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Building bonds through walls



Last modified: Monday, October 03, 2011
Kevin, Scott and Jarrod are all doing time at the state prison in Concord. But they can still read their kids bedtime stories, help them with homework and chat with their children over lunch thanks to the prison's Family Connections Center.

It just takes some creativity to build that family bond through a prison wall. When it comes to bedtime stories, the fathers record themselves reading a book and then send home the book and the recording for their kids to enjoy. Even better in these economic times: the books and CDs are donated.

"There's no price tag you can put on that," said Jarrod on a video played yesterday during an open house at the center's new spot. Inmates' last names were not given. "The MasterCard commercial says it best. What the Family Connections Center has given me is priceless."

The center is still within the state prison, but it now has its own classroom space and video-chat room where dads can talk with their kids through the computer. Kevin, an inmate with two years left on his sentence, taught his son, Noah, how to play chess over the computer. And Noah, online at home, took the laptop to his bedroom to show his dad a fort he'd built.

"Nothing (inside the prison) has helped me grow and become a good dad as I can like the Family Connections Center," Kevin said.

Director Kristina Toth joked yesterday that with this move, the program has "come out of the closet," because that's where it had been, literally. About 60 of the Concord prison's 2,400 inmates participate in the program now. Toth hopes more will join now that the center has a permanent home. It takes some commitment, though, to get on the computer for a video conversation.

Inmates must complete an 18-hour parenting education class and a 12-hour relationship class. If they also attend a weekly support group for dads, they can video chat with their kids. The computer allows the children to visit from their own home, where they are comfortable, and with more privacy than if they came to the prison's visiting room, although a staff member monitors all video chats. Online visits also give the child more flexibility. He can take a laptop to his room and show dad his artwork or do a homework problem together. Visitors are not allowed to bring homework or other items with them to an in-person visit at the prison.

Scott, an inmate with a son and daughter, recently saw his daughter's new dorm room at Plymouth State University. They talked over the computer, and Scott was able to meet his daughter's roommate and see where she'll be spending the semester.

"Ninety-five to 97 percent of fathers are going back (to the community,)" said Toth. "We want them to be an active part of their child's life here and then when they get out. With this, they are already part of the child's life."

Yesterday, Toth opened the new space to visitors, including donors, state officials she'd like to partner with for additional programming and state Sen. Amanda Merrill, a Durham Democrat.

It was a supportive crowd. Sometimes it isn't; one of Toth's jobs is to explain to doubters why the Family Connections Center isn't a costly "perk" for inmates. For starters, she tells them most of the programming and equipment is paid for with federal grants. The state budget pays for five staff members, who are spread out across all the state's prisons; a computer connection line for the video chats and maintenance for the space.

And the "perk" is for the kids as well as the inmates.

"Not everyone gets the value of the program," Toth said. "I try to tell them that thousands of children in New Hampshire have parents who are incarcerated. (Those children) are our future citizens. They are in school without parents. We don't want them following in their parents' footsteps. By educating the parents, we hope to break the cycle."

The most recent study available, using 2005 numbers, showed that inmates involved in the parenting program returned to the prison 10 percent less than the general prison population. Having a good connection with their kids gives inmates another reason to stay out of prison, Toth said.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or atimmins@cmonitor.com.)