No one wrote to me more faithfully during my nearly six years of incarceration than my father. I remember his first letter shortly after my arrest. He was shocked and heartbroken, not able to reconcile my criminal actions with my true character. He said he was horrified by what I had done, but that the real Doug would never have done such a thing. He attributed my crimes to addiction.
I took his words as a sign of grace and generosity. He had forgiven me the moment he heard the news. In truth, he probably blamed himself.
My father had left our household while I was still a child. Years before, his own dad had abandoned his family, and his mom later married an abusive man who tormented and bullied my father throughout his childhood. My father carried unhealed wounds into adulthood, so he never felt completely at home in his own skin. When I was in the 6th grade, he removed his wedding ring and moved into a small one-bedroom apartment across town.
His departure was so devastating, that I also carried unhealed wounds into adulthood. Like many children of divorce, I blamed myself. I wore the anguish visibly, making me an outcast among my peers. Adolescence was an internal prison, worse than any of the 109 facilities scattered across Texas. When I discovered drugs and alcohol, life seemed to improve. I had no idea that I was watering a toxic seed that would one day lead me to real prison.
I never met a man in prison who didn’t also carry childhood wounds related to fatherhood. At the mere mention of fathers, men grew serious. Otherwise hardened men talked of abandonment, disappointment, or abuse. Even those whose fathers were consistent and loving shared feelings of deep shame for having disappointed their dads so gravely. Talking of fatherhood also reminded men of their own children.
More than 68 percent of the men in Texas prisons are fathers, and there is little question that incarceration has a terrible effect on the well-being and healthy development of their children. The loss of financial support increases the likelihood that children will live at least a portion of their childhood in poverty. Also, a significant number of the incarcerated parents actually lived with their children at the time of arrest, disrupting their lives in ways that have lifelong consequences.
I was often shocked by the number of men in prison who had children serving time in other units. On the unit where I served most of my time, at least two men shared cells with their fathers. I will never forget the tears of my cell mate when he learned that his adult son had committed his third felony and was being sent back to prison on a life sentence as a habitual offender.
He didn’t blame his son, nor did he blame a system that fails to adequately rehabilitate men during early interactions with the criminal justice system. Instead, he blamed himself and his own failings as a father.
I came to understand that there was a difference between taking responsibility and taking the blame. Taking the blame is a helpless response that originates in shame. Heaping shame upon oneself or another denies the possibility of change.
Probably the most tragic element of the criminal justice system in Texas is the extent to which it is steeped in shame. It is a system that refuses to acknowledge the problems at the root of criminal involvement, and allows us to write people off as irredeemable. It allows the officers of correctional control to dehumanize incarcerated individuals, often entrenching them in destructive mindsets.
The men that I met in prison were not irredeemable. They carried the unhealed wounds of childhood, and cycled in and out of the courts as they encountered a state jail and probation system that set them up to fail.
The men who overcame this viscous cycle were those who cast off the shame and took responsibility for their own rehabilitation. They began taking classes or volunteered in the Chapel. Along the way, they met unlikely allies - usually fellow inmates - who helped them to see that they were more than the worse thing they ever did. These men became like father figures to those who had never known a father.
I gravitated to these people from the start, following their example. I volunteered as a peer educator, working to end the culture of violence inside prison. I volunteered in the Chapel and in the 12-Step meetings, becoming a mentor and ally to others. I felt as though my life were starting over, and I began to see that I could one day be a decent father to my own daughter.
My father celebrated whenever he received a letter from me. He saw me taking responsibility for the crimes I committed and becoming a man on whom others could rely. Midway through my fourth year in prison, my father came to visit me. He had lost weight and appeared frail, but his face lit up when he saw me. During that two hour visit, he looked me in the eye and said, “Doug, I’m proud of you.” I never saw him again.
One year later, my father died. I was still in prison and unable to leave for a funeral. The Chaplain allowed me to call my Step-Mother, and she shared the news with me. I walked out of the Chapel numb, holding back tears until I could reach my bunk.
I berated myself for not being with my father during his battle with cancer. I thought of how I was depriving my own daughter of a father in her life, and shame welled up inside. It occurred to me that I was repeating the toxic pattern. After a day on my bunk, I got back to work doing the things that had made my father so proud. Six months later, I was paroled.
Today, I get to be a father to a beautiful daughter. I never use the language of shame with her, either toward myself or anyone else. I don’t even use that language toward the system itself. I believe people can change, even those who want to keep the criminal justice system exactly as it is.