‘What happened?’ An inmate’s story
September 13th, 2011
By James M. Flanagan
From the streets of Boston to the streets of San Francisco, I am now incarcerated in the San Francisco Hall of Justice. I am looking at double digits for the crimes I am accused of. When I asked myself, “What happened?” I realized I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist for the answer: I left the church.
I remember one night coming home to my mother and sister after a night out with the boys – I was only 15 at the time – and having my mother greet me at the front door stating, “Look at you. You’re a mess!” My response to her was, “My dad’s gone and I’m the man of the house now.” My mother and father had separated several months before this incident and I was messing around with alcohol, marijuana and psychedelic drugs. I was a wreck. My grades started to fall. I was an “A” student up until this point. I had stopped going to church when problems started to arise at home because of my father’s physical abuse and his drinking.
I was an altar boy and even pondered the thought of becoming a priest. The day I stopped going to church was the beginning of a life I would never have expected. I was lost! One day in high school – I had just started 10th grade a few months prior – I bought some Valium from a girl I liked because I wanted her to think I was “cool.” After taking the five 10-milligram Valium tablets, I turned into a violent person and attacked a teacher in his classroom because of a verbal confrontation I had with him earlier in the day. This was the beginning of a life for me that included the addiction of alcohol and drugs for the rest of my life. It is now 37 years later and I still remember that day like it was yesterday.
For the past 20 years, the only time I pick up a Bible or go to church is when I am incarcerated. I ask myself, “Why is it I only turn to God in times of trouble? Why is it not possible for me to turn to God and ask him for guidance to help me rid myself of this criminal behavior and my alcohol and drug addiction?” I have been addicted to crack cocaine now since 1990. I smoke crack to escape my problems not realizing that this is my problem. I should be turning to God to help me with my problems. Addiction and stealing usually go hand-in-hand. Stealing is how I fill my desperate needs when I have no way of getting them met.
I recently read a story in the Bible of Jesus describing himself as a shepherd who has great love for us, his sheep. He also said, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came to me were thieves and robbers … The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life” (John 10:7-8, 10). The Apostle Paul warned, “If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need” (Ephesians 4:28).
As I started reflecting on my past and started going to church again and reading the Bible, I found out that all I needed to do is turn back to God and not away from him. He can fill my emptiness with his love and care. My drug addiction and drinking is a life-threatening disease. It not only separated me from my family and led me toward the destruction of everything important to me; it also led me away from God and his continual love for me.
I’m not a bad man, just a man gone bad, and I now awake asking God for his guidance. I’m doing OK thus far.
James M. Flanagan
850 Bryant St.
Editor’s note: The writer’s letter and artwork were introduced to Catholic San Francisco by a Catholic prison ministry volunteer and are published with the writer’s permission.
From the Sept. 16, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.