Photo: Elburn Hill Church pastor Gary Augustine teaches a Malachi Dads course at Stateville Correntional Center in Joliet, Ill., which aims to teach inmates a Christian approach to fathering, and fathering from a distance. Photo submitted by Gary Augustine to CBorrowdale@elburnherald.com
Augustine teaches parenting course to prison inmates
ELBURN—Gary Augustine has entered Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill., weekly for the past three years with a single purpose: transforming prisoners into good fathers.
Augustine, the pastor of Elburn Hill Church, works with New Life Corrections Ministry in Aurora to teach Malachi Dads courses at Stateville on Wednesday mornings. The course focuses on teaching a Christian approach to fathering and teaching inmates how to father their children from a distance.
“It is an attempt to help fathers in prison parent their children from prison, and to try and build a relationship that will prevent them from following their father’s footsteps and ending up in prison,” Augustine said. “The goal is to help parents parent from a distance, such as reading a book for a kid and recording it, so that a child, especially a young child, can hear their father’s voice.”
He noted that more than 2 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated father—and statistically, those children are seven times more likely to end up in prison themselves. They are also more likely to drop out of school, run away from home, and have a host of other problems.
Augustine teaches the Malachi Dads program with Tom Beatty, the director of New Life Corrections Ministry. The program includes 10 weeks of Christian-based parenting classes, followed by another 10 weeks of character development classes.
“The goal is to develop some of the kinds of character qualities they need to be good role models to their kids,” Augustine said. “So the first thing is to be a disciple of Christ, but there’s all kinds of things: controlling anger, learning to be generous and hospitable, making sure your yes is your yes and your no is your no, doing what you say you’re going to do, getting control over drugs and alcohol.”
He emphasizes that being a good father takes courage.
“In order to be a father, you have to be willing to live courageously, and that’s a very difficult thing to do. Let’s suppose you have a situation where you need to honestly confront something. That could ruin a friendship; it could affect your career. But integrity is a huge thing,” Augustine said. “It can’t just be something I teach my kids. I have to actually model it. They have to see me be honest even when I’m going to lose something big, because the truth is the truth, even if it is going to hurt me.”
Though the program is scheduled to last 20 weeks, Augustine allots 26 weeks for each one, since frequent lockdowns at Stateville cause classes to be cancelled. He often drives to Joliet only to be turned away at the gate house due to a sudden lockdown.
“The thing about the prison system is that you never know,” Augustine said. “You might show up and they say, ‘No class today.’ Things come up, and so you go back the next week and pick up where you left off.”
Augustine said that a passage in the Bible, Matthew 25:35-40, prompted him to begin ministering to men in prison.
“Matthew talks about five things Jesus says. He says, ‘When I was hungry and thirsty, you gave me something to drink,’ and he ends with, ‘When I was in prison, you visited me.’ And (the disciples) say, ‘When did we do all that?’ And Jesus said, ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.’ So we decided as a church to be involved in all five of those things.”
Some have been easy, Augustine said, like working with a food pantry to serve the hungry and providing clothing to those in need. It took him longer to discover a way to minister to prisoners, but he says that it is among his most fulfilling work.
Nearly all of the men he works with in prison, he said, have never had fathers themselves and have had few positive role models in their own lives.
“Most of the prisoners have never really been taught a lot of these things,” Augustine said. “They grew up without fathers and surrounded by gangs. And the men say to me, ‘Man, I wish I would’ve known these things at 16.’ And I say, ‘At 16, you wouldn’t have believed it, because you were already in gangs. You needed to hear it at 12.’ And that’s why family breakdown is so devastating.”
The stories of the men are heartbreaking, he said. One was an alcoholic at age 7. Another had a mother running a gambling ring who would disappear for days. Few were proficient readers before they were arrested, though many have become strong readers through prison education programs.
“They don’t have any information about what it means to be an adult. What they understood was that you have to take what you can get,” he said. “The common scenario is that none of them had fathers, so we’re trying to teach them what it is to be a father.”
Stateville has nearly 4,000 inmates, but Augustine has had only 130 in his courses thus far. The seminar is voluntary, and the warden restricts the number of participants in Augustine’s weekly classes to 20 for security reasons.
The men that he has met, though, are very motivated to learn, he said.
“There’s a humility there because they know that they have no answers and that they have screwed up their lives in major ways,” Augustine said. “You recognize that you yourself have failed and that society has concurred with that by putting you in prison, and you think to yourself, ‘Oh, man, I need a different approach.’”
Though not everyone appreciates Augustine’s efforts, he said, most of the men thank him and see the program as valuable. Some participants have long sentences and are unlikely to ever see their children outside prison again.
Augustine described one convicted murderer—“a tough-looking dude”—as one example of a changed man.
“He said to me, ‘I realize I didn’t understand how to deal with my daughter, and this has given me more tools. Now that I’m seeing it from a different point of view, I’m able to see it better,’” Augustine said.
New Life Corrections offers programs at several prisons throughout Illinois. Malachi Dads is also taught at the Kane County, DuPage County and DeKalb County jails, and the group also offers a condensed two-day version in prisons downstate. Augustine taught the condensed version at Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, Ill., in October, and he is seeking approval to teach the two-day condensed version at Stateville in order to reach more men.
What drives him, he said, are the children and the hope that he can break the cycle of incarceration—or, as the Bible puts it, that the sins of the father will not be visited onto the sons unto the third and fourth generations.
“The problem that these guys are having, for the most part, is the fact that they either had no fathering or poor fathering,” Augustine said. “You would solve crime in this country with one thing: teaching fathers to be real fathers.”