CHICAGO — Teron Jackson used to sell drugs instead of spending time with his three children. But after a year in a prison work camp, he has a different idea about how he wants to use his time following his April release.
"The first chance I get, I'm going to take them to the zoo and just walk around and talk," Mr. Jackson says to 14 other convicts gathered at the Crossroads Community Corrections Center on Chicago's West Side. "I think I can be a better parent now."
The Sunday session at this work-release center is part of a national movement to help men behind bars strengthen their parenting skills. Fatherhood classes in jails around the country teach men everything from how to feed and bathe babies to how to deal with their children's anger at them for going to jail. And prison officials hope that encouraging inmates to play more active roles as fathers not only helps their children, but also discourages the men from committing more crimes.
"A relationship with a child is a pretty powerful motivator," says Jim Mustin, president of the Virginia-based Family and Corrections Network, a nonprofit information service for offenders' families. "Prisoners who maintain family ties do better once they get out."
In the past, jailhouse parenting programs served only women, even though most of the parents in jail are men.
Neil Tift, director of the Fathers' Resource Center in Minneapolis, recalls watching mothers cuddle with their children during visiting hours while male inmates could only see their families through Plexiglas windows. "When our society incarcerates moms, we expect them to stay moms," Mr. Tift says. "When we incarcerate men, they're not expected to stay dads."
But that attitude is changing. In 1995, the United States Bureau of Prisons ordered all 92 federal prisons to give men the same kind of parenting programs offered to women. State corrections departments including those in California, Delaware, Illinois, and Massachusetts are now offering fatherhood programs for adults and juveniles. And private groups in other states are creating their own programs for male inmates.
"They need preparation for what it means to walk out of prison and into a child's life," says Vivian Gadsden, director of the National Center on Fathers and Families at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
From inmates to active parents
Experts say that fatherhood programs help men clear the hurdles they face trying to become active parents. Many incarcerated fathers, for instance, have rocky relationships with former wives or girlfriends who may not want them contacting their children. If a man goes to jail when his child is an infant, the child is likely to think of him as a stranger by the time he gets out.
Indeed, many men returning from prison need to figure out how not to disrupt their families' routines. "Sometimes the issue is as simple as not eating the cookies that little Bobby got to eat," says B. Diane Williams, president of the Safer Foundation, which runs the Crossroads center.
To add to this, inmates often miss important milestones in their children's lives and have a hard time staying in touch through letters and visits. Jackson knows this from experience.
"My daughter has a birthday tomorrow I'm going to miss," he says shaking his head. "It hurts. It hurts real bad."
For Daniel Jones, a counselor here at the Crossroads center, a major cause of concern is the fact that many inmates come from abusive or neglectful homes where they didn't learn parenting skills from their own fathers. "Some of these guys never had a male talk with them about these things," Mr. Jones says.
One of the most effective ways to break this cycle of neglectful or violent fathers, say many observers, is to reach out to men behind bars. For this reason, Tift's Fathers' Resource Center in Minneapolis has offered programs in three prisons and two workhouses around the Twin Cities.
Helping young fathers in jail
But the demand for parenting classes isn't confined to adult jails. In Minnesota, for example, prison officials found that a third of the juvenile offenders behind bars were fathers.
California has dealt with the problem by letting young fathers in its juvenile centers take classes that teach basics such as how to feed, hold, and read to a child. Successful fathers in the community also visit the jails to act as role models and talk with the young inmates about their future plans, and the young inmates can carry computerized baby dolls with them through the detention centers.
The dolls are programmed to cry at odd intervals, and the inmates must figure out whether they need a feeding, a diaper change, or some other comforting, says Walt Jones, assistant deputy director of the California Youth Authority's Office of Prevention and Victims Services.
California spends $3.4 million on its fatherhood programs for juveniles. But funding for similar programs is tenuous because some government leaders have said that fatherhood programs aren't essential and are too easy on prisoners.
The impact of fatherhood programs is hard to measure, but Walt Jones insists they are worth the cost. He hopes that the California program will, at the very least, decrease child abuse and improve school results for the children of juvenile offenders. "I'm convinced it will help their children to grow up with fewer problems."