In completing the program, the inmates may invite their children to attend the Returning Hearts Celebration.
On Saturday morning, bounce houses, inflatable slides, and inflatable basketball hoops rise under the looped shadows of coiled razor wire. Volunteers tie balloons to fencing. They arrange arts and crafts projects for the inmates to create with their children. Volunteers grill hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages.
Chairs are arranged. A speaker’s podium installed. All under a warm, blue November sky. These are things unheard of inside of the prison.
Not every Malachi Dad has children attending Saturday’s event. The children who do attend ranged from a grown daughter bringing her two children to visit her father and their papa. A grown son visits another inmate. Several small children visit their fathers. An 18-month-old son and 12-year-old sister visit one inmate.
Last year, when inmate Ricky Breedlove graduated the program, grown daughter Rickie Case drove from Washington, D.C., to attend the first Returning Hearts Celebration. As a program alum, Breedlove was eligible to attend the 2012 celebration. Now living closer in Warner Robins, Case regularly visits her father but she attends the event again Saturday to share the special day.
No other parent or grandparent, aunt or uncle, or any other relative is supposed to attend the celebration inside of the prison. They wait outside. This day is about the inmate fathers spending quality time with their children, one on one. Or one on four as one inmate’s four small children arrive late in the afternoon.
Still, the majority of the inmates have no children visit them. One inmate says he is the father of 13 children. Not one child attends. Newcomb gently tells the inmate to continue writing and sending letters.
“This isn’t about changing minds,” Newcomb says a few minutes later. “It’s about changing hearts.”