Out of the Darkness
By Ali Hull
When the time came for converted prisoner Anthony Gielty to apply for parole, he was not short of good advice. It included, “Don’t go and tell them you’ve met Jesus and you’re all better now.” As another prisoner pointed out, “Loads of people have tried that and it doesn’t work.”
But that gave Anthony a huge problem. Because it was Jesus, and only Jesus, who had transformed him. And he really couldn’t say anything else, because of that transformation. As he said to his mates, “I am not going to tell them it was their ‘cognitive skills’ or their ‘anger management’. I will be telling the social workers doing my reports that Jesus has given me a new heart.”
“Good luck with that,” was the reply.
His mates were right, though. When Anthony met the social worker responsible for assessing him, she was less than impressed with his conversion story. But he stuck to the story – because it was and is wonderfully and gloriously true.
Tony Gielty (he stopped being called this and reverted to Anthony, when his life changed) was, at 17, one of the nastiest pieces of work you could have had the misfortune to meet, and many of those who did meet him profoundly wished they hadn’t. Once off the streets and into prison, after an attempted murder using a samurai sword, he brought terror to prison staff and his fellow inmates. Nothing they did or said made any difference. A drug dealer from inside of prison, he had plenty of money, and the most comfortable lifestyle you can buy behind bars, making a clear profit of £1,000 a week. But he was being eaten away from the inside by paranoia and hatred. “I started to have Valium smuggled in as my inner world was completely chaotic and full of pain. I began to take serious amounts – sometimes more than 50 pills in a weekend.” It didn’t help, in fact it made him worse, and he would forget what he was doing. “I would have flashbacks of walking into the cells of other prisoners in the morning while they were just waking up, and putting blades to their throats, threatening to kill them for this or that. I was losing it completely.”
Faced with a prisoner who was a menace to himself and everyone else around him, the Scottish Prison Service were going to have to reach for their last resort. “The prison authorities had exhausted every avenue with me, in their endeavours to get me to change. I now saw with chilling certainty that my options had run out; there was no other road for me than that which the prisoners called the Ghost Train.” This, he knew, would destroy him: “It consists of continuous solitary confinement for years on end. A prisoner is taken from prison to prison and held in each establishment’s Segregation Unit for three months, before being moved to another solitary unit. This is done to ensure the offender has very little time to settle into a routine, making it more difficult for them to plan any disorder or disruption. I had witnessed the chilling aftermath in the lives of others who had undergone the Ghost Train. They were the prisoner wandering the exercise yard alone, like a wounded animal desperately trying to keep up with the pack.”
Knowing he had no other option, and following the advice of another violent criminal, Tony Gielty asked to see a priest. This was not the option the prison officers wanted or had any faith in, but they agreed.
As Tony remembers, “When Father John MacFadden came to see me, there was something deeply disturbing about the man, and something I couldn’t work out, it was his stare that unsettled me most. He didn’t look at me in the same way countless prisoners and prison officers would look at me. It really troubled me. For years, I had been looked upon as an animal. Indeed, I believed I was an animal and convinced I could be nothing else. Yet there remained an approachable kindness in his eyes – eyes that were not telling me I was subhuman.”
And that meeting was the start of a new life. Soon Tony was reading his Bible, going to prayer meetings, talking to the chaplains and studying the lives of the saints. But he was also still dealing in drugs. The day was fast approaching when he was going to have to choose to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, or to slip back into criminal ways. And there would be a crisis.
Having been moved to a prison where he had few contacts, Tony had been able to pursue his new interest in faith, and for six months, he had not been involved in any fights. The prison authorities were delighted. As one of them said, having called him in to the supervisor’s office, “Whatever you’ve been doing, it’s working. No stabbings or slashings; nothing – not even a scrap.” But there was a reason for their delight. Tony had left behind a friend in a previous prison, whose behaviour was causing concern. Would it be a good idea, they asked, if this friend was moved to the same prison as Tony – “Then perhaps some of the good things that are happening in your life might rub off on him.”
Did Tony want this? “Here, I had peace for the first time in so long. Matt’s arrival would undoubtedly bring an unspoken pressure to conform to the old ways. I did not need reports filtering back to Edinburgh that I was a ‘Bible basher’. But I realised my past would not be outrun. Matt would bring his attitude with him – the same attitude I was slowly losing – and with it would come the old mentality, the old rules, then shortly after that, new troubles.”
And Tony was absolutely right. He was still bound by a code of conduct that said, you stick up for your own – and Matt was one of them. Not long after Matt’s arrival, there was a fight, and Tony was involved. Soon Tony was back in solitary confinement, raging against God for allowing this to happen, after all Tony had done for him, in believing in him.
And then Tony had a spiritual experience that shook him to the depths of his being. Reading the book of Amos, he realised that his faith, to that point, had not gone anything like far enough. In fact, he believed that his drug dealing and other behaviour, while professing to be a Christian, had actually made him unforgiveable. “I was convinced that God hated me and was sending me to hell … but I vowed that though God was just in sending me to hell, his son Jesus was so beautiful, so good and so wise, and that even though I was damned, he deserved everything I could offer him with my life.”
After three days of fasting and praying, still in solitary, convinced that he had left it too late, Tony came to a point of realising that there was mercy left for him – but that he needed to respond. He asked the prison officers to take away the trendy clothes that his drug dealing had bought him, and to provide prison-issue clothing. He asked that his cell be stripped of the fruits of his trading, and he got rid of the mobile phone that controlled the traffic of drugs into the prison. He got himself ready to face the mockery that he knew he was going to face as soon as he was taken back to mix with the other prisoners. This time, there was going to be no half-and-half life – handing out Communion while high on cannabis.
Prison might not have provided the impetus for real change, but having changed, it did give Anthony, as he was now called, the opportunity to catch up on his education, and he seized it with both hands. He also became a listener, there to help other prisoners who were going through difficulties, and he threw himself into the fellowship available with other prisoners who had also become Christians. The change in him was clear for all to see, and people reacted in different ways – in fact, he says, some reacted in more than one way. “Lots of prisoners continued to see me as a weirdo, but many would also come to my cell and we would pray. Often hardened cons on my wing would make their way round just to ask me to say a prayer for their families. At times, Muslim inmates would harass me in the exercise yard, where they could be seen, but then would come back when they could not be seen and ask questions about Christ. They would ask me to pray for them, when their mother was sick or a family member was in trouble.”
Having got out of prison, he wanted to get back in again, to talk to others. “I wanted to see people come to know Jesus, to know that God is real. I wanted to give them hope, that no matter how dark their lives might be, Jesus is able to overcome that darkness – as he overcame mine.”
So – with a message for prisoners – what was stopping him? “I kept being refused entry into prisons because of how violent my previous prison record was – 15 months in solitary, attacks on inmates and officers, being reclassified as too dangerous even for a prison known for violence. Opportunities to speak with others in the same situation as I had once been kept being cancelled. Chaplains would get clearance from governors, things would be put in place, and then the officers responsible for prison security would ensure I was refused entry. So this prompted the idea for a book.”
And the book, Out of the Darkness (Monarch), is not just to help him get back into prison. “I was desperate to present the mercy of Jesus Christ to the reader, so that others trapped in hate may find a way out, and those facing hopeless situations may be encouraged to seek God. Too many of my friends remain trapped in drug abuse, or have been imprisoned or even killed, written off by themselves and others.”
Life has not been plain sailing in other ways since Anthony finally walked free from prison. Initially, his family struggled with him – he was simply not the same person they had known, and while that was good in many ways, it was not easy. And he needed, as all newly released prisoners do, to find new friends, and a new source of income that was not linked to crime – while all the time being tempted by the many contacts he had. These, the many leaders in the drug trade, didn’t believe that the star dealer they had worked with for so long could really mean that he was turning his back on the money in order to start a new life. Just one more deal?
However, when Anthony finally went to Bible college (ICC in Glasgow), he not only gained a degree, he met, fell in love with, and married Anna. When they set up home together, and she got pregnant, it seemed all was set – and then the baby, Louis, was born at only 24 weeks, very premature. Louis battled through and then their second child, Peter, was also born early, at 23 weeks. Again, the couple were faced with weeks in hospital as their baby son fought for life and they prayed. Finally, he was allowed home – but there have been many readmissions since. These experiences with his sons have fed his faith, Anthony says: “Their little journeys into this world have deepened my appreciation of the sanctity of human life, and reminded me that life is life, no matter how small and vulnerable. My boys have me continually celebrating the goodness of God in their little lives, and the smallest of their achievements generates so much praise.”