court struck down the lower court’s decision in your case.”
“So what does that mean?”
“It means you have been illegally detained here for the past fifteen years. All we have to do is file a habeas corpus motion and you will be released.”
We filed the motion in September, and the judge granted it, ordering my release. The State of Ohio appealed. Two weeks later a hearing officer from the parole board showed up at my prison unannounced and called me in for an unscheduled hearing.
“Mr. Swiger, in reviewing your file, it was determined that you were not given a full and fair hearing two years ago. I am here to rectify that.” He carefully reviewed the contents of my file, recounted all of my accomplishments, and commented on my spotless institutional record. “Mr. Swiger, we believe you are entitled to relief,” he said, with an odd smile.
“However, we understand you have a habeas corpus motion pending. If you are willing to withdraw the motion, we would be willing to grant you a parole.”
“Can I talk to my lawyer before I make a decision?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “Feel free to use my phone.”
I called my lawyer and explained the exceptionally unusual turn of events and asked his advice. “As things stand right now, the State’s appeal will probably take six months before the Ohio Supreme Court rules on it. Then Summit County has ninety days to get you to trial. So you are looking at another nine months. Then you will have to pay me to defend you. Or you can accept the parole and be done with it.”
“But what if I withdraw the motion, then they renege and take away my parole?”
“We can always refile the habeas corpus. But we won’t have to as long as the Parole Board lives up to its promise to release you.”
I hung up the phone, turned to the hearing officer and said, “I will withdraw the motion.”
“Very good,” he said, stretching out his hand. “You have been granted a parole.”
My first step into freedom seemed to pass through a time portal; the world changed dramatically during the nearly two decades I had been removed from society. The cell phone had been invented, along with the Internet. I moved in with my parents at the age of thirty-eight, eager to begin my job search. I applied for an assembly line job at a circuit-board factory, and a construction inspector. I interviewed at my former company, where I had wo rked as a process engineer. And a friend encouraged me to apply for an IT position at the Salvation Army’s regional office in Cleveland.
I showed up in my suit and tie the week after Easter. I dutifully filled out the job application, and then froze when I reached the dreaded question: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Please check yes or no. If yes, please explain. And the line provided measured about two inches long. I checked yes, then printed on the line: I will explain during the interview.
I handed my application to the security guard, then returned to my seat. As he thumbed through the form, I watched his eyebrows raise, and his expression sour. He looked up at me.
He found that felony box, didn’t he?
He glanced back down, and then stared at me again. His gaze seemed to singe a hole in my forehead. In order to avoid a staring contest, I picked up the magazine sitting on the end table beside me, the Easter 2006 edition of the War Cry. I mindlessly flipped the pages until I reached the featured story. The title seemed familiar. My eyes widened. My mouth dropped open. The featured story was mine. My name appeared in the byline. I penned the tale six years before, and it was finally published six days before my interview. I slid the magazine into my folder. God got there before I did.
The human resources manager called me back and immediately grilled me about my resume and application.
“How did you get three college degrees in prison?” she asked. “Do you have copies of your transcripts?”
I reached into my folder to get them.
“How did you get Microsoft certified in prison?”
I handed her the certificate. For the next twenty minutes I fielded a stream of questions that took a predicable form: How did you . . . in prison? Finally, she looked up at me with an incredulous look on her face.
“Your resume says you’re a published author.”
“Yeah, right.” She shook her head. “Do you have any samples of anything you have written?”
“As a matter of fact I do.” I reached in my folder and laid the War Cry on her desk. “I’m the feature story in your national magazine this month.”
They gave me the job.
In my reading through the Bible each year, I repeatedly encountered stories of God’s divine intervention in the lives of people. The story of Joseph’s life seemed to best show how God sometimes worked. Joseph’s jealous brothers initially sought to kill him, then settled for selling him into slavery. He worked hard and his owner liked him. Then his master’s wife falsely accused him, so his master threw him into prison, where Joseph was well-liked by the guards. During his incarceration, Joseph met a high-ranking government official. When the nation faced a crisis, this official mentioned Joseph to the king. Because of Joseph’s God-given counsel, the king later elevated Joseph to the second-highest-ranking position in the land. Joseph went on to save the lives of thousands of people.
God used all of the “unfair” events in Joseph’s life to prepare him for enormous responsibility followed by miraculous blessings. At the end of the story when addressing his brother who initially did him wrong, Joseph said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (genesis 50:20).
Now instead of reading about a supernatural event, I experienced one for myself. My belief in God’s divine intervention in the lives of men moved from the theoretical to the experiential. My faith grew.