"That Applies to 98% of the Guys Here"

Said an inmate of San Quentin California State Prison in response to my question: "How many men in this prison do you think grew up in a home without a Father?"

A couple of months ago, a gentleman who attends my church invited me to tour the infamous prison. He works there and offers tours to interested organizations and individuals. On the one hand, I could not pass on the opportunity to see such a reputed land, even amidst its terror. On the other hand, I realized that I had agreed to willingly enter into a place that so many either seek to leave or do all they can from entering! This tension stayed with me every step I made into the prison. 

I could probably write a series of posts over the next several weeks just on my experiences that day. We walked for nearly 6 hours. Not one place remained off limits to us, even the death chamber, which we visited last. We toured the hospital, the 'dungeon' (former solitary confinement closed in the 1940's - a literal underground brick and chain cellar), the factory, walked the yard, entered inside the dorms, walked into a 2 person 6ft x 10ft cell, toured the solitary recreation area, and sat at the cafeteria tables, while learning about each one of the 3 massive, famous San Quentin murals. We learned about the history, saw the places of famous occurrences, gazed upon the table where Johnny Cash played his concert there - as an inmate - and discovered, according to our guide, nearly every square inch of land on the massive prison bears the stain of blood. 

San Quentin is a formidable place. I could feel the heavy weight of darkness within those mounted walls. 

Perhaps one of the most fascinating discoveries we made came from the inmates themselves. The very first stop my group made that day began at the Protestant Chapel - oddly enough - in a small room with a round table. All of us on the tour sat on chairs against the wall. A few moments later, six inmates walked inside - uncuffed - and each sat down around the table. Our guide simply said to us, "You can ask anything you want. No question is off limits."

A few seconds ticked and then one by one several of the people in my group began asking questions about prison life, crime, the justice system, penalization, you name it. We asked questions for nearly an hour. And each one of the 6 inmates in there responded with total candor and delight, as if they relished the opportunity to share not only their story but their witness to life inside the prison. 

At one point during the panel discussion, one inmate responded to a question that I can no longer recall, saying that he had been inside the walls of San Quentin since he was 17 - he is now 39 - more than half of his life on that small plot of land. He shared with us that the only adult decision he ever made was getting his driver's license. He never owned a bank account; never lived on his own; never even received his right to vote. 

For a guy like me and probably you reading this post, I could not believe my ears. I cannot recall ever meeting someone who endured the same life circumstances as this man. Essentially in so many words, this man halted his development at 17. Even standing in front of us, he spoke, displayed mannerisms, and thought like a 17 year old. His world stopped the day that he entered San Quentin, and he never anticipates leaving there due to his crime. He is a boy trapped in a man's body forever stunted in his growth as a man. 

his fascinated me as a researcher and academic, but his words broke my heart as a Pastor and a man. This life created in the very image of God was halted by a sin act that resulted in his confinement. 

Upon hearing this, a question burned inside of me: Where was his dad? In fact, where are the dad's of each man in that prison?

Is it true that most men in the prison system grew up in a home absent of a Father who could have raised a man into integrity and upstanding character?

These questions burned in me, and all the while my tour group continued to ask questions about the justice system, as if we sat around the tables of a university inquiring into the ethics of it all, the only information I wanted to know was the home stories of these men! How did they grow up? Who influenced them? Where did they find a place to belong? 

I finally got up the courage to ask my question. I stood up and asked, "How many men in this prison do you think grew up in a home without a Father?"  All of the men looked at me kinda shocked - kinda relieved - kinda glad - kinda sad - kinda hurt. The unofficial spokesman raised his voice, stuttered a bit, and then said with the kind of confidence that only a long time inmate could boast, "That applies to 98% of the guys here." Even he uttered those words with a grieving sense of remorse. My eyes welled up, along with most of the guys on the panel. No one shed any of those welled tears - after all - we're men, and our Fathers didn't teach us how to cry. And not much else was spoken on that topic, but it was obvious that I had asked a question that touched the heart of every one of those men. 

Instantly, I knew that I needed to write on his statement, but even to this day, I am still uncertain of what to say. Obviously, he did not base his percentage on accurate sociological research, but I trust his gut. 

I want to recount my memories here because I believe that his statement declared a confession. The men inside San Quentin committed crimes and deserve their sentence. I stand by the judge and jury and on some level we need to trust the justice system - flaws and all - for it is is the greatest and fairest of them all. 

Yet, the men of San Quentin deserve an indictment of their own... upon the absent fathers that abdicated their responsibility to raise spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy men who could love, lead, and lift other men into adulthood. 

If I learned anything at San Quentin, it is that the very prison itself - every one of the men inside that prison - testify to the violent, even deadly, consequences caused by absent fathers in the lives of little boys and young men. 

The consequences of a father who leaves his family could not be greater! 

The resulting implications leave impressions upon little boys, including myself, that tell us of an unstable, unsafe, untrustworthy world. Though absent fathers may never utter one word to their boys, these cowardly men teach us grand, terrible lessons that stay with us forever. 

Sure, not every man who grows up without the presence of a father who walked away from his family lands within the unfriendly confines of San Quentin. But every man who grows up wondering if daddy loves him carries deep wounds that can never be fully mended or filled by anything or anyone else other than... his dad. That is the truth. 

I will never forget that conversation around the table with those men, their confessions, and the gift of their vulnerability. If you work with students, then may the insights of these men break our hearts for young boys without fathers. May we become better equipped to serve these young men. And may we stand alongside of our fathers, encouraging them every step of the way to stay faithful to their call and privilege of being a dad.