When My Dad Went to Prison

Emily Colson looks back on her father’s public fall from glory and redemption in Christ.


Emily Colson

Fifty years ago today, my dad went to prison. I was only 15 at the time, having just endured a year or more of the chaos of Watergate. The whirlwind of reporters, congressional hearings, criminal trials … and as a teenager having a dad who was hated by so many. 

My dad is Chuck Colson. It’s surreal to think back on that time. The day my dad went to prison was one of the darkest days of my life. It was a national, even international, story of political intrigue. But for me, it was personal. I felt like I was losing my dad. As I wrote in a recent article, remembering one of my visits with him in prison, 

The rest of the world was still spinning outside. Fathers were coming home from work. Families were gathering around dinner tables. But for us, life had stopped. We could not have been more alone than in that moment. 

But something else had happened to my dad just a year earlier, something though impossible to understand at the time, would turn out to be far more consequential than Watergate or its aftermath. My dad visited the home of Tom Phillips, president of the Raytheon Company, and a former legal client. Tom had, as my dad described years later, “become a Christian, and he seemed so different.” 

That night, Tom read to my dad a chapter from Mere Christianity. In it, C.S. Lewis described how a proud man believes that there cannot be anything above himself, much less anything immeasurably superior such as God. That night, my dad realized that he was that proud man. Later, in tears in Tom’s driveway, my dad cried out to Jesus. He was never the same again. 

A year later, visiting my dad in Fort Holabird Prison in Baltimore, Maryland, it was hard to believe that life would be OK. His fall had been so quick. So public. In a piece at World Opinions, I describe that visit in detail as I remember it as a fifteen-year-old girl wondering what would happen to our family … to my dad … to me. 

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard noted that life is lived forward and only understood by looking backward. Fifty years later, as I look back on days that were so difficult for me and my family, I now have a deeper understanding of God’s promises.  

First, Jesus promised His people, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” When the judge slammed that gavel and pronounced my dad’s sentence, it seemed like the end. But it wasn’t. In fact, it was a beginning. And Jesus has been with me, and with my dad, through it all.  

Second, looking back, we can see that Romans 8:28, though too often thrown around glibly to those who are suffering, is still true. God is orchestrating our lives. He is bringing beauty from ashes. He does work all things together for our good and, more importantly, for His glory.  

In fact, when my dad looked back, that’s exactly what he saw. Here he is, in his own words:  

As I think about my life, the beginning of the prison ministry, our work in the justice area, our international ministry that reaches one hundred countries, and the work of the Wilberforce Forum and Breakpoint, I have come to appreciate the doctrine of providence. It’s not the world’s idea of fate or luck, but the reality of God’s divine intervention. He orchestrates the lives of His children to accomplish His good purposes.  

God has certainly ordered my steps. I couldn’t have imagined when I was in prison that I would someday go back to the White House with ex-offenders as I did on June 18—or that we would be running prisons that have an 8% recidivism rate—or that Breakpoint would be heard daily on a thousand radio outlets across the United States and on the internet.  

The truth that is uppermost in my mind today is that God isn’t finished. As long as we’re alive, He’s at work in our lives. We can live lives of obedience in any field because God providentially arranges the circumstances of our lives to achieve His objectives.  

And that leads to the greatest joy I’ve found in life. As I look back on my life, it’s not having been to Buckingham Palace to receive the Templeton Prize or getting honorary degrees or writing books. The greatest joy is to see how God has used my life to touch the lives of others, people hurting and in need.  

It has been a long time since the dark days of Watergate. I’m still astounded that God would take someone who was infamous in the Watergate scandal, and soon to be a convicted felon, and take him into His family and then order his steps in the way He has with me. 


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