When volunteers with the “Malachi Dads” program first walked onto Division 9 at Cook County Jail, a SWAT team rushing to quell a cellblock disturbance greeted them.
It was an answer to prayer.
Tom Horton, the group leader, was meeting with Tarry Williams, chief of operations for the sprawling jail complex, and had just told the administrator they wanted “to go to the worst cell block you have.”
“We wanted to go because when it gets corrected, there would be no doubt about who did it,” Horton told me in an interview at the jail.
The detainees were refusing to go back to their cells. Most of the men were facing trials for violent crimes, including murder and attempted murder.
“I was a little bit skeptical of the whole notion that this group of detainees with very violent offenses who is most likely going to spend a great deal of time in prison, that a program could be impactful,” admits Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. “I was proven wrong.”
In the seven months that Horton and his group have been involved, there hasn’t been one incident on the tier, according to Dart.
The combined number of incidents prior to the implementation of Malachi Dads in September 2015 was 83.
“The numbers don’t lie,” says Dart. “As a group, they had incident after incident, fighting, fighting with correctional officers and exposing themselves. Now, it’s zero. I’m not saying it went from whatever to zero and back up. It has stayed at zero. I was blown away.”
The Malachi Dads program originated in a Louisiana State Penitentiary, the notorious Angola prison. It’s a men’s movement to reconnect fathers in prison with their children. Horton and his wife, Wendy, the group leaders, are part of the prison ministry at Willow Creek Church, a Christian fellowship with locations in Chicago, South Barrington, Crystal Lake, West Chicago, Huntley and Northfield.
Volunteers with Malachi Dads go to Cook County Jail’s maximum-security division twice a week.
Listen to detainees involved in “Malachi Dads” perform original praise song: “Give it up for the Lord.” The song was written by a detainee during the course of the program.
Cindy and Ben Evangelista got involved with the program after their son was incarcerated for two years.
“It just broke us,” Cindy Evangelista says. “But we grew. We cried out to the Lord, and my son, he was a changed man. We really thought God had him there for a reason.”
Detainees were housed two to a cell, locked behind heavy steel doors with an opening just large enough to pass a tray of food.
At first, the men didn’t want anything to do with the volunteers.
“Some of them wouldn’t even talk to us,” Horton says. “But we kept coming back, and gradually they started to understand that we do care about them and God cares about them.”
One of the first things Horton asked the men to do was learn Psalm 1:1-6, which begins:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night.”
Laron, 24, one of those who’s taken part in the jail program, says learning that Scripture had a profound impact.
“It taught us how to walk in the way of righteousness and divert from the way of wickedness,” he says. “Now that we understand that, we are able to become godly fathers, and we are able to teach our children.”