Tom Beatty, a chaplain and director of the New Life Corrections Ministry, paced around the room, listening to Gomez, 31, and 25 other men talk about their lives, how to manage their anger, their drug and alcohol abuse and, most importantly, their roles as fathers.
During a two-day program this week, called "Transforming Incarcerated Dads," Beatty lectured about their approaches to problem-solving and led the volunteers in group discussions about what it means to be a Christian dad.
A former drug addict who had trouble with the law, Beatty could empathize with the men he's now trying to help. He found himself unable to change, he said, until he read the Bible.
"I put my trust in Jesus, and he changed my life," Beatty said. "We can learn to be the kind of men that God created us to be so (their kids) can catch it from them."
The program is part of the Illinois Department of Corrections' Fatherhood Initiative, which operates on the theory that by teaching inmates to be better fathers, it can help them keep their children from making the same mistakes they did and reduce the inmates' recidivism, said Sharyn Elman, chief public information officer for IDOC. All of the men participating in this week's training volunteered.
"They're hungry to be better," said Emily Ruskin, orientation and reentry services coordinator for IDOC.
The way men parent — even from prison — makes a big difference in whether a child will follow in their footsteps. A child is seven times more likely to be incarcerated if a parent has been in prison, said Debbie Denning, IDOC acting chief of programs and support services.
"In the end, it's the child (who is) a victim of incarceration," Denning said.
Many fathers in prison don't know what to say to their children, she said. Through these programs, men learn to communicate by making children feel special, following through on promised calls and letters and setting a standing date to talk so children can look forward to that time, Ruskin said.
Gomez, who is scheduled to be paroled in 2018, said the men are working to respond positively to difficult situations, rather than yelling or resorting to violence.
"I think it gets me ready for situations that I react wrongly to," he said.
Many of the men don't have solid relationships with their own fathers, Beatty said. Gomez's father went to prison for drug crimes, he said.
"If I had somebody that would have shown me how to be a man," better choices may have been made, Gomez said. "My dad never told me he loved me."
The Fatherhood Initiative teaches men to open up, make better decisions, develop confidence and deal with victimization they've faced or inflicted on others, Ruskin said.
Gomez was sentenced to 35 years in prison for a 1997 murder. He and his wife have two children, he said. The family visits Gomez once a week and speaks with him by phone every Sunday. Gomez also participates in a weekly parenting class.
Once out, Gomez will "be there for them, communicate with them and love them," he said.
The family is working to give the kids a better life, said Gomez, who received his GED in prison. While two days doesn't seem like a lot of time, Beatty wants to give the inmates incentive to become better fathers.
"I pray that the men get excited about the fact that they can have a positive influence on their kids," Beatty said.