ANGOLA — Children’s laughter is rarely heard inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, but it rippled across the sprawling prison Saturday as hundreds of children spent the day with their incarcerated fathers.

The 668 children from throughout Louisiana as well as from several other states were attending the sixth annual Returning Hearts Celebration, a family reconciliation and reunion program co-sponsored by the prison and Awana Clubs International, a Chicago-based Christian youth ministry.

The reason only 360 of the 5,200 Angola inmates, many of them serving life sentences for violent crimes, could participate was because they successfully completed a Bible-based “Malachi Dads” fathering program taught by prison chaplains and ordained inmate-ministers.

One by one, or in sibling groups assisted by one of 415 volunteers, the children entered the “old” rodeo arena while an announcer called the fathers down from the facing grandstand. Big smiles and tears from both children and their fathers highlighted joyful reunions.

“I’m happy,” said Jajuan Burnett, 9, who was flown down from his home in Boston, to see his father, Charles Rodgers, for just the second time in the boy’s life.

Rodgers scooped the youth into his arms, swung him in a circle and then together they headed off to the Rodeo Grounds play area where basketball goals, inflatable castles and carnival rides awaited.

Tatihanna Lowry, 8, spotted her father, Leonidas Lowry, working his way through the crowd of inmates and rushed into his open arms. Daughter Chelsea, 15, and son Leonidas, 10, soon followed. “This is great,” Leonidas Lowery said as he hugged his children.

Warden Burl Cain and Awana President and CEO Jack Eggar created Returning Hearts in 2006 as part of Cain’s moral rehabilitation program at Angola.

Both men said that studies show children of inmates are seven times more likely than other children to follow their fathers into crime and prison unless something is done to break that cycle.

“It’s really important for the men because it is an incentive for them to be good so they can be out here with their kids, and it’s an incentive for the kids to know their dad is good and has changed his life in prison,” Cain said. “It’s good for the kids to break the cycle so we don’t have more victims of violent crime, because they’re going to be like their dads unless we break the cycle. It’s all about victims, it’s all about rehabilitation.”

Cain said the program has been so successful that it is being copied in at least 14 other states.

The whole point is reconciliation, added Eggar, as described in the biblical book of Malachi 3:7, where God declares through the prophet Malachi, “Yet from the days of your fathers you have gone away from my ordinances and have kept them not. Return to me and I will return to you.”

Put another way, Eggar said, the program offers prison dads a chance to ask their children’s forgiveness.

“We believe that when men commit these heinous crimes, that their spouses and their children are also victims with stigma and shame and guilt of having a dad that’s in prison,” Eggar said. “We give the men the opportunity to bend a knee and say ‘son, daughter, would you forgive me?’ That is the beginning of reconciliation. As Christians we believe reconciliation is the heart of God because he wants to reconcile with man. It is a beautiful thing to see.”

Prison Chaplain Brad Delaughter said he sees evidence of the program’s success every day when he visits the six camps scattered across the sprawling, 18,000-acre penitentiary.

“The men who are in the Malachi Dads programs are leading other men to the Lord and that creates less violence here in the prison,” Delaughter said.

“You can ask anyone on the staff and they will tell you it makes their jobs easier.”

Inmate Rodgers, 29, is serving a 35-year sentence for an armed robbery he committed at the age of 17 in New Orleans. Since his incarceration he’s earned a GED diploma, a bachelor’s degree at the prison’s branch of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, is a certified electrician and volunteers at the prison hospice.

“My life has definitely changed since I’ve been here,” Rodgers said. “My dad is serving life in Arkansas and he was in and out of prison since I was 7 years old. I want to break that cycle with Jajuan by being a godly father.”

Awana stands for “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed,” a title based on the Bible passage of II Timothy 2:15, where the Apostle Paul writes to his young friend Timothy, “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

The Awana program, dedicated to helping children know, love and serve God, is sponsored in 16,000 churches worldwide and more than a million children participate.