John Swanger was arrested for bank robbery on October 6, 1971 in Mizpah, Minnesota. He and seven other accomplices robbed over 150 supermarkets and banks from Texas to Washington and had almost gotten away with it. Armed with a detailed description, the FBI raided his family home and drove him to Beltrami County Jail where they took his mug shot and fingerprints. A few weeks later, he was transported to Seattle, Washington where he was booked at King County Jail. He was 18 years old.
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After being moved from cell to cell, the new one I moved into had three glass blocks up near the ceiling. It was my point of hope you could say, my hope of getting out into the world again. The bunk above me had a metal frame and under the mattress there were two-inch wide metal straps woven side to side. I would lie in my bunk and count the spaces between the straps to pass the time. Then I would count them across, up, down, and diagonal. It’s how I’d pass the time to keep sane.
One day, I walked out into the Day Room to get a cup of coffee and I see this kid sitting at a table drawing pictures. In front of him lay a cigar box full of colored pencils, markers, and high-class crayons. I asked him what he was doing.
“I’m an artist,” he answered. He was 18 years old, a young guy like me, and was in on a marijuana charge.
“What would it take to get one of those markers from you?”
I offered him a pack of smokes, but he didn’t smoke. Then I offered him a candy bar, but he told me he didn’t eat sweets, so I just grabbed a cup of coffee and started to walk back to my cell. Then he called out after me, “a black marker” and rolled one across the table to me.
“Thanks.” I pocketed it and headed back to my cell.
A little while later I got called out to see my attorney. On my way back from meeting with him, a few guards grabbed me and started to search me. I asked them what was going on and they said they were taking me down to the hole because they had found my shank, which is prison slang for knife. After they searched me, they started escorting me down to the hole when one of them named Parker said, “You guys go on ahead. I got this one.” Once the other two left, Parker turns to me and says, “Wasn’t too smart about the knife.”
I just looked at him. “You and I both know that wasn’t my knife. How stupid would I be to leave it on my bunk?”
“I know, but you gotta go to the hole anyway. How old are you, John?”
“You’re a young man, John. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. As far as I can tell, you’re a good kid. Find something you’re good at and apply your self. It’s not too late.” Then he took me to the hole and handed me off to another guard.
This cell was different from a regular cell. There was no light except one across the hall that’s on 24/7 for security purposes. The sink runs nonstop with no on/off button and the toilet can only be flushed by the officers. You have no control over it. They have a main switch that flushes the toilets all at once, at random times throughout the day.
After they closed my cell door I thought to myself, I wonder what time it is?
Right then the guy in the cell next to mine calls out, “It’s four o’clock as near as I can tell.”
I didn’t say that out loud. How did he know? “What makes you think I want to know what time it is?”
He laughed. “Cause that’s what everyone wants to know when they get down here.”
I think about that for a second. “Here’s a better question: how do you know?”
“Because I’m on medication. They give me my dose every two hours and my last one was around two. I feel like I’m about due again.”
He was right. Within moments I heard the main door open and the guards came down to give him his medication. I tried asking one of the guards what time it was, but he ignored me and walked off. They don’t talk to you down there.
The guy in the cell next to me and I ended up chatting for a while. His name was John Thomas Music. He was on death row at Walla Walla State Prison and was there at King County Jail on an appeal. He told me he had shot a kid in the chest. He and some buddies were stealing a car and the kid ran out to grab his leather jacket. Music had turned around with a .22 rifle and shot him. He said it was an instant reaction; he didn’t think about it and he didn’t plan on it, he just did it. I sat there quietly for a few minutes thinking about what he had just told me. I’d never met anyone who had killed someone before.
Just about that time I heard a guard coming back into the cellblock and out of nowhere Music starts going off on him, “You better get me a legal pad and some pencils and a typewriter! I know my constitutional rights!” But the guard just ignored him and starts to leave so Music yells after him, “You wanna swing on my legs? You wanna spring the trap you no-good-son-of-a-bitch?!”
I asked Music what he meant by “swing on my legs.”
“You’re in Washington, John. They still hang people here.”
My hands reached up and grabbed my neck. “How can you make jokes about that, knowing you’re going to die?”
“It’s not about knowing you’re going to die, everyone dies. It’s knowing when that makes the difference.”
We’re silent for a couple minutes, then he asks me, “How old are you John?”
“18 years old.”
“You sound like a pretty good guy. You’re a young man, John. You’ve got your life ahead of you. Find something you’re good at and apply yourself, it’s not too late.”
It was almost verbatim what Parker had said to me. I don’t know if there’s a God, but if there is, He’s talking to me. I asked Music how old he was.
“I’m an old man John, an old man.” Then after a few seconds he adds, “I’m 19.”
That surprised me. “I thought you said you were an old man?”
“I am. It’s not about how many years you’ve lived, it’s how many you’ve got left. And I don’t have any left.”
I could feel my neck start to hurt again. The empathy I felt for him soon having a noose around his neck was so strong I could feel one tightening around my own. We were quiet for a while then. I turned around and could see something written way up near the ceiling on the wall. It was up in the shadows, just past where the light could reach so I stood up on top of the sink to read it:
Death comes in darkness, his shadows are cold.
Your life is his victim. He’ll capture your soul.
Great love is lost, for your life he shall take.
Death comes but once. He’ll make no mistake.
Run away, go and hide. You’re easy to find.
Your life is soon taken, his last take was mine.
I got choked up. I had to put my hand over my mouth so the tough guy in the cell next to me wouldn’t hear me cry. Did this guy kill himself right here in this cell? Or was he waiting for the state to kill him like they were going to kill Music?
The next few days Music and I talked. We talked about life, his regrets, and where he could’ve been if he hadn’t done what he did. I stayed four more days in the hole and on the last night I had this dream:
I was in court and there were all these attorneys up front with these big wide shouldered suits on like big time mobsters. The judge was slamming his gavel yelling, “GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY! SWANGER! SWANGER! SWANGER!”
I jumped awake to a guard rattling his nightstick on the bars yelling, “Swanger! Swanger! Swanger! Wake up! You wanna stay here forever? Gather up. You’re leaving and going back to your cell.”
I grabbed my stuff and went to tell Music good luck or goodbye or something, but he was gone. They had come during the night and taken him away.
The guards took me back to the cellblock in Gen Pop. I was hoping to get my old cell with the windows, but my bunk was taken. I had to take the only one left in a different cell. When I got in there, there were no glass blocks on the top of the wall, no outside lights to see. I lay down on my new bottom bunk and looked up. There were no straps holding it up and no holes to count, just a solid piece of sheet metal. I felt like I couldn’t catch a break and it pissed me off. I punched the sheet metal above me and it warped into a concave shape. I hurt my hand in doing so and lay there for a minute moaning when the damned thing popped back into place as if saying, “You can’t change me.”
The next day was my 19th birthday. I walked out into the Day Room to get some coffee. Everybody who knew me before I went into the hole knew that it was my birthday. One guy gave me a Three Musketeers and another guy gave me some hot cocoa packets and a pack of Camels. While I was there, I noticed that some guy was getting let out. It was Max, the guy who had given me the black marker. I waved at him, “Take it easy, Max,” then watched him leave. Once he was out the door, I grabbed my coffee and headed back to my cell. Sitting on my bunk was the cigar box full of markers and crayons. A handmade birthday card lay on top of it with a picture of a butterfly flying through jail bars:
These prison walls can’t hold you.
Happy Birthday, John.
I peeked out my cell door and didn’t see any guards, so I got out one of the markers. I drew straps on the bunk above me and three glass blocks near the ceiling so I could at least imagine what the outside looked like. Then I started thinking about how Parker had told me to find something I was good at. The marker in my hand said Mark it for Life so I stood on the sink and wrote my first poem on the top of the wall:
I lived for myself. I lived without a Soul.
I died in a gun fight for money I stole.
As I lay on the ground shot twice in the head,
I knew it was over and soon I’d be dead.
Under the streetlight I lay fatally hit.
I felt the change coming and I knew this was it.
Inside my casket I lay in my grave.
Fear let me know I’d soon be a slave.
Then all of a sudden the world broke through
And I fell down to someplace full of fire and I knew
I was locked here forever in the chambers of Hell
Fire rose around me, burning flesh I could smell.
Ripping and tearing, flames bit at my skin.
I knew I was paying for robbery, my sin.
Satan stands watching the losers inside.
The fire keeps on burning; there’s no place to hide.
Torture keeps you moving as you do your fire dance.
There’s no God in Hell and there’s no second chance.
November 23rd, 1971
I spent around four years in prison for what I did. I was 22 years old when they released me.
Max, Parker, and Music first got me thinking there could be a God. God put them in my life at the right time and helped me realize that the consequences of my actions not only affected me, but others too. The thing both Parker and Music said to me, “You’re a young man, John. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Find something you’re good at and apply your self. It’s not too late.” spurred me on to writing poetry which later turned into songs. I tried to get into prison ministry right after I became a believer in 1983. I eventually got blocked because of my record. Typically you get out of prison, serve your parole, then three years later they clear you to reenter as a volunteer. With me, it took over thirty years because of my record. We robbed a lot of places and for years after my release they would check up on me every time a bank was robbed.
It took thirty years, but we now run a prison ministry called Unshackled Spirit. We team up with different ministries depending on what state we’re in and I share my testimony with the inmates. In prison, their goal is to get you to fit in. The Bible says, “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” One thing we tell the inmates during prison ministry now is this:
If you’ve ever watched a bricklayer, you know they show up to a job, climb up to the top of a wall, and go to work while laborers bring them bundles of bricks. They slap down mortar and line the bricks up with a ruler. If you have a good eye and good math skills, you can be a bricklayer.
On the other hand, a stonemason shows up on the job site, goes over to a pile of rocks, and starts sorting them. Then he takes a hammer, whacks off the sharp edges, and finds the best place for them to fit together.
Everywhere, there are these beautiful brick walls where everything is straight and perfect. Every brick is the same. But a rock wall is made up of different, carefully shaped rocks. The stonemason has taken all the rocks and made a piece of art with them. You see, it’s the guards’ and the warden’s jobs to make inmates look like bricks. But God says, “Stop trying to fit in when I clearly made you to stand out.” We are not called to fit in with the bricks because we are not bricks; we are different. The Bible says we are living stones in His hands and He can make something beautiful out of us. We have a choice in prison: we can let God whack the sharp edges off of us to become a piece of beautiful art or we can just lay around in the yard and be rocks. It’s our call. Which do you want to do?
That’s what I say to them because that’s what God has said to me. I’m not Presbyterian, I’m not Baptist, I’m not Methodist, and I’m not any of those other things. I’m a different breed, but I’m a different breed for God. God told me not to try and be a brick, because I never will be. So now I use every aspect of being a rock for Him.
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John and his wife Raylene run Cross & Clef Ministries. Under that, they created Unshackled Spirit, a ministry geared towards reaching those on the fringes of society: the homeless, the bikers, and the prisoners. Last year, John released the first part of his biography called Shackled: Confessions of a Teenage Bank Robber. The book goes into detail of his time spent in prison and includes personal journal entries. His sequel will be released sometime next year.
You can email John at email@example.com
Photos by Ivy and Tweed