If he thought that moment was tough, his situation became far more difficult a little more than two weeks later.
On Feb. 26, 2005, his daughter, Anita, was born.
“At that moment, I realized that my daughter’s future was in jeopardy,” Breland says. “That she would possibly grow up without the loving care and influence of me being her father. You see the battle for the Kingdom of God and the battle for our children’s future, their hopes and dreams, begin the moment that they are born into this world. And it’s up to us as men to become fathers to our children, to love them, to lead them and to keep them from making the same mistakes that we made.”
Breland shares these words, shares this story on a recent Saturday, with a group of nearly 50 fellow inmates, along with prison staff and a group of volunteers, all within the walls of Valdosta State Prison.
He shares this message with several of the inmates’ children who sit within the Valdosta State Prison compound.
Breland is the keynote speaker in the graduation ceremony for a program called Malachi Dads.
The biblical Malachi 4:6 reads: “And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.”
Malachi Dads strives to show inmates that they can still be fathers despite being behind bars. That they can still have a positive impact on their children even if some of the inmates will spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Malachi Dads’ roots stem from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, about an hour northwest of Baton Rouge. Establishing a Christian ministry in the prison, officials created a program through the Awana Lifeline with the aim of “equipping fathers to build a legacy of faith in Christ.”
Valdosta State Prison Chaplain Pat Miller learned of Angola and hoped to bring the Malachi Dads program to Georgia. Miller, an Air Force veteran, has served as Valdosta State Prison chaplain for 15 years.
“As chaplain, I know the goals and the philosophies of the (Georgia) Department of Corrections,” Miller says. “I was not going to bring something to the table that would cause trouble. I’ve had the benefit of having good administrators and wardens who trust me.”
Miller also knew a man he trusted to help him establish the first Malachi Dads east of the Mississippi.
Bill Newcomb has long volunteered through the Kairos Prison Ministry. Newcomb is something of a missionary’s missionary. He’s shared his Christian witness and helped arrange corrective surgeries for children suffering cleft palettes in India. He’s served as a missionary in Russia. He’s worked with South Georgia migrant workers. And he’s developed a strong ministry in Valdosta State Prison.
Ask most of the volunteers what brought them to the Malachi Dads Returning Hearts Celebration Saturday and they answer, “Bill.” “I know Bill through church.” “I know Bill through the Exchange Club.”
Together, Newcomb and Miller make an imposing team. Miller, the tall, black man known by hundreds of inmates as “Chap.” Newcomb, the white fireplug dynamo, everyone seems to call Bill.
Together, they brought Malachi Dads to Valdosta State Prison.
Malachi Dads gives inmates the opportunity to build a relationship with their children on the outside. Chaplain Miller does not call and ask children or families to return the connection with the inmates.
Miller, Newcomb and other volunteers do not build bridges for the inmates. Malachi Dads gives the inmates tools to build bridges with their children.
Just because an inmate participates in Malachi Dads and even sincerely commits to its mission is no guarantee that contact with their children will be reciprocated, but all things are possible.
Newcomb shares the story of one inmate who wrote letters to his son. Each letter was intercepted by a family member who discouraged the inmate’s effort to reestablish contact with the son. The inmate kept writing letters. The relative kept intercepting them. Finally, the son contacted his father. The son told his father he had read all of his letters. All 72 of them.
Sometimes, commitment is equal measures sincerity and persistence.
Malachi Dads is no push-over course for inmates. Not all interested inmates are accepted. The chaplain reviews each inmate’s application. Miller looks at the crime, the nature of that crime, the victims of the crime, the length of the inmate’s sentence and where the inmate is in his sentence, the inmate’s record of behavior in prison.
These men are no push-overs, either. Malachi Dads includes inmates sentenced for murder, robbery and other violent crimes. An inmate serving life for murder may be accepted in Malachi Dads, but he and all participating inmates must remain committed to stay in the program.
Get in trouble, the inmate’s out. Miss two weekly Malachi Dads sessions, he’s out. Fail to do the homework, out. Put little effort into the assignments, out. Refuse to complete reading assignments, out.
Valdosta State Prison held its first Malachi Dads program last year. Then, 32 inmates entered the program; only eight graduated. This year, 65 entered the program; on Saturday, 42 graduated.
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.”
Music playing, Newcomb calls each inmate’s name. Inmates wear black graduation caps and gowns. They receive certificates and handshakes.
Their Malachi Dads certificates in hand, the inmates sit listening to Miller. The chaplain’s message hints at the preacher as he explains to the inmates, their families and the volunteers what the program strives to achieve.
“We need fathers to step up and be fathers at this time,” the chaplain says. “Men will jump in bed and bare their bodies but they will not dare to bare their souls. ... So, gentlemen, I am so proud of you. You’re making a difference. The fact you have family here shows you are making a difference. If God be for me, who might be against me. ... God is for me. God is for you.”
Following graduation, the inmates eat. Eventually, they will receive seconds; seconds are called “doowop” in the prison. Those without families present eat then return to their cells. Those with children spend time with their sons and daughters.
They laugh and play. Inmates scramble with their children in the bounce houses. A father and a teenage son talk with one another as they shoot hoops. A father carries his son. A father slides down a slide with his daughters. Fathers and children of all ages build crafts kits together.
The earth turns, the afternoon deepens to a few moments of quiet conversation between each father and his child or children. These moments concluding, volunteers join the fathers and their children. Each person holds a a balloon. Bill Newcomb says a prayer. Each person releases a balloon as all say “amen” in unison.
All eyes flash toward the sky as balloons soar past the prison’s concertina wire, up past the watch towers, up, up and away.
“I made the choice to change my way of thinking and living,” John Breland says in his speech to Saturday’s graduates. “I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to let prison or anything prevent me from being a father to my daughter. I started writing my daughter letters from the day that she was born up to now. I started sending her cards and telling her that I love her.
“... Because of God, Malachi Dads, and my daughter, I can smile in the face of adversity, and this day proves to us that regardless of our past mistakes, our present circumstances, and situations, that we are men with hearts, men who desire to build a healthy relationship with our children and be fathers to our children.”
In the audience, 7-year-old Anita smiles as she listens to every word her father says.