Ridgeville -- The rumbles and shouts began the moment Ron Burris set foot in his old cell block at Lieber Correctional Institution. "Eighty-eight on the rock!" the inmates shouted. "Eighty-eight on the rock!"
Burris stopped in his tracks. They were using inmate code to alert others to law enforcement in their midst. They'd taken one look at Burris and assumed the burly stranger with the barrel chest and shaved head was a cop who had come to search their cells for contraband.
Burris mused a moment at their mistake and then belted out his old inmate number and cell assignment. The shouting stopped as realization sunk in. He'd been one of them once, lost and troubled, stacking time on the 'rock.' Burris pulled out his worn Bible and began shaking hands. He was here to help.
Burris once swore he'd never set foot in a prison again. Now, at 41, he returns to Lieber Correctional Institution every Thursday night to counsel inmates as part of the Kairos prison ministry program. It's his way of giving back after finding faith, ditching his criminal past and building a new life grounded in church and family.
He's come a long way since August 1999, when he stole a car and led officers from three jurisdictions on a winding and treacherous chase. The pursuit lasted several hours before ending in West Ashley in a hail of police bullets. Thirteen rounds pierced Burris' body, leaving him critically wounded. He recovered, only to spend the next 4 1/2 years behind bars.
Burris holds no grudges. In fact, he insists police had every right to shoot him. He credits the episode with helping him kick a 15-year crack cocaine habit and turn his life around. He's been clean for 10 years and is happily married with two young daughters. He hopes his visits to Lieber will inspire other inmates to change and give them hope as they serve their sentences.
"I love doing this," Burris said. "The Scripture says, 'To whom much is given, much is required,' and I have been given so much."
His rehabilitation has won praise from law enforcement officers, clergy and others. Two independent filmmakers want to make a movie based on his life story. A script and a promotional feature are in the works as they try to raise capital for the project. The working title is "The Unforgiving Servant" after a biblical passage that helped spur Burris' transformation, producer Tripp Adams said.
Adams and partner Ken Conner, a writer, director and producer, said they don't intend to glorify the chase, but rather place it in perspective with the rest of Burris' life.
"It's a great human interest story with all the elements of high drama," Conner said. "He is a man who has had struggles in his life, some failure, and he has redeemed himself."
Eddie Morris, the assistant chaplain at Lieber, clearly recalls the bitter young man Burris used to be. During their first session, Burris railed against perceived injustices by police, the prison system and society. But when Burris lifted up his shirt to show off his bullet wounds, Morris burst out in laughter, perplexing the young convict.
"I'm looking at this guy and the first five holes would be enough to take a man out," Morris recalled. "I said, 'You need to be thanking God you are even here to talk about it.' "
As they prayed together, hugged and wept, Burris began to rediscover his faith, Morris said. He kept coming to the weekly prayer meetings, and change took root.
"I've seen him go from an angry young man to a humble servant," Morris said. "It is awesome. He's become a better husband, a father to his children and a friend to these men. He lets them know, 'If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.' "
Message from the heart
Burris makes the 64-mile round trip from West Ashley to Lieber weekly to meet with prisoners, including those on Death Row. He's usually among the last to leave after the two-hour sessions, lingering to offer one more hug or handshake.
"He used to swear he would never set foot on (state corrections) property again," Morris chuckled, shaking his head. "Now, I have to tell him to leave."
One recent night, Burris sat around a table with five inmates. Some were serving life sentences; most have never had a visitor. They read Scripture, shared stories about their lives and discussed the everyday challenges of life behind bars: the ever-present noise, the potential for violence, the long stretches of time with nothing to do.
"You gotta be strong to do the time in here," one inmate said, his voice just above a whisper.
Burris nodded, his brow furrowed. He explained that when he arrived at Lieber, it felt like he would never get out alive. But prayer and the weekly ministry meetings helped him survive and grow as a man, he said.
"It can turn around for you anytime," Burris said, his voice filled with urgency. "You've just got to stay faithful. Take advantage of this. One day when you get out, you will need it."
One inmate, who is serving a life term for kidnapping, said Burris' stint on the "rock" helps him reach prisoners in ways others may not. "He's been on this side and he's done something with himself," he said. "It makes guys listen because it comes from the heart."
In the past year, Burris had to undergo a series of surgeries to remove bullet fragments and repair damage from the car chase and shooting. Unable to work, he sold his landscaping business and equipment. Now recovered, Burris said he can't find work in a sour job market where few employers want to take a chance on an ex-con. He worries about his ability to provide for his family.
The trips back to Lieber help him keep faith. He gets a queasy feeling when the steel doors shut behind him and he sees the rolls of razor-sharp concertina wire atop the fences. The inmates' stories remind him of what he left behind and why he never wants to go back.
"This is so important for me," he said, as he stepped back into the night air. "I don't ever want to forget where I came from."
'He's been on this side and he's done something with himself. It makes guys listen because it comes from the heart,' one inmate said.×
Ron Burris, 41, shares a laugh with inmates in a prison ministry session Thursday at Lieber state prison in Ridgeville. Burris returns to the prison weekly to counsel inmates.×
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