OWN
01/11/2016 07:32 am ET

How A Visit To Death Row Turned This Man Into A Crusader For Justice

"All of a sudden, I knew I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground," says Bryan Stevenson.

In December of 1983, Bryan Stevenson hadn't yet become the renowned equal justice attorney he is today. He was just a 23-year-old law student working in an internship, eager to embark on the first phase of his professional career. That's when he had a life-changing visit to see a convict on death row.

Stevenson had arrived at the Jackson, Georgia, prison all those decades ago to tell a condemned man that he wasn't at risk of execution. Though he was delivering good news, Stevenson was visibly nervous. He recalls the experience during an interview with Oprah for "SuperSoul Sunday."

Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, tells Oprah that his life changed in one powerful e
George Burns/OWN
Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, tells Oprah that his life changed in one powerful encounter with a death row inmate when he was 23.

"I was waiting for [the guards] to bring him in. When they opened the door, I was just shocked by how weighed down with chains he was. He had handcuffs on his wrists, he had a chain around his waist, shackles on his ankles," Stevenson says. "When they got the chains off of him, he walked in. I was so nervous."

Stevenson began apologizing to the inmate, saying that he was just a law student who didn't know anything about the death penalty or criminal law. In his stammering, Stevenson also told the man the big news.

He had handcuffs on his wrists, he had a chain around his waist, shackles on his ankles... I was so nervous. Bryan Stevenson, attorney, Equal Justice Initiative

"I said, 'But you're not at risk of execution any time in the next year.' That man said, 'Wait, wait, say that again," Stevenson recalls. "I said, 'You're not at risk of execution any time in the next year.' He grabbed my hands and he said, 'Wait. Say that again."

After repeating the statement several times, Stevenson says the elated inmate really opened up to him.

"We sat down and talked for almost three hours -- and we'd only scheduled to be there for an hour," he says. "The guards got mad. They came in and they were treating the guy so roughly when they were taking him out."

Bryan Stevenson was disturbed when he saw an inmate handled roughly by guards, but the inmate's response was different: He sa
George Burns/OWN
Bryan Stevenson was disturbed when he saw an inmate handled roughly by guards, but the inmate's response was different: He sang a hymn.

Though Stevenson tried to get the guards to stop, the inmate assured him everything was fine. "He turned to me and he said, 'Bryan, don't worry about this. You just come back,'" Stevenson says. "Then he did something I've never forgotten: He closed his eyes, he threw his head back and he started to sing."

The man sang a hymn as he was being shoved out of the room.

I'm pressing on the upward way,
New heights I'm gaining every day;
Still praying as I onward bound,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground."

"They started pushing him down the hallway. I could hear the chains clanging, but I could still hear him singing about higher ground," Stevenson says. "Things changed for me. All of a sudden, I knew I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground."

That powerful moment also led the attorney to an epiphany about himself.

"My journey to higher ground was tied to his journey to higher ground. If he didn't get there, I wouldn't get there either," Stevenson says.

"That's what proximity does for us," he continues. "When people get proximate to the problems and the things they care most deeply about, not only does it help them do better work, be better problem solvers, [but] I think it changes them. When you get close to something meaningful to you, it changes you."

Though many of us tend to run away from problems and things that make us uncomfortable, Stevenson urges taking the opposite approach.

"We all have to find ways to get closer to the things we care about, the problems that burden us, the things that keep us up at night," he says. "Sometimes, we have to run to the problem."

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