Family Ties: Prison-based Literacy Projects that Connect Children and Fathers February 2 - 6, 2009

Guest facilitators

Carol Fennelly is the Founder and Director of Hope House in Washington. She is a long time social activist who lived and worked for seventeen years at the homeless shelters operated by the Community for Creative Non-Violence. She is the architect of the Districts "cooling centers" which have saved lives by providing cool places for indigent people during extremely hot weather. She is founder and president of the Trust for Affordable Housing which built over 350 units of Single Room Occupancy Housing for single homeless people in the District of Columbia. She founded Hope House after spending almost a year writing about the plight of families torn apart by the closure of Lorton Prison. Hope House is a small non-profit organization from Washington DC, that provides support for families separated by prison, including the children and their incarcerated fathers. Some of these supports include: a prison summer camp program, a father-to-child book taping program, a video conferencing, weekend social functions for the children, writers workshops, holiday gift drives for the families, caregivers support groups, and publications of three volumes (to date) of children's and fathers' poetry. A YouTube on the type of work she does can be found at:

William Muth is an Assistant Professor of Adult and Adolescent Literacy at Virginia Commonwealth University and sits on the Hope House Board of Directors. Until August 2005, Bill was the Education Administrator for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP), where he was responsible for, among other things, the Bureau's literacy and parenting programs. Other positions with the FBOP included: reading teacher, principal, and chief of the Bureau's program analysis branch. In 2004, Bill earned his doctorate in adult literacy from George Mason University. At VCU Bill teaches courses in adolescent literacy, adult literacy and adult learning. He is currently researching prison-based family literacy programs and the problem of silence in prison literacy classrooms. For more information, go to:

Background to discussion

It is hoped that this week's discussion will span such topics as prison-based parenting, family literacy, the importance of storytelling, fathering, the impact of prison on families, family reentry and more.

It has been said that when a person is sent to prison, the whole family is imprisoned as well. There are more than two million men and women in U.S. prisons. It is estimated that seventy-five percent are parents who have left behind between two and five million children. Most families who begin the incarceration experience intact will not remain so together.

Providing support for fathering programs in prison is controversial. Some "get tough on crime" folks complain that these programs are coddling inmates, and that convicts surrendered their rights to be fathers when they were convicted to prison. Others believe that we should concentrate our resources on incarcerated mothers, since they, more often than fathers, provided day-to-day primary care for their children before being locked up.

Although, Hope House recognizes the vast need for support for incarcerated mothers and their children, its mission is largely (and unapologetically) limited to incarcerated fathers and their families. While percentage-wise, more incarcerated mothers (75%) are primary caretakers than incarcerated fathers (55%), the number of incarcerated men outnumbers women 10 to 1. When children lose a parent to prison, 9 times out of 10 it is a father. (Although we sadly note that, the rate of female incarceration is raising.) Recent studies have demonstrated the importance of a father's presence in the day-to-day lives of their children, including daughters. A few preliminary studies suggest that fathers who maintain regular contact with their families have lower rates of parole violation and recidivism after release from prison than do non-participants. In addition, children who maintain relationships with absent fathers are better adjusted, do better in school, and show more improvement in behavior than those who do not. With a few notable exceptions, there are not many programs that are focused specifically on improving and sustaining the fragile relationships between incarcerated fathers and their children. Through innovative projects, Hope House addresses this void.

Here are some questions that we hope to explore:

  1. What kinds of fathering programs are you involved in?
  2. Do your programs address personal day-to-day issues your learners face, or focus on more hypothetical issues?
  3. Have you had to deal with issues of trust and rapport between staff and learners?
  4. Have you had any experience building communities among the learners? (e.g., peer support groups of fathers, or caregivers, or children.) What was that like?
  5. Do you have any experience with distance parenting/fathering programs? If so, what kinds of technologies (e.g., video-conferencing, book taping) and strategies (e.g., support for letter writing, support for visitations) did you find most helpful?
  6. What strategies have you found to be most successful to advocate for your programs-with legislators, fundraisers, community volunteers, etc.)

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