Malachi Dads has been an eye-opening experience for Cody Saxby.
Not only did the 28-year-old inmate learn tools to be a better father to his two sons, the class at the Stephenson County Jail gave him coping skills to deal with his grief and anger.
Saxby had two other children who died shortly after birth. Instead of bottling up his feelings, he now can express them constructively.
"The program was very moving," he said. "It opened my eyes to a lot of new perspectives in the way a person should be handling their role as a father and husband."
Saxby and eight others celebrated April 16 as the first graduates of the fathering class.
The voluntary classroom program is open to inmates who are fathers or who are planning to start families when they are released from jail. Its name is derived from a passage in the book of the prophet Malachi in the Old Testament: "And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers" (Malachi 4:6).
"I got a lot out of the class," said Cordarrell Wright, 25. "It really helped me to understand how to become a better dad and a better person."
The nine-week course features homework and instruction on a number of key issues, including dealing with addiction, parenting and being part of a child's life. Inmates receive a certificate when they complete the course.
The goal: be more prepared to build a strong family outside jail.
"Seventy-five percent of children who have a parent in jail (end up) in jail themselves at some point," said Mike Sowell, head chaplain at the Stephenson County Jail.
Sowell modeled Malachi Dads on a curriculum developed at Angola Prison in Louisiana. He tried the program for two years when he was head chaplain at the Winnebago County Jail; it graduated 200 inmates.
Fatherhood strikes close to home for Sowell.
"I began thinking about my dad, who was absent in my life when I was growing up ... then I think about my son," he said in a news release. "I can't allow other men I come into contact with to be impacted by that same cycle of crime. I have to do something."
The first Stephenson County graduates — the jail population is 121 — were from Cell Block F; Sowell plans to offer the program to each block until he covers them all.
"I got a better view on being a spiritual dad," said Antonio Thompson, 22.
Other certificate programs at the jail, including a GED program, will be launched as funding becomes available.