WDIV: Family unification program allows inmates to spend time with children

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. - There is something many would consider strange and unusual happening inside a Wayne County jail.

Children are being sent there, but not because they're in trouble. It's because their dads are serving time. It's a new program that is hoping to break what many consider a criminal cycle. 

There are few places we can say nobody wants to go. A jail is one of them. Inside, one can expect to see jail cells and barbed wire, but sometimes, expectations are as guilty as most of those here.

Lowell Malone is serving tea while serving time. When the 26-year-old was arrested for larceny, his very first thought was how it would affect 3-year-old Raven.

"I don't want her traveling down the wrong path that I did, some bad decision-making," Malone said.

Raven is visiting her father in jail, which usually is not allowed; visitors have to be 17.

"I just had my tattoo artist come in. She just tatted me up," Malone said.

There's an exception for his artist because of the family unification program.

Melissa Howell works for the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency. Once every two weeks, the agency brings toys, lesson plans and the special guests.

"Just because somebody makes a mistake does not mean they're not a dad," Howell said.

There are two goals. The first is to help the children.

"Sometimes they want to skip school, or they're withdrawn, butt heads with teachers," Howell said. "Sometimes them understanding what's going on and being able to see their parent distresses them a little bit."

The second goal is a reality check. Rafael Acosta has two girls.

"When you're out there, you don't really appreciate all the small things," Acosta said. "But when you're locked, you see all the small stuff."

Acosta's reality check hits a little harder with every visit and every drawing.

"As a dad, how much does it break your heart that you can't be there for them?" Local 4's Nick Monacelli asked.

"To the fullest extent," Acosta said. "Having them walk away, it's devastating."

To be fair, both men know their crimes put them here, but if this program is successful, they won't come back.

"It's not just something I do and come back to jail. I have to be there for them. I have to raise them," Acosta said.

Despite the occasional jail break, the program is going smooth. Offenders must have an upcoming release date and their crimes cannot involve children nor their mothers.

"I see dads cry regularly. And they make me cry because it's adorable. Them interacting with their kids," Howell said. "What they did to get them in here does not define them as a person."

The family reunification program has been going for 13 years in Oakland and Macomb counties, but this is the first time it's in Wayne County.

Because of the strict regulations, on average only one out of 10 inmates are eligible.

View the story and video on WDIV's website here.