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Rescued to Rescuer

Mike Swiger is still amazed how God transformed a wayward inmate into a devoted Christ follower reaching prisoners through True Freedom Ministries

by Nancy Huffine  /  May 22, 2024

Moody Radio listener Mike Swiger and members of the staff at True Freedom Ministries

Mike Swiger and members of the staff at True Freedom Ministries.

The free candy bars that the Summit County Jail was offering to inmates came with a big string attached: a Protestant church service. Nineteen-year-old Mike Swiger, who considered himself “a nominal Catholic,” didn’t want to go to the service. But he did want a candy bar.

“I thought—I'll go to the service, get my candy bar, act like I'm sick, and then I'll leave,” Mike says. He soon discovered that the door to the room was locked during the service and that the candy bars weren’t given out until the end.

Mike didn’t like the featured preacher, a “hillbilly” who paced, yelled, and told the inmates they were sinners who were destined for Hell without Jesus. But the preacher also told a story about a woman who met Jesus at a well. Mike had never read the Bible, and he had never heard that story.

Angry and offended by the preacher’s tone, when the service ended Mike took his candy bar and headed back to his cell. He found a Gideon Bible and determined that he would find the story about the woman at the well, read it, and come back the next week to challenge the hillbilly preacher.

Not knowing where to find the story, Mike was vaguely certain that the Jesus stories were in the New Testament. He started reading in Matthew 1 and didn’t stop until he got to John 4. By that time, Mike says, “I was crushed. I knew I was a sinner. I knew that preacher was right, but I didn't know what to do about it.”

‘I surrendered my life to Him’

To Mike’s surprise, the preacher’s tone at the next week’s service was different. “He was more conversational,” Mike says. “He pointed to a wooden cross in the room and said, ‘Jesus died on the cross. They put a sign over the top of His head that said Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. That was His indictment. When you think about Jesus dying on the cross, think about your indictment nailed over His head because He paid the penalty for your sin.’”

When Mike went back to his cell that night, he got on his knees by his bed and asked Jesus to forgive his sins. “I surrendered my life to Him,” Mike says.

Long prison sentence

The previous year, in 1988, Mike’s world had imploded. Mike’s older brother got into a fight with his college roommate and literally beat him to death.

“My brother called me, and I helped him move the body,” Mike says. “I was questioned by the police. I lied to them multiple times. I was not a believer, and I lied to protect my brother. Under Ohio law at the time, if you were an accomplice you could be charged and sentenced just as if you were the principal offender. My brother and I were both charged with aggravated murder.”

Mike’s brother was sentenced to 43 years to life. Mike was sentenced to 21 to 50 years in prison.

Strangely, at Mike’s bench trial—overseen by a panel of three judges as opposed to a jury—only one judge presided. When Mike requested a trial by jury, he was denied. After being transferred from the county jail, he began serving his sentence in Lorain Correctional Institution on June 11, 1990.

Mike’s first job was as a clerk to the warden. “My warden was a Christian and was very kind to me,” Mike says. “He was there for three years. Another warden came, and I worked for him. I was blessed to be in that position, and I also volunteered in the chapel.”

‘I wanted to hear from God’

By this time, prison chapel services were a regular part of Mike’s spiritual life. So was sound biblical teaching from a new friend—Moody Radio. Listening on the radio in his cell, Mike says, “I could get Moody Radio WCRF. It was the only Christian station I could get. I was starting from square zero, and I wanted to hear from God.”

It wasn’t long before Mike developed a radio routine. “I listened to [Moody Radio preachers] every day,” he says. “I would wait for Chuck Colson’s five-minute Breakpoint program to come on. I probably listened for hours every day and then at nighttime as well. I didn't know it at the time, but I was being discipled by the greatest expository preachers on the planet!”

From the small salary that Mike received, he tithed to some of his favorite speakers. “I would send them $1.70 a month because all I made was $17.”

‘Why don’t you trust Me?’

Several times over the next 13 years, Mike’s hopes were raised and dashed that his case would be reviewed and overturned. At one point, Mike says, “I was sitting on my bed feeling sorry for myself, and on my desk is my Bible.” He opened it, reading from James 1. He remembers thinking that he didn’t really want to “count it all joy.”

He also didn’t want the patience or the crown that James talked about.

“I just wanted to go home,” he says. “But I felt like the Holy Spirit was saying to me, ‘You tell people you trust Me, then why don't you trust Me? Why not be a prison missionary. You're already here.’”

Mike began thinking about a biblical education, and one of his mentors suggested applying to a few seminaries. He submitted his paperwork and prayed. Eventually, Reformed Theological Seminary accepted him and gave him a full scholarship. Over the next seven years, he completed one class at a time until he earned a graduate certificate in Applied Theology.

Mike also discovered a love for writing and wrote two novels during his prison years, A Murder of Innocents and A Trial of Innocents. He also wrote an imaginative short story about what prison life might have been like for the biblical character Barabbas. In 1999 the Salvation Army purchased the story for publication in its monthly magazine War Cry. Mike scanned the magazine each month looking for his story, but, to his great disappointment, it never appeared.

Free at last

In 2006, the issue of having one judge at a bench trial instead of the three judges required by the revised Ohio code resurfaced in another case. That case was overturned, which led to Mike’s case being overturned. After 17 years behind bars, Mike Swiger was free.

As part of his parole, he needed to find immediate employment. He applied for a position at the Salvation Army’s district headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio. While waiting in the lobby to be interviewed, he noticed a familiar title on the cover of the most recent War Cry magazine. His story “Barabbas” was finally published nearly seven years later!

During his interview, Mike was quizzed by a skeptical interviewer who wanted to know if he had any samples of his writing. He says, “I pulled out the magazine from the waiting room and said, ‘I’m the featured story in your international magazine this month!’ And I got the job!”

Mike worked for the Salvation Army for seven months and then joined the pastoral staff at Gospel House Church in Walton Hills, Ohio. He focused on counseling, administration, and executive responsibilities at the church for several years.

Back to prison

Mike loved the work and the people, but his heart longed for a way to impact men who were living behind bars.

“For two years, I almost never left my office at the church,” Mike says. “One day, the guy that recruited me for the pastoral staff, a guy who often visited prisons, stopped by my office and sort of laughingly said, ‘Hey, man, when are you going to go to jail?’”

In 2012, Mike Swiger headed back to prison. But this time, it was as the founder and executive director of True Freedom Ministries. TFM firmly believes that transformation in Christ is the first step to helping prisoners turn their lives around. About 95 percent of prisoners will eventually be released back into society. But, as Mike points out, reintegrating them into life outside of prison isn’t easy.

“Most of these inmates never had a dad, grew up in abject poverty, dropped out of school, suffered neglect or physical and emotional abuse their whole lives,” Mike says. “They turn 18 and commit a crime. We lock them in a very violent place for a long period of time. Then we let them out and say, ‘Now get out and be a good person.’ How will they do that?”

Mike Swiger is a sought-after speaker at prison ministry events

Mike Swiger speaks at a ministry event

Mike Swiger is a sought-after speaker at prison ministry events.

‘His words really resonated with me’

Keith Foley works for Ohio’s Office of Prisons and was formerly a prison warden. He remembers the first time he met Mike. “It was years ago at an event where Mike was speaking to a large group of correctional professionals. His words really resonated with me, like someone who was a servant leader. Mike has always focused on the growth and well-being of the men he serves.”

Keith has seen the impact that helping men, women, and juveniles transition from life behind bars to life outside of prison can make. “We all face challenges every day,” he says. “However, returning to society as a formerly incarcerated person has so many obstacles to overcome.

“If I had to list or prioritize the biggest challenges, I would say finding employment and stable housing in a community that opens their arms to the returning citizens. True Freedom Ministries works with resources in the communities to bridge the employment and housing difficulties that the reintegrating men face.”

Preparing inmates for life after prison

Mike’s time in prison meant he lived and worked alongside wardens and correctional staff for years. Now some of those same people are helping True Freedom Ministries impact the lives of men in the Ohio prison system.

“Because of my long-term relationships with all these officials, we've been able to do some very innovative things,” he says. “We started a work release program where we take over 100 minimum-security prisoners out of prison every day in our vans, get them jobs, then take them back to prison every day. We're getting our own dormitory at Grafton Correctional. We’ll be able to remodel it to look a little more like home and less like prison for those who have taken our programming, are minimum security, and who have three years or less of time left to serve.”

In the 12 years since its founding, True Freedom Ministries has seen amazing growth. A staff of 14 employees and 150 volunteers serves inmates in 28 men’s, women’s, and juvenile prisons across Ohio through more than 200 worship services, classes, and programs every month. “Last year we had over 40,000 people attend our services and programs,” Mike says. “And we do it all without taking any government funding.”

Mike Swiger is involved in leading a work release program for women

Mike Swiger is involved in leading a work release program for women.

“Mike’s work ethic and dedication to those that he serves is unparalleled to anyone that I have never known,” Keith Foley says. “His servant ethics are making a substantial difference in the lives of the men he serves and to the communities we all live in.”

‘I am so grateful that God saves sinners’

Still connected to Moody Radio WCRF in Cleveland, Mike has been a frequent guest with previous morning show host Mark Zimmerman and current host Brian Dahlen. On his first visit to the studio, a flood of emotions and memories came back to him about the station that filled his small prison cell with sound teaching and the hope of a loving Savior.

“This room changed my life,” he told the WCRF staff.

Mike is humbled when he thinks about that 19-year-old boy in jail, in crisis, and without hope in 1989—a young man who could never have dreamed that God would save him, transform him, and use him in such miraculous ways, even recently developing ministries for addiction recovery and the homeless.

“I have replaced Paul as the ‘chief of all sinners’ who was saved by grace. I was in cell 42 when I got saved. God could have chosen the guy in the cell next to me. It didn't have to be me. I am so grateful that God saves sinners.”