The green pastures, horses and crowing chickens of rural Galt are a long way from the high, barb-wired walls and clanging metal doors of Mule Creek State Prison.
There are no gates or guards surrounding Father's House, a Christian home for paroled inmates on Liberty Road. The men here are free to come and go.
For some paroled inmates who live here, Father's House is more than a refuge in the country. It is the first step in turning their lives around.
"If I hadn't have come here, I would have found my way back to the city. Eventually I would have rubbed shoulders with the wrong people," said Frank Fitzgerald, who has spent a month at Father's House after serving 30 years of a life sentence for murder. "I love it out here in the country. It's a different experience, but one that I needed to get my feet on the ground."
The house isn't much to look at on the inside. The floors need carpet and the walls need paint. There is a small kitchen, which the church keeps well stocked with food. The only furniture in the spartan common room is a few church chairs and a table. The house needs lots of work, but its founder has big plans.
Jeff McEachron, a co-pastor at Zion Christian Fellowship in Lodi, started Father's House in 2005. McEachron, who owns a construction company in Galt, has spent the last 12 years leading prayer services among violent and hardened criminals at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione. Over time, he developed close relationships with some of the inmates.
"I have no fear," he says with youthful enthusiasm. "If something went down, I know these guys would surround me and take the blows."
When inmate Mike Hutto came up for parole in 2005, he asked McEachron if the church had a place where he could stay and readjust to life on the outside. That request planted a seed.
McEachron rented a house on Liberty Road, which his construction company had built in 1978 as a handicapped children's home, and Hutto moved in when he was released from prison.
"I didn't want to go from one prison to another," said Hutto, who served seven years for drug trafficking in Southern California. "When I came here, people didn't know me, but I felt so much love. I could have gone back to the old gang lifestyle. This place is everything."
Hutto spent three months at Father's House before getting his own place in Acampo. He moved his wife and four children up from Southern California and has a steady job installing heating and air conditioning systems. He said Father's House is different than other reentry programs because there are no rules or structure.
Jeff Shaw, a parole officer for both Fitzgerald and Hutto, said having someplace like Father's House to be released to helps the parole board make its decision.
"The support from Father's House makes a huge difference," he said. "If a guy is getting out into nothing, then they are not inclined to let him out on the streets."
Shaw said most other reentry programs fail.
"Father's House is different because it is very strongly faith based and they heavily screen the inmates," he said.
So far, the parolees have all come from McEachron's Mule Creek prayer services. They must be drug free and express a strong devotion to Christianity. Besides providing food and shelter, Father's House also helps the parolees find employment and provides Bible studies and counseling.
Before the house opened, some neighbors had expressed concern over having ex-convicts living so close. However, in the last two years, the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office has not responded to any incidents at the house, according to spokesman Les Garcia.
The closest neighbor, 85-year-old Ester Haywood, still owns the house and used to run the handicapped children's home.
"I didn't think too highly about it at first," she said about renting the house to McEachron. "I decided to try it out and it's been a good fit. I think it's a good thing. The fellows have all been very nice."
After Hutto turned into a success story, McEachron decided to invite Fitzgerald to stay in the house. Fitzgerald, a former member of the violent Black Guerilla Family gang, had turned to Christianity in prison and was reformed when he came up for parole last month. He said members of the church welcomed him to the house.
"My parole officer drove me here," Fitzgerald said. "Everyone hugged me and greeted me. It was like they took a bath in love and were using me as a towel."
Currently, there are only two parolees living in Father's House, but McEachron would like to see it grow. He said they can house up to six men before needing a permit from the county.
Location: Liberty Road, south of Galt.
History: Built as a handicapped children's home in 1978. Took in first inmate in 2005.
To help: Father's House survives on private donations. Contact Jeff McEachron, (209) 327-0616, to contribute.
- News-Sentinel staff
McEachron is trying to buy the house, which is currently funded by the church and private donations, and he would like to renovate the inside. But he knows he can't do it all by himself.
Besides leading weekly prayer services at the house, Fitzgerald has been looking for work with the help of McEachron. His biggest job so far has been traveling with McEachron to different organizations and speaking about the importance of the house.
"I've been talking to a lot of people about this place," Fitzgerald said. "I'm trying to get them to see the necessity of Father's House."