Parenting from Prison: An oasis for families away from the razor wire

  • Evenor and Natalia Pineda couldn’t hug their father goodnight and say “I love you” before bed. Instead, the young children clung to the sound of his voice, which he recorded from prison to CDs that accompanied books of their favorite children’s stories. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 1/14/2017 10:27:15 PM

Children’s handprints in every color of the rainbow, poems written by fathers and sons, and fantasy murals of “a perfect day” adorn the wall space in this secluded oasis just inside the wire fence in Concord.

Roughly 20 miles away in Goffstown, this hideaway is less defined, but its mission the same. Artwork by mothers and their children dress up a multi-purpose classroom, a side office serves as a reading nook for mothers to record books to CD, and nearby tables provide a workspace for decorating holiday cards.

Here, children hug their parents, craft with them, and share a lunch during an annual summer camp.

These are the places where children and their parents, ever so briefly, aren’t separated by thick glass, metal bars or razor wire.

The New Hampshire Department of Corrections’ Family Connections Center doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of doing hard time in prison. And for many parents behind bars in other states, it doesn’t exist.

Family support programs for incarcerated parents and their children vary greatly across the country. What programs do exist typically have minimal staff composed largely of volunteers and those who work for outside agencies.

New Hampshire’s Family Connections Center was the first such center in the United States to be located in a prison. The program was created in 1998 in partnership with the University of New Hampshire, and was first based at the Lakes Region Correctional Facility in Laconia, which has since closed.

Today, the center serves the state’s three prisons in Berlin, Concord and Goffstown. It also provides limited services to the Corrections Transitional Work Center and Shea Farm Transitional Housing, both in Concord. Federal grants and private donations have allowed that expansion to occur, according to Program Administrator Kristina Toth.

“The main focus is to help the children and to support them. They are the forgotten bystanders, the innocent victims of crime,” she said.

The program is open to any inmate who is a legal or biological parent and has not been convicted of a sex crime against a child under the age of 14. Out of a total of 2,591 inmates, about 1,712 are parents of minor children and about 300 inmate parents are active in the center.

“Some will attend for a while, then leave and come back when they have issues at home. Others never join because it hurts them to talk about their children, or they don’t have any contact with their children and it hurts to be around those who do,” Toth said.

Incarcerated parents in the program must take classes in parenting and healthy relationships, as well as attend weekly parenting support groups. They must also remain of good behavior to participate in any of what are called “perks,” including video visits with their children, the chance to record their children’s favorite books to CD, and participation in on-site seminars and family events.

Since 2012, the center has teamed up with Camp Spaulding to offer incarcerated parents and their young children the chance to spend several hours together. The nonprofit youth camp in Penacook is run by Child and Family Services. Each year, children and their parents create murals titled “A perfect day with dad or mom.”

At the time of the center’s startup in the late 1990s, very little data was collected on New Hampshire’s prison population, and what did exist could not be easily retrieved, said Kerry Kazura, who leads the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of New Hampshire.

Kazura, who helped create the center, said UNH’s senior faculty had long wanted to engage in a community project that was interdisciplinary. A common theme that resurfaced at community meetings with public safety and corrections officials was about the lack of programming for incarcerated parents and their families, she said. Officials were also concerned by what they believed was a cycle of intergenerational crime.

A study completed in 2005 found that those who completed the center’s parenting education class during incarceration had a recidivism rate that was 10 percent less than that of the overall prison population released that year. But the ability to test the program’s impact beyond that have proven difficult due to the complexity of the research, and the inherent challenges of trying to contact inmates who’ve left the system, she said.

If the program were fully evaluated, it could be recognized as an evidence-based model for others to learn from and emulate, said Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Adalist-Estrin was a keynote speaker at the “Counting the Days” conference presented by corrections and health officials in late October. While in New Hampshire, she had the opportunity to tour the men’s prison in Concord and speak with past and current program participants.

“Anecdotally, and I’ve been doing this work since 1979, it’s one of the best models I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Long after mothers and fathers leave prison and the program, the parents continue to reach out and give thanks, Toth said. They want the staff at the center to know about the life-changing events that were possible because of the work they started while behind bars.

Toth doesn’t need hard data to know the center has touched thousands of families. The evidence is in the eyes of an incarcerated father holding his 9-month-old son for the first time, and in the smile of a girl running to hug her mom after months spent apart.

“You can see the joy, and that’s what it’s all about,” she said. “When they’re with their kids they’re not criminals. You see a father and a daughter, or a mother and a son.”

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