December 22, 2009

NPR Story Notes DoS Ministry Efforts: 'After 35 Years In Prison, Redemption In Michigan'

Copyright © 2009 National Public Radio®. 
Heard on Weekend Edition Sunday December 20, 2009 

LIANE HANSEN, host: 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?

Follow Geoghegan into the office of the Bishop of Saginaw and read the entire transcript of his story at

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