The bottom fell out of my world in 2004, when I was convicted of investment fraud. As a result of my actions, I landed in the federal prison system in Minnesota and served nearly 13 years there.
When I did what I did, many people were surprised—including myself. My choices didn’t square with my stable upbringing in a loving family or my current life situation as a successful businessman.
For 14 years, I had experienced great success in the financial services world. But as I climbed the corporate ladder, I strayed from my values and turned a blind eye to what I knew was right. That choice came with a high cost to my family and me.
I don’t blame anyone but myself. As a financial consultant, I should have done my due diligence. If I had, I would have known that those tantalizing foreign investments that promised such huge economic benefits were bogus. In truth, I didn’t want to know; I wanted the fee attached. So I plowed forth, mesmerized by the financial gain I was experiencing and ignoring all the red flags.
Before I knew it, I was behind bars, furious that I had allowed myself to fall victim to greed.
I quickly learned that the impact of crime and incarceration is far-reaching and painful for all involved. My actions, my own choices, had placed significant financial, emotional, and physical burdens on my loved ones. Those I cared about most, including my young children, were suffering greatly. My clients, too, were devastated by my behavior.
Three months into my sentence, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I watched helplessly as she fought against that horrible illness, all the while carrying the extra burden of worrying about me. As her son, I should have been by her side. She died less than six months after I was locked up. For reasons I still don’t understand, I wasn’t allowed to attend her funeral. This left a hole in my heart that the Lord continues to mend.
Years later, while I was still in prison, my father had a stroke and died. I’d been so looking forward to my release date—I’d wanted to spend time with him. I will forever regret the foolish choices that left my parents alone during the most challenging years of their lives.
I spent a lot of time beating myself up for the pain I caused others, but I eventually learned that self-hate, self-pity, and anger only increased the negative impacts of my crime. This renewing of the mind began while I was being held in the hole (a place of segregation in prison), under investigation for what turned out to be a false narcotics accusation.
My first week in the hole was tough. I was angry over the false charge and bitter about not being able to attend my mother’s funeral. And I was still upset with myself for being in prison in the first place. Thankfully, God, in His grace, helped me out of my bitterness before it could destroy me (Hebrews 12:15).
The segregation cell door had barely closed behind me when a female guard banged on it and asked if she could get me anything. I immediately told her I wanted a Bible. I don’t know why I made this request. I don’t recall any intentional thought process behind it or an underlying desire to search for God. Nonetheless, I’m grateful.
For the next 35 days, I read God’s Word and reflected on my life. The Bible brought great comfort to me. It showed me my sinful ways, especially my prideful thoughts, and then it revealed the grace of God to forgive all my sin (1 John 1:9). His Word showed me how to get in right standing with God, through my faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8). It also taught me how to forgive others and myself, so I could move forward (Colossians 3:13).
Then, a month later, something happened that had a profound impact on my life. Lack of beds in the general population resulted in an inmate named Kent being placed in the hole with me. He’d just reported to prison and was coming off heavy drugs. He talked nonstop and was in a constant state of panic for several nights. Over the weekend, as reality set in, he threatened to kill himself many times. The guards asked me to keep an eye on him, to be kind to him, and to notify them if there was a problem.
I was a bit annoyed at first. This guy was a handful, and he was interrupting my quiet time with God. All I kept thinking was how lucky he was that I was in the cell with him; any other guy would surely have beaten him half to death the first night. I was so arrogant.
In reality, God had sent Kent to that cell for me, not the other way around—though I didn’t realize that for several days. It was a Monday, and as was the custom, the guards woke us at 4:30 to serve us breakfast.
In those early hours, Kent, who was finally in his right mind, looked at me and said, “Augie, you’re getting out of here today. I feel it.”
I told him that wasn’t possible because I was supposed to be in the hole for six months, and I’d only been there a month. He asked if he could pray for me; I said sure. He prayed and then closed his prayer with, “I ask all of this in Jesus’s precious name. Amen.”
I’d never heard a closing like that. It was a humble yet confident request, backed by the power of Jesus’s name, and it caught my attention. I soon began to pray that way too, as I learned more about the power of Jesus’s name (John 14:13–14; John 16:23–24).
Five seconds later, an officer banged on the door and said, “Ghilarducci, get your stuff. You’re out of here.” I started to cry. It was so much to take in. Could God have spoken through Kent? Had He heard our prayers and answered them that quickly? The officer handed me clothes and took me back to a room in the general population.
This encounter made a profound difference in how I perceived my situation, myself, and God. It showed me that I wasn’t alone in prison—I never had been, and I never would be. God was with me and everyone else behind those prison walls. He saw us; He heard our prayers. I also realized during that time that my past didn’t have to dictate my future. With God’s help, my hard work, and the support of others, I could move forward and emerge from this experience a better man.
I set out on a journey of rediscovery. That journey brought me back to godly values and back to my faith in Jesus Christ. Serving time gave me a clear perspective on the prison system and the challenges those who live there face. It created in me a burden to help those behind bars.
Before I was incarcerated, I had judged people in prison so harshly. I’d never considered them as human beings with emotions, families, or needs. I’d never thought about the helplessness a husband, father, and son feels behind bars until I was that husband, father, and son.
It took losing my liberty and, ultimately, my dignity to open my eyes, but once they were open, my heart was filled with compassion.
Prison teems with people who have lost their way for whatever reason—addictions, mental illness, childhood and adult trauma, poverty…so many things. Some there are innocent, while others have no remorse over what they’ve done, no regard for authority, and no desire to change. I don’t believe that is the norm, but God showed me my role is not that of a judge, lest I be judged myself (Matthew 7:1). Instead, my part is to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to help people find their way—His way.
Not only did I learn about the humanity of people behind bars, but I also came to understand the brokenness of our prison system. Things desperately need to change. Men and women leave the system unprepared for society and unequipped to move forward. It’s no wonder so many fail.
I’d never given thought to the prison system. I simply didn’t care. It didn’t impact my family or me. But once I was there, I saw things I couldn’t ignore, especially the lack of opportunities for people to advance in life.
I decided that while incarcerated, I would change what I could by using the knowledge I had to help others. I noticed inmates struggling to read and understand important legal correspondence from their attorneys, so I helped them navigate their way through the documents. It was a simple act with a significant impact.
I also noticed a lack of essential life skills, especially in finance—things like budgeting, balancing checkbooks, paying taxes, understanding mortgages, and saving for the future. I developed a program and a workbook that taught inmates these crucial skills.
It was so rewarding to help people not only dream about their future but plan for it.
It wasn’t long before prison officials took notice of the impact the program was having and endorsed it. This was a high compliment in a place where compliments are rare. They took the program and made it a requirement for those in drug treatment plans.
I had opportunities to impact the lives of people outside the prison too. The warden placed me in a community outreach program that allowed me to go into high schools, colleges, and universities to share with students the lessons I had learned from my ethical failures. I was able to use my failures for good by hopefully preventing others from going down the path I had chosen.
I was released from prison in 2018. That was a difficult transition for a 57-year-old man to make, but with the help of my Lord Jesus Christ, the faithful support and dedication of the woman who had stood by my side through my entire prison sentence, and careful planning, I am now thriving and helping others to do the same. I am in constant awe of how God has used every part of my past for good (Romans 8:28). He hasn’t wasted a thing.
Amazingly, less than six months after my release, I was invited to return to jails and prisons to share my story and to teach my programs though an organization called 2nd Opportunity. Today, I share this reentry program with inmates five days a week. It’s also available via computer tablets in many facilities throughout the United States. I have written a book about my experience called I Climbed the Wrong Mountain to Discover the Right Path. Its purpose is to help others dealing with the barriers of reentry.
So you see, no matter how dire your situation, God can still use your life for good. No matter how you’ve fallen, you can not only survive your ordeal but thrive! To do so, you will have to trust God, persevere in your faith, and work hard. No one is going to hand you your life back. You’ll have to take advantage of what’s available to you. You’ll have to make sacrifices. But as you do, God will take your life and use every part of it for His glory. He will cause your fall to be the catalyst for a better life experience.