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After Being Sentenced to Life, Alabama Inmate ‘Got Out and Got Busy’

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Eric Buchannon, evangelist, entrepreneur, motivational speaker and former inmate at an Alabama prison, brought a message of hope this spring to William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility near Bessemer, AL. (Amarr Croskey, The Birmingham Times)
By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times

During a trip to William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, a prison located near Bessemer, AL, Eric Buchannon, evangelist, entrepreneur, motivational speaker and former inmate at another facility, brought a message about an individual’s weaknesses and Christ’s uniqueness.

“There’s uniqueness about the God we serve. It’s all under God’s grace,” he said.

His word came from 2 Corinthians 12:9 (KJV) that reads “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Buchannon stood before a group of inmates as they jumped to their feet inside William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility. “Grace gets strong in your weakness. Grace gets strong in your [prison] cell …,” he said as the inmates were in a frenzy. “God’s grace is sufficient no matter the crime or race. It’s important that individuals go to Him with a pure heart and cast their cares over to Him.”

Buchannon preached while walking through the aisles, high fiving the inmates and tapping them on the shoulder. “Don’t wait until you get out to gain power, get it now,” he preached.

In 2011, Buchannon was caught driving with pounds of marijuana in his vehicle. “Jesus pulled me over,” he recalled.

He was sentenced to life and 10 years for drug trafficking and released from prison in 2018 after writing a letter to the parole board. “I didn’t just get out. I got out and got busy,” he said, adding that he was disappointed in himself for being in the predicament but recalled other inmates asking him for prayer. “I remember saying, ‘man I’m not in the position to be praying for nobody,” Buchannon said.

And that’s when God spoke to him, he said, and Buchannon recalls hearing “My grace is sufficient, get up and do what I called you to do.”

Later a church was formed while he was incarcerated at St. Clair County Correctional Facility. “The gift is not mine it is the lord,” he said.

Buchannon, who is also a contract painter in Birmingham who was released in 2018 after seven years in prison, reminded the inmates at Donaldson that it took for him to go to prison to bring his gift back out. “You all have a gift. Do what God called you to do.”

Buchannon has been out of prison for five years and “it feels like a lifetime,” he said.

He gave an example of how God showed up in his situation. “I had $50,000 worth of fines wiped away by a judge. I had 10 friends to write good letters for my pardon.

Long before going to court, Buchannon prepared to be pardoned. He had hope and faith in God.

“I prepared. I did it backwards,” he told the inmates. He concluded by saying “Jesus didn’t die for you to sit in here, he wants your souls to set you free.”

He did an altar call. “I want the volunteers to pray for them. Pray for their deliverance and to be set free,” he said referring to the Prison Fellowship volunteers.

An inmate came forward with testimony. “I had been serving life without a chance to ever go home. I want to say, ‘thank you’ to all of you (he pointed at the volunteers) because what you all are doing gives us hope.”

The entire chapel stood and applauded the inmate.

First Go Round

At the age of 26, Buchannon went to prison for the first time. “I was just making bad choices trying to get ahead quick,” he said.

Buchannon says the struggles of life and not really looking at the alternatives but taking risk “led me to a life of ongoing criminal activity.”

In 1997, he served two years at Fountain Correctional Facility located in Escambia County, Alabama. He later transferred to Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County, Alabama to serve one more year. He was released in 2000.

Asked how that was a life changing experience Buchannon said “It was a real wake up call. But as we see, years later, I still resorted back to my old decisions and way of thinking.”

Buchannon, 52, the father of three boys, said when he first went to prison, his children were very young. When he was released “they were still babies. So I had enough time to at least put what I got out of prison into them. My spirituality had grown at that point.”

Going to prison was one of the best experiences for him because “I was ‘discipled’ by an older guy by the name of Anthony Samuels from 1998 to 2000. His influence on my life is pretty much the influence I have on my sons’ lives.”

Samuels and Buchanon worked together in the kitchen. The two would get up at 3 a.m. every morning and would have one-on-one Bible study.

“He really taught me how to study and I started to apply what I learned to my life. At Staton I received my calling into ministry. In 1999, that was the first time I preached a word in prison. It was like I had been doing it all my life.”

Before preaching his first sermon, Buchannon says he was having dreams of speaking but he was running from the calling. “I would be shaking and waking up out of my sleep. But just like painting it came natural to me.”

(Buchannon now owns a house painting business)

After being released from prison, Buchannon attended every sports and academic events with his children.

“I lead them to church. Ministry was instilled in them at a young age. Had I not gone to prison I wouldn’t have been able to be what my children needed me to be.”

Back in Prison

“To go back to prison was the worst feeling in the world. To go back to a place you vowed to never go back to.”

Buchannon says he ended up back in prison because during his time of growing spiritually he had never experienced spiritual warfare.

“I didn’t learn how to be still in a battle. When you don’t have that experience, even the best of us can be tempted and fall. During my schooling and spiritual education I missed that.”

According to Buchannon, life was smooth sailing.

“The kids were doing good I was doing well, then all of a sudden I started having financial struggles. I went to the church; they looked out for me. They took up donations and gave it to me.”

About five months later, there was another financial setback and he went to the church again.

“The third time, I said, ‘I can’t keep going to the church they are going to think something is wrong. They will think I’m not paying my tithes and offerings.’  That’s when one thing led to another. I started receiving eviction letters, utilities were getting cut off and at this point I was going to get help from some street guys.”

Eventually he stopped going to some street guys because he knew he could make money on his own and that “resulted me going back to prison,” Buchannon said. “It was very embarrassing. Here I am a man of God, a man that’s been preaching in the pulpit, bringing people through storms and now I’m back.”

Buchannon was incarcerated for attempting to traffic marijuana in 2008. He was pulled over with five pounds of marijuana.

Those who knew him found out after his mug shot was posted on Busted, which was similar to Crime Watchers.

“People definitely separated themselves from me,” he said. “The church was one, I guess they were embarrassed because they had me there speaking. People in church don’t have the heart of forgiveness like we tend to act like. We hold more grudges than people that don’t attend church.”

Buchannon served his time at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County. “I was quiet. I felt like I didn’t have a voice. The inmates were happy to see me back. I didn’t feel like I should have been embraced like that.”

He was transferred to Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent, Alabama because he was caught with a smart watch. “I got to Bibb and still didn’t say anything. I remained silent.  I felt like I was being punished by God for not doing what he wanted me to do.”

He was approached to speak at a Black History Program.

“I was told you don’t have to preach, just speak. It bothered me all night. The next day I said, ‘Ok I’ll do it. I did it and the next day I transferred to St. Clair Correctional Facility to be in the Therapeutic Community Program. That’s when I began to open my mouth.”

Buchannon started a prayer circle. Eventually he came across Jeremy Miller, the chaplain at the time. “I would always tell Jeremy, I’m getting out tomorrow or I’m going home next week you might want to get your last look at me and he would ask, ‘did you get something in the mail?’ I would reply no, ‘it’s by faith Jeremy.’”

Buchannon added, “when I got to St. Clair, my faith shifted. I didn’t carry myself like I was locked up. I stayed always ready to go. My belongings stayed packed up. I’m walking by faith believing that God will open those doors at any moment even though I’m serving a life sentence and 10 years.”

He stayed at St.Clair County for three years and six months after he completed the Therapeutic Community Program and transferred to Draper Correctional Facility in Elmore County, Alabama.

“The ministry there welcomed me in. I got there and started teaching and it excelled from there. That’s when my breakthrough came. I got my parole cut and I was on my way out of the door.”

That’s when he wrote a “plain” letter to the parole board. “They responded in 30 days. I got two years cut off. Then I received another letter and some more time was cut off.”

He was transferred from Draper Correctional Facility to The Childersburg Community Based Facility and Community Work Center in Alpine, Alabama where he was released two months later in November 2017 a week before Thanksgiving Day.

Trouble Kid

Buchannon grew up on the north side of Birmingham in Norwood in a two-parent household with his youngest brothers.

Buchannon would have attended Phillips High School located in downtown Birmingham but ended up at the Adult Learning Center because of gang activity. He received his General Educational Development (GED) degree when he was incarcerated in Elmore County.

When he got out of prison the first time, he enrolled at Faulkner University where he majored in criminal justice. “I soared beyond anybody in the classroom because I had lived the life of crimes,” he said.

He did not complete his degree and only has four credits left.

Buchannon is currently owner of Birmingham-based Year Round Painting and Pressure Washing, LLC.  “That is my profession, that’s what I love to do and I currently employ five other men,” he said. With his business, he has clients in Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa and Huntsville. To decompress, he likes to go to cigar bars and converse with like-minded people. At the age of 25, Buchannon was introduced to painting.

“I met a guy that didn’t like to paint but he was a carpenter but, he showed me how to paint. At that point I never thought I would start a business. But I’ve always worked around construction, some type of renovation or demolition.”

For more, visit www.prisonfellowship.org.