Special Report: The Journey From Convict To Chaplain

Inmates at the Benzie County Jail are receiving some much needed guidance and spiritual support from someone who has been in their shoes.

Since April, Robert Wickham has served as the chaplain at the Benzie County Jail.

It’s a voluntary sentence, and one he enjoys very much.

In this special report, 9&10’s Caroline Powers and photojournalist Jeremy Erickson found out how he went from felon to chaplain.

“I will always share my story. You can change if you want to. You just have to ask.”

Within the walls of the Benzie County Jail is a library.

It’s where Rob Wickham finds himself at least three days a week, with his Bible in hand.

“I just want to help people because I want to tell them they don’t need to go this route,” Wickham says. “It’s an awful place. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a better way to live, and I’m living proof of it.”

Rob has served as the chaplain in the Benzie County Jail since April.

But this isn’t the first time Rob has found himself behind bars.

“I was a, how do you say it, rebellious child growing up,” says Wickham. “I ended up quitting high school and started experimenting with all kinds of drugs. Ended up getting addicted to heroin in my early 20’s and that took me to a lot of ugly, dark places that I never thought I would ever go.”

The dark path Rob was on eventually led him to prison.

“In 2001 I broke into a house looking for pain pills. Got caught. Got charged with home invasion in Leelanau County. I went to prison for four years. I got out and that wasn’t enough. I ended up going back after a year and a half being out. I ended up going back to prison for another four and a half years,” Wickham says.

After getting out of prison for the second time, Rob decided it was time to turn his life around.

“All I could think of was I’m going to do everything and anything to stay out,” says Wickham.

He found hope in an After Care program at Fresh Wind Christian Community Church.

“I went there and met people like me. Had been in jail on and off, prison on and off, battling drugs, battling alcohol, divorces,” says Wickham. “It was a support group really for whoever was down and out.”

“He never let go of the vision he had to be in ministry and so doors began to open up,” says Pastor Chuck Towersey, Fresh Wind Christina Community Church. “We started a ministry at the county jail where we go and we do a weekly worship service with our church and from there Rob became better known to the sheriff and to the jail administrator.”

And that’s when Rob decided he wanted to use his experience in prison to help others.

“It’s like we know the people,” Wickham says. “We know the inmates in the jail better than anyone else. Why not? When I tell my story a lot of times to new people it’s like their eyes light up when they hear that word prison or Department of Corrections. It’s like they look and they’re like this guy?”

Since becoming chaplain, Rob has helped a number of inmates, like Donovan Leonard, who says Rob’s presence in the jail has encouraged him to turn his life around.

“If Rob wasn’t in this program, if he wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” Leonard says. “I’d be in my cell, pressing my rack, reading my book, hooting and hollering with the other guys, and I wouldn’t care, and I’d probably would come back here. With him being here is a totally positive thing.”

Rob says not every day is easy, and not everyone is as open to learning from their mistakes.

“They might have to finally accept the fact that they have to change almost everything in their life. They have to give up those old friends,” Wickham says. “That’s a reality. It’s hard. It’s hard to come up with an answer for them when they’re in that pain.”

But knowing he’s doing God’s work, on his own time, is what keeps him going.

“It’s also nice that when I come in, I always get to walk back out,” Wickham says. “So it’s like a little snub at the system knowing that I can go back out at the end of the day, but it’s been a blessing to help people in here.”

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