He Gave Himself a Life Sentence to Save Others

In our special video series  "The Recidivism Series," we introduced you to Frankie San, who served within South Carolina prisons as the hands of feet of Jesus to those living a life sentence behind bars. This article by Bob McAlister tells more of Frankie San's story. It was originally published in the Post & Courier on Sunday, September 25, 2022.

Frankie San Gave Himself a Life Sentence to Save Others

By Bob McAlister

The steel door slammed shut. The wheelchair was rolled down to “The Rock,” a vast open space of steel tables and chairs bolted to the floor where death row inmates gather.

They peered through the bars of their cells as the word spread: “Is that Frankie San? I can’t believe it!”

It was true. Frankie San was back in prison one last time to say goodbye, perhaps forever this side of heaven.

Frail with dementia, the diminutive former Buddha follower turned Lutheran minister spent five decades in South Carolina prisons serving “the least of these,” as the Bible calls them.

The old-timers remember his unconditional love. The younger ones have only heard about the legendary character who worked as a counselor, a librarian but, most importantly, a trusted friend.

As a Christian volunteer on death row, I first met Frankie at the Central Correctional Institution in 1984. He lived in a one-room cinder block building on prison property.

CCI, built in the 1860s, was known as one of the nation’s most violent prisons, a barbaric hellhole of evil. One inmate said if the walls could talk, they would scream.

My first encounter with Frankie was real life colliding with slapstick comedy: A skinny, 5-foot-tall man with a heavy Japanese accent walking unafraid among murderers, rapists and gang members, laughing and joking, with a parrot on his shoulder that spoke better English than he did.
He dressed outlandishly as the situation arose, Santa at Christmas and the bunny at Easter. He was never without candy or other goodies to hand out, rare treats in those days.

He brought joy to dark places but knew about dark places long before setting foot in an American prison.

Born in Tokyo in 1929, Kyuzo Miyaishi was a devotee of Buddhism and emperor worship and was ready to die for his country in World War II.

Then came the bombs, a destroyed country and an impoverished family. He tried to commit suicide.

He met an American missionary who told him about Jesus Christ and how the Son of God died on the cross to save anyone who believes from their sins. He heard about “a new life in Christ” and wanted it. By faith, he became a Christ follower.

A very long story short, he wound up in Columbia in 1961, 32 years old and broke.
He later would describe everything that happened as God’s plan.

He studied at Columbia Bible College and Lutheran Theological Seminary and was ordained by the Lutheran Synod.

While working in a restaurant, Kyuzo noticed a bus that regularly passed by. He learned it was taking inmates to the nearby prison.

He started bowing to the inmates as they sped by, the traditional Japanese gesture of paying honor. Word spread about the strange kimono-clad man, and prisoners jostled on the bus to see him. They were not used to being shown honor.

The strangers on the bus ignited Kyuzo’s zeal to minister to the lost and lonely. He got a job at CCI. Frankie San was born. His “new life” began.

From that day in many S.C. prisons, his passion was to serve inmates who did terrible things but were made in God’s image.

He introduced himself to inmates by saying: “I am Frankie San. I love you, and Jesus loves you too, no matter what you’ve done. He will forgive you if you ask him.”
He served one inmate at a time. Only God knows how many in 50 years.

He volunteered to be a caregiver in the AIDS prison unit when the dreaded disease hit. A newspaper carried a picture of Frankie hugging a patient, considered dangerous back then. He was with them when they died.

A former inmate he taught to read and write recently wrote that he now is in college “and all of this would not have happened had you not stopped by my cell” years ago.

A convicted murderer recalls that Frankie San’s words about Jesus came back to him 20 years later in a solitary confinement cell. “God slowly began to rebuild me,” he said. He is now a productive, free citizen.

On Frankie’s last trip to prison a few weeks ago, 35 death row inmates gathered around to greet him. Tough men cried. Some bowed in thanks.

Frankie’s journey into the haze of dementia momentarily seemed to lift. The smile came back. His eyes brightened. He was back among his flock.

Everyone encircled him and prayed for him.

He was taken back home to hospice care.

So how do you explain Frankie’s decision to give himself a voluntary life sentence in prison?

“I had almost nothing when I came to this country. Now I have nothing but Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “I have lived alone. But all these lowly people came along and loved me as I love Jesus. What more can I ask for in my lifetime?”
Bob McAlister is a public relations consultant who lives in Columbia.

The Recidivism Series

No Comments