As we sat on classroom chairs across from each other and began to converse, I could tell that this was an intelligent young man. Young, around 30, handsome and articulate, this is not the type of person you would expect to meet in jail.
We talked about many things; faith, family, college, and politics. I can’t remember the exact conversation, but what I do remember was when our time was up, he hugged me and said, “That must be what it feels like to have a father!” Our conversation of 15 minutes or so was his first father-son talk, his first conversation with a father figure, someone that he could look up to.
“I wish we had more time, but tomorrow I’m being shipped out to prison for 25 years,” he said between tears.
Those words haunted me as I drove home from the jail that night; that must be what it feels like to have a father. Through my tears I remembered that a huge percentage of men in prison have no fathers and if a man spends time in jail the odds are better than 50% that his children will as well.
When I returned home, my wife was waiting up for me reading the newspaper on the couch in the family room. As I entered the room and gave her a big, it’s good to me home kiss, she said, “Did you read this story of a prisoner who raped a six year old girl?”
After the night I had, I blurted out, “They better keep me away from him, or I’ll ring his neck!”
“They sentenced him to 25 years in prison,” she answered back. With that, my wife went off to bed and I stayed behind still needing some time to unwind from a long night at the jail.
I picked up the paper and read the article and realized that the prisoner she was talking about was the man I had just spoken with at the jail!
I can’t begin to explain the feelings that were going through my mind, trying to make sense of this and finding no answers. I really began to feel that jail ministry was not for me.
A few weeks later, the incident still haunting me, I had a chance to have lunch with a good friend and psychologist, Dr. Ray at an outdoor café in Naples, Florida. I shared this story with him.
“Tony, what do you call a six year old who is raped?” he asked. “I’d call that child a victim!” I blurted out.
“And what do you call the person who commits such a crime?” Dr. Ray continued. “A criminal,” I responded.
And then he said something that still resonates with me now, “Tony, they are the same person. I would bet you lunch that this man was abused as a child himself and since then, no one, not the system, a teacher, doctor, judge, or friend has offered to get him help. There are two victims here!”
When I returned to Ohio, I did some research and found out that what Dr. Ray said was true. Not only was he abused himself, but he begged the system to get him help and they simply sentenced him to 25 years. He will be over 50 by the time he is released, but if there is no help for him in prison, he will simply be returned to society with the same problems.
That was almost eight years ago. I’m still doing jail ministry, and not a day goes by that I don’t offer up a prayer for that defenseless child and this young man. I still hear his trembling voice in my mind, “That must be what it feels like to have a father.”
*Dr. Ray Guarendi is the father of 10, clinical psychologist, author, public speaker and nationally syndicated radio host. His radio show― “The Doctor Is In” can be heard on EWTN.