Prison Ministry Program Gives Prisoners a Chance to Be Dad Again for a Day

Only a handful of inmates are selected to participate in "One Day With God."

ByABC News
December 11, 2015, 1:45 PM

— -- Until recently, 8-year-old Arkinya Graham had never met her father.

While they have grown close talking over the phone for the past six months, her father Johnny "Trey" Williams is serving 23 years in a Michigan prison for second-degree murder.

ABC News' "Nightline" was given access to go behind prison walls at Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Michigan, as Arkinya met her dad for the first time.

Watch the full story on "Nightline" TONIGHT at 12:35 a.m. ET

"I missed everything. You being born. I wasn't there to kiss you, cut the umbilical cord. I wasn't there to see your first steps," Williams told his daughter after their first meeting. "I wasn't part of what you've achieved so far, but now I can't wait to be part of what you achieve in the future."

Their special visit is part of a prison ministry program called "One Day with God" that is designed to help children reconcile with their parents behind bars.

Williams split from Arkinya's mother before she was born. When Arkinya was 2 years old, Williams killed a man in a bar fight. Chekesha Graham raising Arkinya on her own as a single mother, but she has a profound reason why she wants to bring her daughter all the way from Florida to Michigan for a chance to bond with her father.

"I was one of those kids. I was ashamed to tell people that my father was in prison, so I put myself in my daughter's shoes," Graham told "Nightline." She paid hundreds of dollars to fly her daughter to meet Williams—only to be surprised in the end when One Day With God reimbursed her for the cost of the airfare.

Williams told "Nightline" that he worked hard to stay out of trouble behind bars so that he can earn the opportunity to see Arkinya. There are 1,300 men at the prison where Williams is incarcerated, and only 20 were allowed to participate in the One Day with God program.

The two-day program is part family reunion, part intervention. On the first day, the dads get a seminar on the importance of fatherhood. On the second day, they get to reach out and spend time with their sons and daughters.

During the day, fathers spend a rare day doing various activities with their kids, from a relay race, to sing-alongs and a father-daughter dance. All of these activities, which seem designed to create intimate moments between a father and his child, have taken on new meaning for these men.

"Children are the silent victims," said One Day with God founder Scottie Barnes. "[There is an] importance of these boys and girls having relationships with their mothers and fathers who are incarcerated across America,"

Barnes says her own father was a convicted drug dealer who spent most of her childhood behind bars.

"I never had a hug. I never even been told 'I love you' by my dad," Barnes said. "The little children, by the time they're 8 and 9 years old, go out on the streets, and if they're in where gangs are, [they will be told by gangs], 'Come on over and join my family.' They want to be accepted. They want to be loved. They want to be somebody proud of them."

Children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to end up incarcerated themselves according to the U.S. Department of Justice. One Day with God is working to end the cycle of reincarceration. At a time when family programs are being cut in prison systems, this program is operating in seven states funded by private donations. It's expanding to five other prisons in Michigan alone.

Nine-year-old Amiah Matthews' father Jeremiah Matthews is also incarcerated at the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility. Amiah and her brother live three hours away and are able to see their dad fairly regularly.

"It's different from having him outside, living with you and all. Like, this is the one time you can, like, sit in his lap, let him hug you," Amiah told "Nightline."

Matthews has been in and out of jail for 12 years on burglary-related charges.

"I know my daughter forgives me. You know, she told me that 'This is your last time dad.' She's like, 'I love you, but you keep breaking promises and getting in trouble," Matthews told "Nightline." "And she was 7 when she told me this. ... She talked to me like a grown up and I don't want to disappoint her no more."

Though she is cheerful while visiting him, Amiah struggles with trusting what her father has to say.

"He's just like, 'Okay, please gain my trust back and as soon as I get back home, I will try to make everything different and all,'" Amiah said. "I want to [believe him, but] he's lied to me."

"It hurts me to know I hurt her. I mean, she's like, she's the most important female in my life other than my wife, the most important," Matthews said. "And I've lost so much time with her that I can never get back. To know that they got to go back home and I can't pour it all into one day."

Matthews said One Day with God has given him the incentive so that the next time he's released in 11 months, it'll be the last.

"Without my kids, without them, I don't think I would know what true love is," Matthews said.

"It means a lot to ... spend the day with my dad. Like he's at home," Amiah said.

For the dads, it's a pledge to strive to be better. For the kids, it's a precious dose of what they need most.

For the rest of us, it's a reminder of what it means to be a good parent, and that the feeling of being embraced by your dad can last forever.