After 35 Years In Prison, Redemption In Michigan

In 1986, NPR's Jacki Lyden interviewed inmates in the only maximum-security federal prison in the U.S. described as "Level 6." The offenders there were considered the nation's most dangerous. Last spring, one of the men Lyden had interviewed gave her a call. Released after 35 years, Michael Geoghegan had gone looking for salvation.

I got an e-mail from a listener last April that I never expected to receive.

It was a response to a piece about long-term solitary confinement. "I'm glad you're still doing stories on that issue," it read. "You'll be happy to know I'm doing well. Have my own place, and more importantly, am deeply involved with a prisoner re-entry program."

The last time I'd seen Michael Geoghegan, he was sitting in the prison known as U.S. Penitentiary-Marion in Illinois, wearing a jumpsuit and manacles. In the 1980s, it was the "administrative maximum" prison under the Federal Bureau of Prisons, or BOP — the only one rated Level 6. Its offenders were considered the nation's most dangerous, and it was the first prison to hold all inmates in their cells for all but one hour a day.

It was a controversial place: Two guards had been attacked and killed there, inmates had complained of abuse and retaliation, and the human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned the prison for the way it was run.

I interviewed Geoghegan and several other prisoners at the prison in 1986. A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., Geoghegan had been doing time for a string of bank robberies committed when he was 20. He was transferred from the prison in Leavenworth to Marion, where he received more time — for stabbing a guard he had a grudge against. I never thought I'd see him out on the street.

But on June 25, 2008, Geoghegan was paroled to a federal halfway house in Saginaw, Mich. He'd spent a total of 35 years in jail — 25 of them locked in a cell for 23 hours a day.

'What Will You Do, God, When I Die?'

The years had transformed Geoghegan into a small, wiry troll of man, with tousled gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses. In his leather jacket, he looked vaguely academic. In his life, Geoghegan had been trying to make another kind of transformation.

Michael Geoghegan. Jacki Lyden/NPR i i

"What will God do when I die," Michael Geoghegan asked himself. "And I always thought — nothing." Jacki Lyden/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jacki Lyden/NPR
Michael Geoghegan. Jacki Lyden/NPR

"What will God do when I die," Michael Geoghegan asked himself. "And I always thought — nothing."

Jacki Lyden/NPR

While in prison, he read thousands of books. He found special inspiration in the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke. "What will God do when I die?" he asked himself, referencing one of Rilke's poems. "And I always thought — nothing. God would do nothing, because I don't exist in God's eyes. I have no soul. It's dead. And it's only in the past 15 years that I've learned that I do have the courage to heal."

Geoghegan was talking about his shattered childhood. His father was an Irish immigrant, a broken alcoholic who went to prison. His mother suffered a breakdown and put her 9-year-old son in a Catholic boys' home in Detroit. Geoghegan says he was victimized by a deacon there.

"He was a monster," Geoghegan says. "He had a select corps of young men. He would make us practice on the older kids in order to be better for him. And this went on for a year and a half. And I had blocked a lot of it out."

Deal With Me Now

Upon his release, the 54-year-old Geoghegan had no ID, no friends and no money. His health was ruined, and he was bleeding internally with ulcerated colitis. But what he wanted first was a reckoning — and atonement. Despite his frail condition, he walked for miles until he reached the offices of the diocese.

"I wanted to just confront the diocese and say, 'Here I am, deal with me now,' " Geoghegan remembers. "Everybody else has either avoided my past, that part of my childhood, or lied to me about it. So I wanted to do a face-to-face confrontation with members of the church, and say, 'Okay, now deny me! I'm not hidden behind a prison wall anymore, so do it to my face if you're gonna do it.' "

Robert Carlson was bishop of Saginaw at the time. Though his diocese had nothing to do with Geoghegan's victimization, he apologized for the Church's transgressions and heard his confession.

"Michael had a real desire to share his story," says Carlson, now an archbishop in St. Louis. "It was a very painful story. As a priest or a bishop, obviously we're here to help people. He wanted to see me. I thought that was most appropriate. I think basically, what I did was listen. But obviously the Holy Spirit did something during our meeting. And it was a blessing to spend time with him."

He referred Geoghegan to the diocese's prison chaplain, Phil Ropp, who has since become his best friend.

The First To Be Helped

"You know, our image of someone who's been incarcerated 35 years is that this is a tough guy," Ropp says. "A few minutes into our conversation, he literally broke down and wept."

"The feeling I had was, 'Here's someone who had the emotions of 35 years pent up.' And it seemed to me that maybe this was the first time in that 35 years that he'd actually just allowed himself to let his feelings come to the surface and let this all out. And I admit at the time, I was kind of overwhelmed by that. And I'm praying, 'Lord, show me a way to deal with this.' "

But in some ways, Geoghegan was a godsend for the chaplain. Michigan has about 48,000 inmates, most of whom will eventually be released. Ropp wanted to start a program to help those former inmates with counseling and support. Once out, former inmates need things like ID, housing, clothing, medical needs, Social Security or disability — all of which the diocese helped Geoghegan get. In a way, Geoghegan was the perfect start for the program.

"Have faith," Ropp would tell Geoghegan through the following months. So FAITH became their program's name, short for the Faith Alliance Initiative for Transitional Healing. Geoghegan, who lives on Social Security disability, has raised $4,000 as FAITH's community resources manager, a volunteer position. Ropp counsels inmates who are still doing time.

There are 14 prisons in the 11-county diocese, and the Michigan Department of Corrections says it supports private efforts like the FAITH program. The MDOC now has its own transition program — which it did not have when Geoghegan was released — but with 11,000 prisoners paroled annually in the state, there's a huge job to be done.

An Unexpected Future

Geoghegan now lives in a small rented apartment in a white frame house on a leafy street. He takes dozens of pills each day for physical ailments ranging from Crohn's disease to hepatitis C. But, he says, he's found happiness in a dog named Domino, what he calls an "antique" computer and his fiance. He met Teresa Duggan in 2000, when they began corresponding while he was still in prison.

Watching him, it's hard to believe that this is the first time he's ever had a home, used a computer or been in a real relationship. As an inmate at Marion, he seemed likely never to do those things. Back in 1986, Warden Gary Henman didn't see much future for any of Marion's prisoners, either. The prison had even been mentioned by U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese during a recent wardens' conference, he told me.

"He described the inmates like cancer cells — if you don't contain them in one place, they're going to spread. And that's the purpose of Marion. You end up with ... the worst of the worst."

Listening to that line from my old NPR story made Geoghegan's face flush with anger.

"I think Marion was the cancer cell," says Geoghegan. "And it spread a lot of disease, like hatred and anger and everything else to us. You know, if you treat a man like a dog or an animal, a rabid dog or an animal, he's going to end up biting you. Most of these people are going to get out. So how are you releasing these men? You're breeding this hatred, you're breeding this anger, you're breeding this animosity into them, and then you're going to let them loose on society. And then when they do something wrong, you're going to say, 'See? I told you that guy's bad.' But if you can work on the individual and give them a sense of dignity, maybe they won't come out with so much anger and hostility."

'I Like the Man Who I Am Today'

Geoghegan once saw prison as his destiny, but now seems almost to be talking about someone else when he describes his past. His evolution, he says, was gradual.

"I didn't want to be the person that I had become in Marion," he says. "I didn't want to be the person they portrayed me to be, either. The only goal I've had since I got out of prison is to die with a good name."

"If I can accomplish that goal, then I've accomplished something in my life." He thinks he's getting there, too; not that many people around him know about his past. "They only know me, who I am today. They like the man I am today. And I like the man who I am today. Here I am, this old convict, bad health, bad teeth because of my years, no children, no life whatsoever except that life — and now I'm meeting with bishops and I'm sitting down and having meetings at the diocese with people who, you know, they're important people. And here I am just sitting amongst them."

Once Received, Salvation Can Be Given

Not every prisoner will be a Michael Geoghegan. And indeed, of that original group of men I remember from Marion, one has died after killing another inmate in prison. Another, the head of the Aryan Brotherhood, was the target of a major federal racketeering prosecution in 2006.

It's clear that Geoghegan has regrets. But he's proof, he says, that the human condition is mutable — even when you've lived most of your years behind prison walls.

"I wasted a lot of my life," he says. "I know I'm not a stupid man. And I could've been a lot of different things. I had the potential to be anything I wanted to be. And I wasted that potential. But I can't also allow the past and sadness and the sorrow to be a junkyard. So, if I can take all the negativity from the past and turn it into positive steps for the future, then maybe I'm accomplishing something and helping someone else."

"This is what I wanted to tell you about," he added. "This is the story of my redemption in Saginaw, Mich."

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