Jacksonville nonprofit working to break the cycle: Inside the program helping imprisoned dads

BAKER COUNTY, Fla. — In an effort to keep the children of incarcerated fathers out of prison, a Jacksonville nonprofit is working with inmates to better them before release.

“I can’t be a great father if I’m not around,” Wendall Murray Jr., said. “My biological father was never around. I always promised myself I wouldn’t do that to my kids, but I feel like I’m doing it because I’m not there now.”

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The 40-year-old is currently serving a five year sentence at Baker County Correctional Institute. He is convicted on charges of grand theft, criminal mischief, robbery and fraud. He is also a father.

“I have four kids,” Murray said. “20, 19 and two 7-year-olds.”

Curtis Freeman is also serving time at Baker Correction. The 43-year-old has been incarcerated since 2003. He is currently serving time for four counts of robbery with a deadly weapon. He is also a father of three.

“My oldest child is 26. My second oldest is 21 and my youngest is 18,” Freeman said. “I haven’t heard from them in a while, so I’m trying to still reach out to them.”

Action News Jax reporter Meghan Moriarty got exclusive access inside Baker Correctional on Friday. For security purposes, our crews were limited in what we could show. Moriarty worked with the institute and Operation New Hope for about a month to set up the story.

Operation New Hope is a nonprofit in Jacksonville working to provide skills training to those impacted by the criminal justice system—those on the inside and their families.

Freeman and Murray recently went through the non-profit’s six week program “InsideOut Dads.” The purpose of the course is to teach these men how to be better fathers for their kids.

During the six week program, there are 12 one-hour sessions:

  • Ground rules
  • About me (Self-awareness)
  • Being a man
  • Spirituality
  • Handling emotions
  • Relationships
  • Fathering
  • Parenting
  • Child Development
  • Discipline
  • Fathering from the inside
  • Closing

The people who designed the program said “involved fathers are important to a child’s development and well-being.” The lessons aim to help fathers overcome the physical and psychological challenges of being incarcerated.

The program is currently offered in 380 facilities and 49 states.

“We have a book and I still go through my book every day,” Murray said.

Right now, there are 18.3 million kids at home without their biological father, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative. That factor alone increases kids’ risk for committing a crime, dropping out of school and going to prison themselves, according to NFI.

“Being available is going to be my biggest thing,” Murray said. “I’ve got to be there for my kids.”

Murray has been in contact with all of his children. He hopes to really reconnect with them when he gets out of prison in two years. He also wants to get his bachelor’s degree.

“They’re everything,” Freeman said. “Once you lose them, you’ll feel the hurt. That’s what I feel.”

Freeman has a little under two years left in prison. He plans to keep trying to contact his adult children.