ANGOLA, La.-When Kyle Hebert saw his 9-year-old son for the very first time, he shouted, "Thank you Jesus," hugged the small, shy boy, then looked deeply into his eyes to find some recognition.
He was not disappointed. Matthew's face broke into a wide, toothy grin as he returned his father's embrace.
Serving a 40-year sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary for an attempted murder conviction, Hebert, 43, spent seven precious hours with Matthew during the fourth annual Returning Hearts Celebration held in the spring at the prison commonly known as Angola.
"This is the first time I've ever been able to touch him," Hebert exclaimed. "Words can't describe it. I'm humbled. Jesus is so faithful!"
Hebert (pronounced "A-bear") didn't know Matthew's mother was pregnant when he was arrested for almost killing a man in a fist fight, he said. "I wasn't saved then. When I came to prison the Lord broke me."
The Heberts were one small part of the event's larger family reunion. Co-sponsored by the prison and Awana, a Christian youth ministry headquartered near Chicago, Ill. (Awana stands for "Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed," based on 2 Timothy 2:15), the event provided 520 children and 440 inmate fathers a once-a-year opportunity to spend an entire day together with no barriers between them.
As the smiling fathers and laughing children wandered among carnival rides and inflatable slides, shot basketballs, or just sat in the sunshine close enough to touch each other, 570 Awana chaperone/volunteers assisted them.
"It's so wonderful to see all the smiles on the children's faces and the faces of their fathers," said Pat Valega, a volunteer from Gonzales, La., who was working a game table with her husband Marvin.
Once known as "America's bloodiest prison," Angola is now a model of positive change. Located inside a sweeping bend of the Mississippi River 60 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, the 18,000-acre maximum-security prison is enclosed by razor-ribbed fences, watched by armed guards, and patrolled at night by hybrid wolves. The facility's six "camps" house 5,260 inmates, with more than 3,200 of them serving life sentences. Prison chaplains estimate 1,200 to 1,500 inmates are born-again Christians.
Awana's Lifeline prison ministry enrolls inmate fathers, called "Malachi Dads," in a year-long counseling and Bible study program that requires them to regularly write letters to their children. Outside, Awana links the children with its programs in local churches to help them accept their situation and reconcile with their absent fathers.
Children of inmates are seven times more likely to follow their fathers into prison, according to Awana president and CEO Jack Eggar. "We believe that the only way to break that generational cycle of crime and sin is to give the dads an opportunity to spend the day with their kids and reconcile with them," he said. "These men will do anything to see that their children do not follow their lives-and that they follow a life in Christ."
After four years of proven success at Angola, the Lifeline program is being replicated at California's San Quentin Prison and a half-dozen other state and county prisons, said Lyndon Azcuna, director of Awana's cross-cultural ministries. "Lives are being changed," Azcuna said.
Returning Hearts, Malachi Dads, the "Experiencing God" Bible study, a branch of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and a dozen other faith-based programs are changing the prison's culture, said Jim Rentz, ordained chaplain for six of the prison's seven chapels. Warden Burl Cain, who introduced the faith-based programs when he took over in 1995, agrees: "If one of these kids does not turn out to be a criminal-if we can save one person from being a victim of violent crime-it's worth everything we do."
-Mark H. Hunter is a journalist living in Baton Rouge, La.