Friday, September 15, 2000
Men behind bars strive to become better fathers
By DAVID CRARY-- The Associated Press
DURHAM, N.C. (AP) -- At Missouri's toughest
prison, inmates run a 4-H Club program for their children. Imprisoned dads in Florida,
some barely literate, send home recordings of themselves reading storybooks. Though
many wardens and legislators remain wary, fatherhood programs run by volunteers and
nonprofit groups are teaching parenting skills and family values to more and more of the
nearly 700,000 fathers held in state and federal prisons. Some states avoid such
programs; others have one or two modest pilot projects. But Pennsylvania has expanded a
program called Long Distance Dads throughout its prison system, and several Southern
states are preparing comparable initiatives.
The trend has contributed to an upbeat mood at one of the first major conferences on
the topic, the North American Conference on Fathers Behind Bars and on the Streets. The
three-day meeting, which ends Friday, has drawn researchers, social workers and
corrections officials from across the country. "Maybe we're coming to the point
where the invisible families are starting to become visible to people in policy
positions," said James Mustin, executive director of the Family and Corrections
Network, a co-sponsor of the conference.
Nearly 1.5 million American children have a parent in prison, according to the
Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many states already have special programs for mothers behind
bars. But 93 percent of the imprisoned parents are men, and their role as fathers has
traditionally been neglected by corrections officials. "Most wardens see their
job as, 'Nobody gets out, nobody gets hurt,"' Mustin said. "If they can do that,
they've had a good day." Over the past four years, Pennsylvania has worked with
fatherhood groups to develop Long Distance Dads and now offers the 12-week program to
imprisoned fathers throughout the state. With a curriculum created in part by inmates, and
using inmates as group leaders, the program encourages fathers to assume responsibility
for their children while in prison and after they get out.
Penn State University is scheduled to complete an evaluation of the program next
June, but the impact already has delighted prison staff. They report better behavior by
participating inmates, and more father-child interaction in prison visiting rooms.
Among other programs highlighted at the conference: The 4-H Club started at
Missouri's maximum-security Potosi Correctional Center. The inmates plan monthly meetings,
organize family dinners and guide their children in community service activities.
Lynna Lawson, a 4-H Club specialist who assists the club, said the inmates show keen
interest even though most are serving long sentences. "It's an attitude of, 'This is
my life. I have to make the best of it,"' he said. One pitfall: Lawson said
inmates can be crushed if a child unexpectedly doesn't show up for a monthly meeting,
which means the father can't participate.
"All the fathers in prison express frustration about having no control over
their kids," she said. --Florida's Reading Family Ties, which initially was
offered to imprisoned mothers and recently was extended to two men's prisons. Participants
attend an 80-hour parenting course and can insert personal greetings on the recordings
they send home.
"Speaking into a tape recorder may make it possible for fathers, who often have
difficulty expressing their feelings in person, to say, 'I love you' to their
children," said Anne Haw Holt, a consultant to Florida's corrections department.
"Ownership of the tape will enable the child to hear this caring over and over."
In New York State, a program called Conscious Parenting, which was started in 1996 by
suburbanite volunteers from neighboring Connecticut and has reached more than 250 inmates
so far. In addition to parenting classes, the program features a Children's Day held
every few months, in which families are bused to a prison for daylong festivities,
including games and a meal organized by the inmates.
Some of the children have never before met their fathers. Volunteer Lucia Scott
described one teen-age girl who entered the room where several inmates were waiting and
was unsure which one was her father. Expansion of the program is limited in part by
the reluctance of some people to do volunteer work in men's prisons, Scott said.
"A lot of people feel there's no hope for these guys," she said.
"There's such a dismissal of their ability to care."