The other day I visited a young black man from Philadelphia doing time for an armed robbery.
First, let me say that there is no way I could have imagined spending time with a thug like Steve before I was led into prison ministry — and it's safe to assume most people would feel likewise. That's why I'd like to share what happened. If nothing else, maybe this story will make everyone hug their families extra close tonight and thank God for our blessings.
Steve is about 5 foot 4, with thick glasses and a nervous stutter. I first met him about a year ago. He was so anxious during our first interview, he could barely string three words together and his hands shook like someone suffering end-stage Parkinson's.
I found out his back story from some prison staff. Steve has been in prison for 20 years since he was 13 years old — and during that entire 20 years no one had EVER come to visit him. Later, I learned that his mother sold him when he was 6 years old for some heroin and he wound up being passed around from home to home, a victim of physical and sexual abuse.
After a few visits Steve warmed up to me and the stutter eased up some. I was struck by how fascinated he was by my life and my family; he was always asking me questions about them. He seemed particularly amazed that we ate our meals together and went to our kids' sporting events.
“Wow! Are you serious? That's like in the movies,” he would say, and the astonishment in his face always tugged at my heart. But the questions he asked the other day caught me unprepared.
“Miss Cindy, can I ask you something?
“Did you love your baby when it was born?”
"Of course," I said, feeling my throat tighten.
"You did? For real?"
I nodded, stunned by the incredulous smile on his face. He looked so happy — so delighted to find out there was such a thing as love in the world, even if he'd never been a recipient of any of it. I struggled to keep my composure as he continued to ply me with questions.
“Did you hold your baby a lot?"
I came close to losing it then. Who could imagine questions like these from a state con in prison for armed robbery? But today's visit was tougher than previous ones for another reason. Today Steve was in solitary confinement, cuffed and shackled, and our visit was behind glass. He was sent to solitary for yelling at an officer, which pretty much guaranteed he would not make parole — again.
So why did he look so happy and relaxed? It didn't make sense until I recalled that just a few weeks ago, he'd confessed how terrified he was about leaving prison later this year. By the end of the visit, it dawned on me.
"Steve, did you do this deliberately? So you wouldn't get parole and have to leave?"
He stared down at the cuffs on his wrists — and I knew. But before he confirmed my suspicions, I thought about how I once would have judged Steve solely by his crime. Armed robbery meant he was a thug, plain and simple. What 13-year-old kid doesn't know right from wrong? How many times had I said things like that?
“I'm just not ready, Miss Cindy.” His eyes looked old now, and very sad. "I'm sorry I let you down. But I don't know nothing about how to live out there. I was just a kid when I got locked up. And I don't have nobody. I think it will be better if I stay another seven years till I max out.”
“You got to be kidding, Steve!" I couldn't believe he was saying this. "Seven more years in this place? What makes you think it will be easier to leave then?” I tried to convince him how much better life would be on the outside. Steve's short stature made him an easy target and he'd been raped several times. How could it be better — in here?! And then I recalled his life on the outside had been as mean as his life in prison.
An hour later I said goodbye to him with a heavy heart. I've learned not to let these things consume me, to shake off the melancholy on the ride home and go and enjoy my family. But that old saying, “There but for the grace of God,” means a heck of a lot more to me now than it did before.
Twenty years ago, Steve was a homeless, abused kid when the Crips took him in and offered him the sense of belonging he never had. I couldn't help wondering what my life would have been like if Steve and I had traded places … and if I'd had a mom who sold me so she could buy some heroin.
“Cry me a river.” That's what I used to say whenever “bleeding hearts” linked poverty and abuse to crime. All families have some dysfunction, right? It's no excuse for doing wrong.
And maybe it isn't. But I've met a lot of "Steves" in the prisons I visit and the word thug doesn't come as easily to my lips as it once did. So if you get a minute, please say a prayer for Steve. Then go hug your family close and thank God for your blessings.
Cindy Sanford is the author of “Letters to a Lifer: The Boy ‘Never to be Released’” and a member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. She is married to a retired law enforcement officer and is the mother of four sons.
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