Joe Bradford is father to eight children, but he is “Papa” to hundreds. Brought into the spotlight by the film “Unconditional” (2012) that chronicles Bradford’s life from his childhood as one of the only black students in an integrated school to his time in prison for computer hacking to his decision to start Elijah’s Heart, an organization that ministers to underprivileged children in Nashville, Tenn., “Papa Joe” is now excited to share his message of hope with men behind bars. Inside Journal, Prison Fellowship’s newspaper for America’s prisons, spent a few minutes talking with Bradford about some of the most pivotal moments of his life and what he’s learned about fatherhood along the way.
IJ: Tell us about your childhood. Particularly, how did attending one of the first integrated schools affect you?
Bradford: I was born in 1961. I was in the third class to enter into integrated schools. Two buses came by where I lived: the white bus and the black bus. My mother wanted me to get “cultural training” and made me ride the white bus. That’s where I met the little girl who plays the “Sam” character in the movie. Because she became my friend, she was bullied. I had to protect her honor, so I beat up the bully. Several times.
IJ: How did you get from beating up school bullies to hacking into computers?
Bradford: In high school, I thought maybe it would be good to make good grades, so I started hanging around nerds. I got straight As and ended up landing a scholarship to study engineering at the University of Tennessee. During that time, I discovered I had a knack for computers. By day, I tutored other students in programming languages. By night, I became one of the original computer hackers. On a dare, I decided to hack into an ATM system. Although I wasn’t caught during the actual hack, I was caught with a debit card that I used to prove the hack worked.
IJ: After that, you spent 18 months behind bars, a time that you consider one of the lowest points of your life. But something unexpected came out of it. Can you describe what happened?
Bradford: To get work release, I had to go to the notorious Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. While there, I had a run in with another bully. This guy (known as “Big Mac” in the movie) was torturing my friend. I had the choice to walk away or defend my friend. I ended up in a big fight. Instead of going back to work release, they put me in solitary confinement for 40 days. That was a big turning point for me. I was a college student headed to a $40,000 job and I found myself almost killing someone. I found myself with almost nothing. I didn’t know who I could trust. I didn’t know night from day. I was afraid I was going to die in prison. The only way to overcome this was to release all of me to God. I said, “Whatever you want of me, Lord, it’s yours.” I didn’t have anything, but the nothing I had I gave to Him.
IJ: But you didn’t die in prison. In fact, you were released not long afterward. What happened then?
Bradford: After being released back to Nashville, I met a woman named Denise. We became best friends and got married. But not long afterward, we discovered I had a kidney disease which made it impossible for me to work. We had to move to the projects because we didn’t have any money. On the first day in the projects, a little deaf girl comes to our door. Denise gave her a piece of candy. But what happens when you give one kid candy? Before we knew it, we had 50 kids coming to our door. Denise is a music teacher, so we decided to start a children’s choir. Soon, we had parents dropping kids off at our house who didn’t even know us. We started working with these kids and it became a big giant family. And then it grew even bigger. We started asking for donations from local churches to feed these children and their families. Eventually we moved out of the projects, but the ministry to these children just grew. We recently did a giveaway for 800 families in one day.
IJ: Because of your perspective as a former prisoner and now as someone who ministers to children, what advice can you give parents who are in prison?
Bradford: It’s a misunderstanding in our country that male prisoners are all “deadbeat dads.” I don’t believe that. When I was in jail, I met a lot of dads. One of the most common topics among them was their children. Communication is one of the biggest keys of love. Any opportunity to write a letter, I would do it, even if you don’t think the child will read it. Just the mere sight of a letter coming from dad, God can use that. Then pray for reconciliation with your child. And lastly, see what resources are available at your prison that you can take advantage of to improve yourself that will affect your child.