People wonder why I go there, to the prison in our town, and visit them. “Them”, the criminals, the sex offenders.
“They need to be locked up, and never see the light of day ever again,” someone told me the other day, scolding me for wasting my time with them.
I shook my head, stunned by this critic’s hatred, their anger. Where do I begin to explain my young friends’ humanity, their own victimization, their own desire to be well, to be productive, to be healthy, young men, full of love and compassion. Just like everyone else. They want to get on with their lives, and move ahead. Just like everyone else.
“We are all potential criminals, and those who we have put into prison are no worse, deep down, than any one of us. They have succumbed to ignorance, desire, and anger, ailments that we all suffer from but to different degrees. Our duty is to help them.”
– His Holiness, The Dalai Lama
When I visit these young men, and hear their stories, and play games, sip coffee, and be a small part of their lives, I keep hearing the same theme, time and again, young man after young man.
Where were their fathers? And, where are they now?
Some dads were never there for them, when there was pain and loneliness, and deep questions rising in their souls about life, about purpose, about love and finding a place in the world.
Other dads climbed in their bottles, or their dope pipes, or lashed out with their fists and their angry voices, unable to turn fists and screams into hugs and quiet words of encouragement and acceptance.
Men being violent, abusive, teaching addiction and molestation, violating their sons, in every imaginable way, and ways I cannot begin to comprehend.
One man tells me the story of his childhood by what he has drawn and painted on a board, and showing me the scars on his body. Scars from his dad’s beatings, his mom’s abuse, her prostituting him for her drugs, his girlfriend cutting on him, while she invited him to cut on her. When he gets out of prison, he wants to cover the scars with tattoos of sacred symbols, giving himself peace and sacred honor, and resolution for his angry, troubled soul.
What Father Involvement Means
- More than 1/4 of American children — 17 million — don’t live with their fathers.
- In 1996, 42% of female-headed households with children were poor, compared to 8% of families headed by married parents.
- Parents who don’t live with their children but stay involved with them are more likely to pay child support. 74% of non-custodial parents with joint custody or visitation agreements make support payments, compared to 35% of parents without such arrangements.
- Girls without fathers in their lives are 2.5 times more likely to get pregnant and 53% are more likely to commit suicide.
- Boys without fathers in their lives are 63% more likely to run away and 35% more likely to use drugs.
- Boys and girls without father involvement are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to go to jail, and nearly four times more likely to need help for emotional or behavioral problems.
—US Dept. of Health and Human Services; Morehouse Report; National Center for Children in Poverty; US Census Bureau
They do well here, in this prison, this sanctuary from the craziness of their earlier nightmare of a world. Involved in treatment, learning about their sexuality, their anger, their humanity. They are deep in their quest for manhood. They go to school, they study, they read, they discuss, they write. They do all that, again and again.
They run, play ball, draw, they sing, they lose themselves in art, recreating themselves and finding themselves as creators of beauty and peace.
They work, learning skills and the ability to earn their way in the world. They work in teams, raising and cooking their food, growing trees, restoring stream banks, improving habitat for salmon. Their work makes our community a better place, a more beautiful place. In their work, they make themselves stronger, more sure of who they are, and who they want to become.
They pray, they find God on many paths, and they look inward, and see their manliness begin to bloom. They begin to laugh, they begin to smile. They begin to move ahead, one sure step after another. They see themselves being successful, moving into the world confident and strong. They are becoming men, good men. They begin to see themselves in all their goodness.
And, in every step of their journey, they take from me and they take from the prison staff. They want reassurance, acceptance, guidance, direction, support. They soak it up from me every time I go there. They drain me, taking my acceptance of them, my support from them, my flame of fathering, my own sense of my own manhood. Hungry, they circle my essence, gnawing and grabbing all that I can give them.
When I smile, or shake their hand, or ask them how they are, or play a game, talk about their lives, and my life, they soak it all up, thirsty sponges wanting love and acceptance, wanting to be good men.
I walk away, my visit over. The click of the closed cyclone fence gate, with the barbed wire on top, reminds me that I am drained, exhausted, sucked nearly dry of my own flame of manhood, my own feelings of being the son and the father and the mentor-teacher-elder. The soup kettle of love and acceptance and compassion for their journey that I brought through the gate today is drained now, devoured by hungry young men needing to fill their bellies with soul food, feasting on whatever I could bring in today.
The sun shines bright on my face, the fresh air fills my lungs, my heart full now of purpose, of meaning in my life.
Today, I could feed someone, and offered them hope.
—Neal Lemery, January 1, 2013