Cook County Jail officials are crediting “Malachi Dads,” a program that originated in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as “Angola,” with changing the violent behavior of men housed in Division 9, the jail’s maximum-security wing.
“Over the last seven months there has not been an inmate involved in a fight or staff assault,” said Frank Arce, superintendent of Division 9. “We have put these men to the test. They are proud and committed to making a change.”
Of the 40 detainees who were on Tier 1B when the “Malachi Dads” program began, 25 remain. Three detainees were acquitted and went home. Some detainees moved on to the Illinois Department of Corrections, while others chose not to participate.
The young men who stuck with “Malachi Dads” were as proud as any graduating class.
Dominique, 25, has been in maximum security for two years, and is the father of three.
“It’s a good program. It just helps us as men try to become better and better ourselves, and try to get an understanding as well as have a relationship with God,” he said.
“It really takes our mind off the circumstances of us being in jail. We got more time out from being in the cell. The chaplains that come in, they give us a lot more faith, something else to believe in,” said Latrell, 25.
Bruce, 32, said he had been overwhelmed by a dope case.
“I was really down and out until they came — thinking about my case too much and worrying about my kids. Then they started giving us hope,” he said.
The calmer environment has meant the men are allowed privileges, such as using a microwave, and moving around without wearing shackles and handcuffs.
“We’ve got something to look forward to. They are going to let us see our kids. They letting us have more freedom,” said Craig, 25, who has 10 children and has been in maximum security for 30 months.
While all but one of the men on Tier 1B are black, the volunteers from Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington are white.
“When they came in, we didn’t see color,” said Devon, 26. “We just seen human beings that’s walking the way we want to walk.”
“Love has no color,” shouted one of the volunteers.
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Before the program, a “lot of guys couldn’t sit with each other,” said Frederick, 20.
“It was chaos on the deck. But now we can come together as brothers and when things are going wrong with one, all of us come together and help each other. Say if somebody is not going to commissary or somebody don’t get a visit, everybody can come together,” he said.
“Before the program, if somebody did something wrong to me, I would act out in anger, but I learned from the Bible, don’t repay evil with evil. When somebody is doing me wrong, I just pray about it and leave it alone,” he said.
Obviously, if there is ever a time to pick up a Bible it is when you’re locked up.
But is this real change?
Prison officials believe it is.
“I can’t get inside of their heads, but from what I understand there is a certain level of sincerity. Some could be doing it so when their sentencing comes up, the lawyer could say he’s been a model prisoner, and turned his life over,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said.
“But for our purposes that doesn’t bother me. Judges are pretty smart. In the meantime, they aren’t attacking the staff. They aren’t attacking each other. That’s all good,” he said.
Besides supporting the volunteers, Willow Creek Church has also provided the resources for the program.
“How often do you have a program in jail with the most violent population, and it works and it’s free?” Dart asked. “It’s great.”
The “Malachi Dads” have already moved on to a neighboring tier where last week detainees were just starting to study Psalm 1. Some of the men from Tier 1B have agreed to serve as mentors.
“We believe if there is no moral transformation, there is no transformation,” said Tom Horton, who along with his wife, Wendy, lead the volunteer effort. Horton has been active in prison ministry for 11 years.
“We try to tell them that God doesn’t hate them and maybe you didn’t get arrested, you got rescued,” he said.