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The Inside Man ~ by Hugh Southon

John Lord was a villain through and through. He was addicted to drugs from an early age and was considered a menace to society.

Not my words but his, although had you told him that, way back in the days before he accepted Jesus into his life, you might have been in serious danger, because he wasn’t the type of man you fooled around with.

He lived on the rough Ancoats estate – a mile from Manchester city centre – and as a youngster became involved in crime and drugs which saw him go from small-time burglar to associating with one of the city’s most feared criminal gangs. Now in his new book, Inside Out (Verité), this quietly spoken man has told the extraordinary story of how his life was turned around while he was serving a ten-year prison sentence for armed robbery and organised crime.

When he looks back at his old life today, he says, “I just had to write the book Inside Out because it is an incredible story of God’s amazing love and grace. It’s been a long time in publishing but I had to get it done – when you see a miracle in your life it can’t be kept to yourself.” He added: “I know that I have always been a bad lad from day one but given the environment that I grew up in, it seemed natural for us to be involved with crime and drugs. I can’t explain it any other way than say, it was just a way of life.’’

I’ve known John for many years and the transformation in his life, the before and after, is an extraordinary story. I know that life hasn’t been easy for him since becoming a Christian, but he realises that God is his priority, and his trust in God has been implicit throughout the difficult times.

He recalls his life on the Ancoats estate where, as a member of a seven-strong family, he grew up in an area which was renowned for its high crime rate, drug abuse and violence. John admits he grew up in a tense place – fear spread throughout the neighbourhood. Gangs usually hung around the streets and there was never a moment when they weren’t thinking of committing crimes or fighting rival gangs in the area. He remembers that everybody he knew at that time messed around with drugs, which could be anything from sniffing glue, smoking cannabis, dropping acid, taking speed and crack cocaine.

He was involved with gang warfare which developed into serious violence, leading to clashes with local gangs: these became known as ‘The Clayton Wars’. He explains: “It’s all described in the book. Guns, knives, machetes were the usual weapons, along with crossbows, bottles, bricks and petrol bombs.’’

We were sitting in a quiet Devon pub having breakfast, and I was finding it difficult, despite having known him for so long, to reconcile the change in a guy whose life was completely turned around by a dramatic prison experience which almost defies belief.

It was clear that the retelling of such stories didn’t sit comfortably with him now, and he rushed on to get to the bit that really mattered. He became excited when he started to share about his experience with God inside prison. He has a remarkable story: I feel that every prisoner should hear about it, as it speaks of a “miracle-working God”.

He said: “When I was in my teens my girlfriend and I started selling dope, but with the amount of alcohol and drugs that we were taking daily, the sales just didn’t cover the £300-worth of drugs that we were injecting every day.” His life continued to spiral out of control from there, which eventually brought him to face serious charges of conspiracy and armed robbery on a hotel. He was remanded in prison along with four others and spent 12 months awaiting trial, during which time he repeatedly attempted to escape from custody.

John spent 20 months in solitary confinement, being  moved from prison to prison all over the country. He was a high security prisoner and was deemed as a real threat through his violent behaviour. His incredible story tells of a life-transforming experience he had while in solitary. It was the beginning of a new life for him: a start of a whole new journey.

As he entered Walton prison in Liverpool, the words of the judge continued to ring in his ears. The judge had branded John as a “menace to society” and had made it clear that if it was up to him, he would “not only lock you up, but I would also throw away the key”. John says that although the judge had totally written him off, God had other plans for him. After being sentenced to ten years, John’s old life was over and an entirely new and unexpected one was about to begin. John Lord was about to become a new man with a new mission.

He had had a book which was thrown into his prison cell by a prison guard which was called Escape to Reality, written by Michael Tony Ralls (New Wine), who had lived a similar life to his. John decided to read it.

He found the book very interesting as he could relate to the story about living the high life through crime and drugs, but his interest soon waned when the author started to share about his conversion to God while in prison. John threw the book into the corner of his cell and it wasn’t until a few days later that he felt the urge to pick it up again and read it through to the end.

After finishing the book, he was challenged by the big question: Is God real? And if he was real, then could God love him? He continued questioning things and looking over his wasted life when another big question arose: If God does exist, then would he forgive him and help change his life?

It was from this moment that John wanted to know the truth and felt moved to find out whether God was real. He went to the chapel in Walton prison, accompanied by two prison guards and a German shepherd. It was a Roman Catholic service and it was while he was being escorted out of the chapel that he stole a New Testament. Old habits die hard.

On another occasion, John was going to the chapel, but heard clapping and singing from another building on the way. He was told he wouldn’t be interested as it was full of those “born again Christian types” – the word ‘nutters’ might have been just as appropriate.

But that’s where he ended up listening to a “skinny little bloke” talking about God that shook him and challenged him to the very core of his being. He said: “I’d never heard the God-thing explained in such a way and then I saw a glow of light around him and I heard a small voice saying: ‘This man belongs to me and nothing in this world can touch him.’”

John thought it was his guards speaking but when he looked, they were all preoccupied with other things. Suddenly the meeting ended and he was escorted back to his cell. Then something more extraordinary happened. No sooner had he been locked up than the keys rattled and the preacher man entered and said: “I’ve come to speak with you because God loves you and not only that, he wants to set you free.”

It was the crucial turning point in his life. The pair talked for an hour. John finally accepted the offer to let God take over his life. He said: “I was like thousands of others who have gone through the penal system who hoped they would get one over on the authorities but was too stupid to realise I was fighting a losing battle.” After his decision to give his life to Jesus, he immediately felt better, saying: “I wasn’t angry anymore. I felt really good inside and although I’d been hammered with years in prison by the courts I felt quite brilliant.”

Thirty years on, John Lord remains faithful, but is honest and a total realist, making it clear that troubles don’t cease simply because someone becomes a Christian. He’s had more than his share, including the death of his son Jason at the age of 25, after a serious asthma attack. He has brought up two children single-handedly and admits: “At times I’ve had to hang on to my faith by my fingernails. There have been some very bad times but God has always brought me through.

“My life is in a good place now; I have a job that I enjoy. My children are doing well. I really want this book to have the same effect on the lives of prisoners that Escape to Reality had on me, and every penny it makes will be ploughed into publishing more to get it into every prison in Britain.”

John has now set up Inside Out Prison Ministry, which aims to help those that are inside prison to realise that there is a better way of life through Christ Jesus.