By Ron Tijerina, Executive Director, The RIDGE Project
A father told me his daughter came to see him in prison and asked him, "Daddy, would you die for me?”He said, "Yes, of course I would.” She then looked him straight in the eye and asked, "Then why won't you live for me?”
When I was in prison, I remember getting upset when the yard wasn't open on time, when chow was going to be late because the count was wrong, and when I didn’t get to go to commissary on time.Any of those events meant that all evening activities would be pushed back and I would not get what I wanted when I wanted it.I, at one time, really believed I was entitled to live with my wife and my children.
I remember getting upset about a lot of things when, truly, I had no right to be upset. It was all about me. I took everything personally, because the entire universe revolved around me.
Thankfully, while I was in prison, I realized it wasn’t all about me.Everything I did or did not do affected –or INFECTED— my family.It was then that I began to ask myself how my sons felt about having another family dinner without me. How did they feel going on family outings when I couldn’t be there and what did they experience when I couldn’t be at their ball games?How about another birthday party — and I was not there again?Or what about the times they were shunned because I was in prison?Did they take it personally?Were they upset? What were they feeling?
The truth is, even though I went to prison for a crime I did not commit, I was not living my life for my children. By the choices I had made on the streets that put my wants above them, I had robbed them of many things they were entitled to.They were entitled to a dad who loved them enough to make sacrifices for them, who cared for them enough to pursue them and live for them. They were entitled to a dad who would be there to catch them when they fell and be there to celebrate all their victories with them.They were entitled to be welcomed, and pursued, and celebrated. Instead, they were thrust into a life they did not deserve, a life full of disappointment, longing, shunning and social discrimination.
The things that I believed I was entitled to were not entitlements at all. They were privileges and I had given them away.Even worse than that, I stole from my children the life they were entitled to live.
It is one thing for me, as a dad, to give away the honor and blessing of being a dad, but it is another thing to see my children lose what they were entitled to.
I look deep into the eyes of my two sons, and I see the permanent scars my absence inflicted. I still see the little boys who walked in painful silence, and I can still hear the silent screams no one else could hear.I can feel the steel doors they built around their hearts to keep people out, and I can still recall all the struggles they endured to break down those doors so they could experience the fullness of their lives in spite of the judgment they endured because of me.
But!I am so thankful I woke up to what is important and began to pursue my sons with love and understanding, in spite of the physical walls that separated our worlds while I was still in prison.Watching my sons grow up from behind the gates and seeing them become the men they are today, I am the proudest dad in the world. My sons are full of life today despite growing up with the label of "child of an incarcerated parent.”The scars are there, but they are healing every day and joy has replaced the pain. We live, laugh, cry and celebrate lifetogether.
If you’re a dad and in prison, you have a lot of work to do. An incarcerated father’s first quest is to restore that which he has stolen from his children: peace, joy, safety, honor, and protection. This is no easy task.My family knows firsthand.But through our experience, we created an award-winning program that does just that - Keeping FAITH (Families And Inmates Together in Harmony.)
Building a legacy of strong families is what our Keeping FAITH program is accomplishing, by serving incarcerated fathers and their families and by equipping other organizations to provide culturally relevant services to these vulnerable families.And we do it because we know, first hand, that kids still need their dads, even when they’re on the other side of the gate.