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'Not too late' for Pitchess inmates

Pitchess Detention Center inmates reunite with their children

Posted: September 25, 2009 10:10 p.m.
Updated: September 26, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Derek Hodge hugs his 16-year-old son Cornelius Hodge at the Returning Hearts event Friday afternoon. The event, hosted by Grace Baptist Church, allows MERIT program graduates to spend a whole afternoon with their young family members.

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Pitchess Detention Center inmate Derek Hodge ran across a grass field surrounded by barbed wire fences Friday afternoon to embrace his teenage son and apologize for leaving him behind.

"It was very touching," Hodge said just before tears flooded his eyes. "God put it in my heart to see my son ... I wanted him to see what not to do, to see where you go when you do what's wrong."

Hodge was one of 31 participants in the Returning Hearts event of Los Angeles County Sheriff's MERIT program. The inmates lined up along the fence in the Castaic facility just before being called up one-by-one to reunite and reconcile with their children.

Inflatable bouncers, carnival games and activities awaited them for afterward.

Like many of the other inmates, Hodge cried as he held his son in his arms under the cloudless blue sky.

"You try to picture how it's going to be and you hope for the best," said the recent MERIT program graduate who hadn't seen his son for three months.

"When that moment comes, there's nothing like it. You know you have a family. You know you have somebody that cares."

The Returning Hearts event was the second of its kind for county jails, said Los Angeles County sheriff's Capt. Bondell Golden who oversees the South Facility where the event was held.

She said the Returning Hearts program, a part of the MERIT Program, teaches the men post-incarceration life skills.

"The whole idea is to help them deal with (problems in) their life so that they never go back to custody," Golden said.

The inmates take classes about domestic violence, parenting, anger management and other topics in the program sponsored by Grace Baptist Church in Santa Clarita.

The goal of the event was to give the fathers a chance to ask their children for forgiveness, a step Golden said is necessary for the development process.

"If we don't get forgiven and we don't forgive ourselves, it really is a block to moving forward because you sort of spiral down(ward)," she said. "They can ask their kids' forgiveness, they can reconnect with them, and obviously that makes their transition even better going into their regular lives when they're released from here."

Inmate Angel Guerrero, formerly of East Los Angeles, said his children have already started giving him a second chance because of the changes he has made.

"I've learned you've got to be a good listener to (your children)," Guerrero said as his four children, ages 7 to 15, played in a nearby inflatable bouncer. "One thing (the program) showed me is that when problems like that happens with divorce and all that, the kids get real hurt ... I realize that, and I'm glad I'm not too late."

Guerrero's 13-year-old daughter Marissa said she has seen the transformation in her father, who is enrolled in three classes for domestic violence, drug education and parenting.

"I'm just excited," his daughter said. "I'm like the happiest person in the world seeing him and that he's not the way he was before ... I'm just happy because I see my dad and he means the world to me."

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