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.
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After 35 Years In Prison, Redemption In Michigan

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After 35 Years In Prison, Redemption In Michigan

After 35 Years In Prison, Redemption In Michigan

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In the 1980s, the chief maximum security federal prison in the United States was in Marion, Illinois. It was a controversial place - guards had been attacked and killed there, inmates had complained of abuse and retaliation and human rights groups condemned the prison for the way it was run.

NPR sent Jacki Lyden there in 1986, and she met inmates being held in the Marion Control Unit, a prison within the prison. Last spring, Jacki heard from one of the men she interviewed back then. He was out after 35 years.

JACKI LYDEN: I got an email last April from a listener.

Mr. MICHAEL GEOGHEGAN: Jacki, I heard your interview on Sunday's program about solitary confinement.

LYDEN: The writer of that email is a man named Michael Geoghegan.

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: I'm happy you're still doing stories on that issue. You'll be happy to know I'm doing well. Have my own place - a nice place - and more importantly, am deeply involved in a prisoner reentry initiative here in Saginaw.

LYDEN: The last time I'd seen Geoghegan, he was sitting in the Marion Control Unit wearing a jumpsuit and manacles with flowing long, brown hair.

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: I got wrote up the other day for letting somebody read my magazines, you know. They said, well, that's against the rules. You're not supposed to let anybody read your magazines. I said, what do you mean? I thought the purpose of being here is to show that you can get along with other inmates. I said, I thought that was part of the program, you know?

LYDEN: He was in prison for a string of bank robberies he committed when he was 20. While he was in prison, he received more time for stabbing a guard he had a grudge against. He'd acquired a knife and a handcuff key from a fellow inmate and took them into a hearing with the guard.

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: And then he asked me, he said, do you have anything else you want to say? Well, by then I had taken one of the handcuffs off and reached in my waistband and pulled out the knife. And I said, no, alls I got to say is this and leaped across the table and stuck him. And so needless to say, I was given the maximum sentence and sentenced to serve a consecutive sentence and given 32 months control unit time and kept in Marion for almost 11 years.

LYDEN: I never thought I'd see him out on the street, but here he was, a small, wiry, troll of a man, 55, with tousled gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses. In his leather jacket he looked vaguely academic. He was paroled on June 25th, 2008, to a halfway house in Saginaw, Michigan. For years, he'd been trying to make a transformation. While he was in prison, he read thousands of books. He found special inspiration in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: What will God do when I die? And I thought: nothing. You know, God would do nothing, because I don't exist in God's eyes. You know, I have no soul. It was dead. It's been dead. And I always felt this vast emptiness inside of me. And it was only in the past 15 years or so that I managed to learn that I do have the courage to heal.

LYDEN: 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 nine-year-old son in a Catholic boys' home in Detroit. Geoghegan says he was victimized by a deacon there.

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: He was a monster. And, I mean, he had a select corps of young men, and 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.

LYDEN: Before he could deal with the shadows of the past, he had to fulfill the visceral needs of the present. No ID, no friends, no money. He had wretched physical health. He was bleeding internally with ulcerated colitis. What Geoghegan wanted first, though, was a reckoning and atonement. After he was released from the hospital, he caught a bus here to the corner of Bay and Weiss Streets. He walked in his frail condition for miles until he reached the offices of the Saginaw diocese.

And why were you going there?

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: I wanted to just confront the diocese and say, here I am, deal with me now. Everybody else has either avoided it, 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, you know. And so do it to my face if you're going to do it.

LYDEN: Robert Carlson was the bishop of Saginaw then. He's now archbishop in St. Louis. Even though his diocese had nothing to do with Geoghegan's victimization, he apologized for the Church's transgressions and heard his confession.

Archbishop ROBERT CARLSON (St. Louis): Michael had a real desire to share his story. And, as you know, it was a very painful story. You know, 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 was doing something in our meeting and it was a blessing for me to be able to spend time with him.

LYDEN: He referred Geoghegan to the diocese's prison chaplain, Phil Ropp, who became his best friend.

Mr. PHIL ROPP (Prison Chaplain, Saginaw Diocese): You know, our image of someone that's been incarcerated for 35 years is that this is a tough guy. And what I guess really struck me about Mike is that a few minutes into our conversation, he literally broke down and wept.

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

LYDEN: But in some ways, Michael Geoghegan was a godsend for the chaplain. Michigan has about 48,000 inmates, most of whom will eventually get out. Ropp had been wanting to start a program to help former inmates with counseling and support. Once out, former inmates need things like ID, housing, clothing, medical needs, Social Security disability � all of which the diocese helped Geoghegan with. In that way, he was the perfect guinea pig.

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: We were at the diocese one time and the meeting was about me, you know, and my circumstances. I had lost what little health care coverage I had and somebody said we've run out of options. There's nothing we can do. And I think it was at that point that I said, well, I doubt there is something you can do. If this diocese ever developed a program to deal with people coming out of prison and facing situations like me, then they wouldn't be faced with the crisis that I'm faced with if there's something in place.

LYDEN: Have faith, Ropp would tell Geoghegan, at every crisis, and that became their program's name. It stands 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. The diocese has contributed an office and a thrift store it runs in a historic downtown building.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

LYDEN: The FAITH program, Ropp stresses, is only for those who are ready to change.

Mr. ROPP: You know, I do this in a very personal way. I have two of these guys who are younger men. My letters, you know, from them routinely start out, Dear Dad.

LYDEN: There are 14 prisons in Ropp's 11-county diocese, and Ropp has reached out with counseling to inmates still doing time. One of them is 51-year-old Billy Adams, serving 20 years for bank robbery in Michigan's Pine River Correctional Facility.

Mr. BILLY ADAMS: I knew that this had to end, that it had to stop. And I didn't know how to stop it. And so I decided to give my life to Christ and I was definitely serious about it, because I knew that I couldn't change by myself. I've learned that over the years. I can't do it by myself. So, I needed some help. And so I'm in constant contact with Phil, and he's always encouraging me and I'm always encouraging him, and we're looking forward to working together, not only doing God's work, but work for the FAITH initiation program when I'm released from prison.

LYDEN: That will be in seven years. But the FAITH program, he says, is helping him make it.

The Michigan Department of Corrections is supportive of private efforts like the FAITH program. The MDOC now has its own transition program, which it did not have when Geoghegan was released, but, said an administrator, with 11,000 prisoners released annually in the state, there's a huge job to be done.

(Soundbite of hammering)

LYDEN: At his small, rented apartment in a white frame house on a leafy street, Michael Geoghegan gives us a tour.

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: And that's the computer room over here. We just painted it.

LYDEN: And introduces us to his fiance, Teresa Duggan.

Ms. TERESA DUGGAN: We started writing when he was in prison and it was, what, July of 2000 actually. And when he got out, it was a surprise because we -neither one expected him to. I was living in Columbus and he was, of course, up here.

LYDEN: 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 - all things that when he was an inmate at Marion Penitentiary, he seemed likely never to do. Gary Henman was the warden then in 1986 and this is how he described the inmates to me when I went to the prison.

Mr. GARY HENMAN (Former Warden, Marion Penitentiary): I'm not going to quote the attorney general. Well, I guess, well, I'll tell you what he said in our last warden's conference: the only institution he mentioned by name when he gave a little talk to all the wardens was Marion. He described Marion inmates just 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, you have the worst of the worst.

LYDEN: Listening back to my old NPR story was the one time Geoghegan's face flushed with anger.

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: You know, I think Marion was the cancer cell. 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 the people are eventually going to get out. So, how are you releasing these men? You know, 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? We told you that guy's bad, you know. But if you can work on the individual and not treat him like that and give him a sense of dignity, maybe they won't come out with so much anger and hostility.

LYDEN: Where once Michael Geoghegan saw prison as his destiny, he could almost be talking about someone else, a former self, when he describes his past now. His evolution, he says, was gradual.

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: I didn't want to be the person that I had become in Marion. I didn't want to be the person that they portrayed me to be either. The only goal I've really had since I got out of prison is to die with a good name. And that's it.

LYDEN: And how will you know when you have that good name? Do you know it already?

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: I think, yeah, I think I'm getting there. 'Cause I have some little places in Saginaw here where nobody knows me. They only know me who I am today. They like the man who I am today. And I like the man who I am today. Here I am, you know, this old convict, bad health, bad teeth because of my years, no children, you know, no life whatsoever except that life � and now I'm meeting with bishops and I'm sitting down and having meetings with people that, you know, they're important people, you know. And here I am just sitting amongst them.

LYDEN: Not every prisoner will be a Michael Geoghegan. And indeed, of that original group of men I remember at 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.

(Soundbite of traffic)

LYDEN: Back on the corner where Geoghegan's luck started to turn around, it's clear that he 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.

Mr. GEOGHEGAN: You know, I wasted a lot years in life. I know I'm not a stupid man, and I could've been a lot of different things. But I can't also allow the past and the sadness and the sorrow to be like a junkyard. So, if I can take all the negativity from the past and turn it into some positive steps in the future, then maybe I'm accomplishing something and maybe I'm helping somebody else.

LYDEN: This is what I wanted to tell you about, said Michael Geoghegan. This is the story of my redemption in Saginaw, Michigan.

Jacki Lyden, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Our story was edited by Jenni Bergal and produced by Charla Bear and Davar Iran Ardalan.

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