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

From February 2 - 6, 2009, Carol Fennelly and William (Bill) Muth facilitated a discussion on the Diversity & Literacy Discussion List. The focus of this discussion was on prison-based literacy projects that connect children and fathers.

Thanks to Ryan Hall, a graduate student at Georgia State University, the following represents a compilation of the various topics discussed by listserv members while William (Bill) Muth and Carol Fennelly facilitated the discussion on prison-based literacy projects that connect children and fathers. Each topic contains one or more discussion threads arranged by questions and answers. All of Bill's and Carol's questions and comments are labeled with their name, while questions and comments from listserv members are labeled with first and last initials. Most of the postings were copied and pasted verbatim, with a few words edited here and there to facilitate reading. For complete postings, along with author information, go to the Diversity and Literacy Archives (http://nifl.gov/pipermail/diversity/2009/date.html#start) and look at postings between February 2 - 6, 2009.

The 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 District's "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 one 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 video on the type of work she does can be found at:

For more information about Hope House and its programs, visit: http://hopehousedc.org/aboutus.html

Links to You Tube slide shows about Hope House's Father to Summer Camps, 2008:

William (Bill) 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 Information

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.

Introduction from Bill Muth

I'd like to thank Daphne and the National Institute for Literacy for honoring Carol and me by inviting us to explore ideas with you about a problem that has grown deep roots since the get-tough-on-crime movement began over 20 years ago. It is perhaps the greatest unintended consequence of crime policy in U.S. history: families separated by prison. As we write, more than 800,000 families and 1.5 million children--the "other victims of crime"-- are experiencing this separation. 1

Hope House is a small but powerful response to this massive dislocation, and I am extremely proud to be associated with Carol Fennelly and her Hope House (HH) projects (as a Board member and participant-observer researcher). During the week, we hope to shed light on some of HH's defining characteristics (and major challenges), and draw you into the conversation by "thinking aloud" about issues, opportunities, ironies and dilemmas that we wrestle with. (Of course, we encourage you to bring your own questions, solutions, and ideas to the table as well!)

I'd like to start with an observation and a question about prison-based fathering programs:

In their work with the National Center on Fathers and Families, Vivian Gadsden and Carl Rethemeyer learned that, as a rule, (a) fathers do care about their children, and (b) fathers' presence matters to children. At HH camp last summer, one of our campers (I call "Kenton") shared a story about an event that happened earlier that year. (See below for a copy of Kenton's story.) Because of a very timely recollection of something his father told him, Kenton chose to walk away from a shootout that might have ended his life and would surely have ended his dreams to go to college. His father's "presence" was the more impressive because he was, at the time, 200 miles away in prison.

I believe strongly that HH is on the right path. But occasionally I wonder: Is Kenton's story an anomaly? How is it that children who have not seen their fathers (or mothers) for long periods invite them to be authorities in their lives? And how can we best support fathers-many of whom did not experience the presence of their own fathers growing up-in their effort to be responsible and engaged parents via phone calls, letter writing, and the occasional-to-rare visit?

Any thoughts-about this or anything else-are appreciated! And, again, welcome to the discussion.

A Father's Presence

By Bill Muth

Note: The following story is based on event that took place at a prison-based summer camp in August 2008 that reunited children with their incarcerated fathers for a week. The camp is sponsored by a non-profit organization called Hope House. In addition to summer camps at two prisons each year, Hope House provides other services for families separated by prison, including a storybook taping program and video conferencing. The author is a member of the Board of Directors and volunteers each year as a camp counselor. For more information about Hope House please go to: www.hopehousedc.org

Fourteen year old Kenton (all names are pseudonyms) is standing outside the camp latrine, looking up at a star-filled sky, countless and intensive, like the glitter on the boxing mural he worked on with his father that afternoon, and for the past four days, inside prison. I had just checked in on the boys assigned to bathroom clean up, and approached Kenton with what I thought was a casual question, "So what will you be doing when you get back to Buffalo tomorrow night?"

…An hour later, deep in the same conversation with Kenton, I noticed Tre, a 10 year old from Virginia, waiting patiently in the shadows...

It's the last night of Hope House Summer Camp, and the kids are reflective and talkative. Tomorrow will be the last day they spend with their fathers for a while-in Tre's case, possibly for years. Last Monday was the first time Tre had seen his dad since he was five-half a life time ago. Unfortunately, his father is being transferred to another federal facility next month. Without the kinds of transportation and family support services provided by organizations like Hope House, it is unlikely that Tre will be able to visit his father any time soon.

Kenton, on the other hand, visits his dad about six times a year. Although this is his last summer camp (campers age out at 14), he is eligible to come back as a junior counselor when he turns 16. I hope he does; he sets a good example for the younger ones: self-possessed and focused on a better future.

Kenton is an athlete, and lethally good looking. His hardest year was seventh grade, when he squeaked by with D's and E's. He turned a corner this past year. His eighth teachers were fond of him and his grades improved to C's. As a rising ninth grader, Kenton expects to make the junior varsity cut as back-up quarterback. But his focus almost came to naught earlier this summer. For a few chaotic weeks, his future slowly spiraled out of reach, like that of many children with incarcerated parents. In early May, an ex-girlfriend began spreading a rumor that Kenton was planning to kill her. (which he denies.) The next day his ex's ex-ex-boyfriend called Kenton and said he was gunning for him and bringing his whole family along to hunt him down.

While Kenton's story is unfolding, he drifts away from our star-lit rural camp deep in Amish country in western Pennsylvania, to an urban neighborhood in Buffalo. He is in the moment. "At first I think I can just ride this out. Just lay low for a while. But then it's like, I have to take it to the street -even though it's not me-to keep up my respect in the neighborhood. My cousin-we're like brothers-brings over a gun. We call other cousins; they are ready to go to the street for me." His face contorts as he retells the story, which comes from a place so far removed that my attempts to understand only trivialize the crisis: Gunsmoke? West Side Story? The Wire?

This young, composed athlete is almost in tears. He is less storyteller, more plaintiff. "I wake up on Sunday and see the gun. That's when I remember something my father told me: 'It's easy to get into trouble, but a lot harder to get out of it.'" Kenton called off the shoot out. He also left his mother's house and moved in with his uncle across town. (A month later his mother was evicted and moved in with them as well, but that's another story.)

Nothing about his story was meant to impress me. I simply asked Kenton what his plans for the rest of the summer were, and this is what tumbled out. But his story did impress me, greatly. In my eyes Kenton transformed from a boy to a young man in the course of an hour. Someday he might look back on that decision as one of the most important of his life. And whose voice did he hear in the moment of the decision? His father's. A flawed man to be sure. A man who has been locked up since Kenton was a preschooler. Yet also a man that is profoundly present in his son's life.

Though out of danger-at least for now-Kenton still had a tough decision to make: he could remain with his uncle for the upcoming school year, be surrounded by cousins and an active social life, and attend a mediocre school, or he could move in with his step mother in yet another part of town, be relatively isolated socially, and attend a very good school. In the starlight I asked him if he had made up his mind yet.

He said, yes: tomorrow he was going to ask his father what to do.

1 The Child Welfare League (2004) reports that fifty-five percent of adjudicated youth had a parent in prison.

Book-Reading Program

Carol: I want to start with a description of our Father to Child Reading Program, in case you have not visited our website yet. On a regular basis, fathers are provided with a children's book and audio or videotape so they can record a story for their children. Hope House then mails the signed book and tape home to the child. Parents and caregivers report that children not only enthusiastically listen to the recording, but do so repeatedly - re-living the experience of their father telling them a story several times. This past year, Hope House DC made more than1,900 recordings of fathers reading books to their children on tape. Recordings were made in prisons in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.

LJ: What about older children whom it might be more appropriate for a parent to read chapter books? Does that happen?

Carol: We have lots of wonderful chapter books. The father reads the first chapter and asks the child to complete the book and write to him about it, or they discuss the book on the phone. This has turned out to be a wonderful conversation starter for non-communicative teens.

Carol: [The book taping program] has had many wonderful stories over the years. Here are a few:

  • One of our dads has been recording books for his daughter for five years. Sometime during the third year, he told me he didn't really know where his daughter lived, and had been sending the books and tapes to a relative, hoping they would get to her. But in all that time, he had received no feedback about whether they were actually arriving. I urged him to continue recording. When the dad started sending books, his daughter was only three. After five years, she was eight and could finally write to him. So she did. One day he came in to record a book and was smiling from ear to ear with the letter in hand. A year later he is still thanking us for helping us reunite with his daughter Lucy. Also he and the child's mother have reconciled their relationship. They will not be a couple again, but the anger that once drove their relationship is gone.
  • John was coming in each month to record books. He always chose board books meant for a toddler. When he told me his son was five I suggested he choose another more advanced title. He explained that his son was dying from a brain tumor and could only comprehend the younger books. One month when he didn't show up to read I asked him about it. He told me that his son had died and went on to thank us for providing the opportunity for him to send books to his child. The recordings he made were the only communication he was able to have in the last year of his son's life.

Bill: Here are a few quotes from the mothers and caregivers about the booktaping program:

  • My child is 10 years old. Her father has never been around to read to her. This was a blessing and well received.
  • My child is home schooled and he has MD (muscular dystrophy) so these books are amazing! The whole idea of his father reading to him is very exciting. He gets to hear his father's voice. He can't really hold things anymore and he loves books. It's a win-win situation.
  • My grand girl gets books on tape from her father. She hears her father reading a book to her. It makes her feel loved. She talks about it all the time.
  • Excellent program! Really helped my grandson get to know the side of his father he may not have gotten to know until he got home. Thank you for helping him get through this difficult time.

Mural Project

Bill: I'd like to share one last feature of Hope House's summer camp program-the mural project. During camp, 15 children (re)unite with their fathers in the visiting room every day for a week. The day is filled with song, dance, journaling, informal gatherings, drumming. But at the center of the experience are the murals. They take all week to make, they are 8 X 12 feet long (each), and on the last day the father-child teams present/ narrate their story to the other families and staff in the VR. I consider this a "family literacy" project, because the murals are all about writing biography. Here is just one example of how mural making/storytelling/ biography writing helped a family rebuild right in front of our eyes:

Joanne and John (not actual names) used the mural project to re-create one of their earliest shared memories. Joanne was ten years old, and had not seen her father since she was five. With some facilitation from the Hope House artist, they "mined" Joanne's happiest, though dim, father memory-of a shared afternoon at the neighborhood swimming pool.

Mural of Joanne spending an afternoon with her father at the neighborhood pool

Here is how John described the experience:

When I left my daughter was five years old, now she's ten. But she remembers certain things we used to do when I was out there-go to the movies, to the pool, and all that type of stuff….When I asked her what she wanted to do for her mural, the first thing she said was…she wanted for us to be at the pool. So that reminded me that she remembered some of the things that we used to do… It's like she was missing some of the things that we used to do. So when we brought that scenery back, it reminded me of some of the things we did. We were doing something that we used to do-you know-inside the mural. It was like a gathering thing for me and her…

Throughout the week, Joanne and John "brought back the scenery" of their shared past and placed it on the surface of the mural. A few months after the summer camp, Joanne and her mother traveled to participate in a showing of the HH murals at an embassy in Washington DC. At that event, Joanne held her father's quote as she stood in front of their mural.

Picture of above text 'When I left my daughter...'

Joanne, her father and her mother continue to build on this renewed relationship.

How do others use storytelling in their programs?

Family Literacy and Fathers

LJ: Can this project fit into a Family Literacy project model? It seems the taping of books and possibly activities sent back and forth could be considered PACT (Parent and Child Together) activities and if you combined ABE instruction it could be really sweet.

Carol: We have used these programs in concert with a few classes. One ESL class had their students translate simple children's books from English to Spanish and then when they were ready, record the book in both languages. Literacy classes have used it as an exercise to learn to read with the recording as a final "test." Parenting classes have used it as a partner program for the class. One prison has an 8-hour class about how to read a children's book. When completed the student gets a certificate.

BR: Though I ask learners if "helping their children with homework" is an area of interest upon their enrollment in my class, I must confess I have few other parenting resources to share with them. (I do refer them to the parenting class.) Are there other parenting resources that might be helpful in an ABE classroom?

JC: In 1993, I wrote the first edition of the F.A.T.H.E.R.S. Program Guide, a family literacy and parenting curriculum for incarcerated fathers, for the California State Library on an LSTA grant. I researched and piloted the program at San Quentin State Prison for about 2 years. When the CA Dept of Corrections failed to pick up the tab to continue it, the program at San Quentin was sustained through inmate efforts until we secured private funding to return in 1998. Since then, the guide has been revised (1998) and adaptations for implementing a M.O.T.H.E.R.S. Program included. We now serve incarcerated fathers there, as well as serving both fathers and mothers at our local Marin County Jail.

F.A.T.H.E.R.S. is an acronym for Fathers As Teachers: Helping, Encouraging, Reading, Supporting, and it uses children's picture books in every lesson to address family literacy and parenting issues. It is an incredibly successful and popular program, and many men say they wished they'd gotten this information in high school. We do not point out that many of them were not IN high school and certainly were not receptive to the information because they were busy doing other things!

BM: Is it possible to have a look at your curriculum online?

JC: The F.A.T.H.E.R.S. Program Guide is available from the CA Sate Library Foundation, http://www.cslfdn.org/ where you click on Publications, then on Literacy. You can find a description of the guide, but not any PDFs you can download.

Bill: I do not think Carol has mentioned another project that Hope House supports: biweekly video-conferencing between children and their incarcerated fathers. To witness the natural quality of the father-child interactions is to know that there is much that can be done to hold families together. And fairly cheaply too.

BM: I'd be very open to hearing about the other skills that are taught in
parenting classes.

BS: Reading example. If pre and elementary school children are
involved, low readers can also benefit by studying what books are
appropriate for what age of child and how to read the books to make it
interesting, how long the attention span vs. the age of the child and
etc. The "Alexander Who" stories are great for budgeting, etc. If you
find good stories that also serve another purpose as well .....will help
adult learn in a dignified manner. Bobbi
We are able to use a tape recorder to read a book to the child and then
sent the book and tape to the child.

Bill: Although family ties are cited as pivotal for success after release, and the benefits of parental presence for children well documented, there is still public resistance to programs like Hope House that try to (re)unite prisoners with their children. Although there are numerous examples of successful program models out there (See, for example, p. 28 of Hairston's review,
http://www.aecf.org/KnowledgeCenter/Publications.aspx?pubguid={F48C4DF8-BBD9-4915-85D7-53EAFC941189}, programs that target the whole family often fall between the cracks. For example, prison policy tend to focus on prisoners, not their children…Hope House, BTW, is entirely funded by donations and private grants.

Even the WIA (sec 225) states that literacy programs should be given priority to "offenders…who are likely to leave the correctional institution with 5 years of participation in the program." I know administrators who interpret this as meaning "within" 5 years of participation. This causes practitioners to only focus on prisoners leaving the system; it does not address the ongoing need for relationship maintenance throughout the incarceration process, nor, as Nell Bernstein describes so vividly in her book All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, the trauma caused to children when parents are forcibly removed from the home.

Carol: One of the things that is important to us is to nurture relationships between fathers and kids. Even if children can visit with their dads on visiting day, there is little one-on-one time, and children are often bystanders while mom or grandma and dad talk. Our summer camp and teleconference programs are strictly dad/child time with no filters. Which isn't to say that our moms are not actively involved in our programs. But everyone seems to get that it is important for fathers and children to have this time together.

Bill: ...Hope House would never be able to position itself in the middle of these families without the trust that the caregivers place in Carol and the HH staff, and of course the fathers. While many (most?) parental relationships do not survive prison, Hope House families often establish functional and respectful relationships.

Working with Mother’s

BM: Is there a program for mothers in prison?

LB: As for mothers... We have been creating Baby Basics Prenatal Health Literacy programs for prisons for the past few years. The Baby Basics book has a special section that addresses pregnancy concerns for incarcerated moms. The book has a spiral binding - which could be unwound, and so was considered contraband in prison - so we had to create a special prison edition with a traditional binding. We are at work right now on Baby Basics: Family's First Year that will include a section for moms and dads who are parenting from the inside.

The Baby Basics Program combines prenatal health and health/literacy education and is being run as partnerships between prison programs and prenatal providers or community based organizations that do home visiting. Moms get a copy of the Baby Basics book and then go to BB Moms Club groups together to learn how to read the book, how to work with their healthcare provider, and all about their pregnancy. The groups are as much about supporting moms as it is about learning new skills.

Bill: Can you describe the way the club groups work? Are they mostly instructor-lead or is there a lot of peer-to-peer discussion/support?

Carol: When I started Hope House, I could not find any real hands on programs for fathers, so I looked to good women's programs like [what to expect] for models. Specifically I visited the Bedford Hills prison for women in NY, which has a wonderful mothers program. That is where I got the idea for our summer camp behind bars program as well as our reading program. We could not do our reading program without the help of so many friends in the DC area. I'm very grateful. First Book is a great source of books at a very low cost and is where the majority of our books come from.

Carol: Because of the existing statistics about incarcerated mothers and children we expected to find the women to be the primary caregivers of the children before their incarceration. While all of the women had legal custody of their children, most were not the primary caregivers before getting locked up. The children were living with relatives or friends and not with their mothers. Further, we followed the women in the program for a year after the camp, and of the four who were released, only one went back to her children.

My point here is that our very limited experience led me to wonder if the statistics about parental involvement in the lives of their children before incarceration might be a bit deceptive. I wonder if the rate of actual involvement might be the same for both genders and we are just asking the wrong question. Vivian Gadsden's work seems to back this up. Anyone have any thoughts/experience with this?

JC: I'm not surprised to hear that the relationships incarcerated women have with their children are pretty flaky. It's certainly the impression I get when the books and tapes I send are returned to me with "no such address" or "unclaimed" stamped across the envelope.

Carol: We record with the mothers at the DC jail, and have the same experience. But the summer camp was a real eye opener and fairly disturbing. One mother actually snatched food off the plate of her child at lunch time. It was so sad and heart breaking.

We do work with women at a federal prison in Florida. We do not find them to be as difficult, nor are their books returned as often. I wonder if the women we dealt with at our summer camp and the women you deal with at the jail are still too close to the addictions and lifestyles that brought them to prison and therefore more broken and dysfunctional. Whereas the women we have encountered in Florida are programming and have had some time away and as a result are more stable. I don't really know.

LB: I got this email last week about a program at Plane State Jail right outside of Houston.

"I want to share with you feedback we received from one of the inmates about the Baby Basic sessions at Plane State Jail. She commented that she writes her boyfriend after the sessions to tell him about what we discussed in the class. I think this is positive from two perspectives: one, she is able to communicate what she has learned and two, reading about the sessions is a way for the boyfriend to engage in the pregnancy and begin the bonding process. There has been some research that was published in December 2008 that indicates that unwed fathers who are involved in the pregnancy are more likely to be close and involved with their child at the age of three. I realize this is a very minimal way to be engaged but at least it is an effort given the circumstances.

Program Barriers

BM: Can you talk about restrictions on who can participate in your program?

Carol: As for restrictions on participation, we work with the prison to make those determinations. We encourage the prisons to allow access to any and all inmates. But some would rather make it a part of their parenting program and require that participants have completed that class. We find that the higher security facilities like to have some sort of restriction in place.

BR: I work as an ABE instructor at a medium security men's state prison in VA. When I have sought to use a tape recorder in the past, I have found that security was reluctant, to put it mildly, to allow inmate use of recording equipment (even while supervised). How have you successfully addressed their concerns? Does your program work more easily in Federal facilities?

Bill: Security issues are both real and political. Carol, like you, is always mindful of the potential harm posed by smuggling in (or out) damaging information via tape recordings, and takes a no-nonsense approach to security protocols. Over time she gained the strong endorsement of the director of the federal prison system. But even with the director's support, she was still frequently turned away at the prison gate by an over-zealous captain, guard, or even teacher (sad but true).

Carol: Our approach has always been that we understand and honor the security issues faced by prisons. In some cases we are stricter than the prison requires us to be. We try to examine all of the issues we think someone may have in this regard and come in with answers to the concerns. Mostly what we have found is that the permission has to come from the very top-the warden. So that is always where we start.

My experience is that security staff are concerned about a couple of things. First they are worried about the equipment. If equipment is checked in upon arrival and checked out on leaving (same with tapes/dvds/cds), this should overcome some of that. The second concern has to do with inappropriate messages going home. Because we limit the messages and do not allow anything to go into the books, we usually overcome this concern.

We emphasize that this is a read to your child program, not a send a message home to whoever program. Participants are only allowed to make a short introduction (i.e., "Hi, this is Dad, I have this book for you."), and a short closing (i.e., "That's the end of the story, I love you, I miss you"). Anyone who comes in and refuses to read the book does not make a recording. At one prison in Florida, I walked out because the inmates only wanted to do long messages and were refusing to read. We do not mail home letters or photos with the books and check to be sure that nothing has been written or included in the book.

JC: I saw that someone in VA had trouble getting clearance for dads to tape books to send or give to their children, and my experience in CA is similar. At the jail, however, we have no problem taping fathers and mothers reading their Gift Books aloud on tape, which I send with their books. At the prison, we let go of trying to get clearance for taping and have focused on providing family story times in the visiting room. After 10 years, custody officers are finally truly supportive of this, although those officers could be rotated out at any time and we'd have to start over building our reputation and relationships.

Carol: Are you still working at San Quinten? We have done a very small amount of work with mothers. Our experience was the same as yours. We actually did a shortened summer camp behind bars at the DC jail one year. We worked with the families on the outside to get the children involved and we had a very interesting experience.

Bill: Your story sounds so familiar -one step forward, one back...relentless perseverance. Thank goodness for folks like you, but at the same time it makes me angry that our public policies are so arbitrary, disruptive and destructive.
Can you describe some of the differences (if any) between your experiences with the fathers program & the mothers program? Can you point to any specific factors that led to the peer-supported community of practice inside the prison? Was this deliberately nurtured by a skillful teacher? Did a strong dad get this going?

Carol: I think Bill is right about perseverance. At some points over the last ten years, I've felt the way to success was to see if I could out-wait those who were creating the barriers. There were times when I had to deal with what I called the bop shuffle. When one person didn't want to tell me no, they shuffled me off to the next person, who also didn't want to tell me no. So they shuffled me to someone else, who ultimately shuffled me back to the first person. A lot of our early success in the bop had to do with Bill Muth's commitment to seeing us succeed (in his previous job as administrator of education). But it also had to do with relentless poking until I poked the right person who got things moving. So I think it is important to say "don't give up!" No is not always no.

It is interesting that the two prisons where we have a full compliment of our programs (summer camp, teleconferencing, and the reading program), is where we have the strongest support from the custody staff. Still, behind my back some of the line staff call me hug-a-thug. They want to know where the funding comes from, since the bop budget has been cut so dramatically. As Bill mentioned in a previous email, one of the hardest custody wardens in the federal system came in a skeptic, bordering on hostile. He left one of our biggest supporters inviting us to come with him to his next prison.

LJ: Have you thought about using a social networking site with tight restrictions for connecting and building relationships with older children?

Carol: We do this program inside federal prisons, most of which now have email for inmates to communicate with their children. Thanks to Bill Muth for making that happen.

BS: I am curious ...in our jails we do not have email access to the inmates...custody protection, porn and etc are the reason why there is no email ...and I must say I do agree....but you are saying that the prison's have it and allow them to email their families? What if there is a protection issue?

Bill: The federal prison system is piloting an e-mail program at some of its prisons. Our education argument was not the tipping point; it was the argument made by SECURITY. The custody branch argued that (a) it would be very difficult to introduce contraband such as drugs and weapons through e-mail, and (b) though imperfect, translation tools would make it easier to screen e-mails written in other than English. There are restrictions, of course. For example, prisoners do not have access to Internet, cannot send or receive attachments, and must have addressees approved in advance (just like approved visitor lists). And there is a modest fee (but they don't have to pay for stamps). Also, you may know that the Hudson River Center has provided wonderful prison-based family literacy programs in New York State. Here's a link: http://www.hudrivctr.org/index.htm

BS: AH yes ... in fact I assisted in the development of Hudson River Center's best practice programs, etc. I do know it's a safety and security issue and that many have tried to put together firewalls ... so there could be secure access to the internet ... I have not heard of a successful one yet... I would like to get access in the facilities. I only know of one that has direct access to the DOL web site and even that is limited.

Carol: We use a simple DSL hook up and a Microsoft video teleconferencing program. On the prison end the pc we use is on a cart that rolls into a locked room with other equipment when it is not in use. There is a keyboard with it, but the prison staff signs on and off. We, at hope house, work with family members to do the scheduling. The prison gets the schedule a week in advance. We actually did our first teleconference in November 1999. Our Hope House family outreach coordinator (who was a hope house mom whose daughter attended our first summer camp), has a great trusting relationship with the moms and kids. She picks the child(ren) up from school and returns them home for each teleconference. We provide after school snacks for the kids. Here is a link to an Odyssey TV piece that presents all three of our programs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3S-k81UJkU

Bill: The video-conferencing project (Carol refers to them as teleconferences) is also secure and easy to monitor. A dedicated, recycled PC with a cheap video cam and no keyboard sits in an open room, off to a corner. It can dial up only connections to Hope House. The burden on the education staff is to schedule the fathers for biweekly conferences, and monitor the room periodically. The men know that this is a privilege and are not playing games with it. The Hope House video-conferencing has been running successfully since, I think, 2001 (is that right, Carol?). Right now, the harder part of the video-conferencing seems to be finding folks on the outside that can pick up the kids and bring them to Hope House workstations.

Carol: …we have faced a lot of barriers to our program over the last decade. We started this program at the infamous privately run CCA Prison in Youngstown, OH. We went there after the killings/stabbings of more than 25 inmates. It was dubbed the worst prison in America. I saw this as an opportunity because the prison was experiencing a public relations disaster and I thought they might be open to some creative solutions. While two of our programs had been done in women's prisons, one was ground breaking (our teleconference program). The reading program had some precedent in both women's and men's facilities. But our summer camp had never been done in a men's prison (as far as we know we remain the only summer camp behind bars for dads).

Carol: The other concern tends to be about precedent. Nobody wants to be the first. We were having trouble getting into a high security penitentiary in VA. When we found a more courageous warden in another usp in FL who allowed us into that prison, we went back to the first one who had turned us down. The VA warden made a call to the FL warden and we were in. The reading program is fairly common in prisons these days and it would be easy to find other facilities with staff willing to talk with people at your prison.

CH: I am currently conducting research for my PhD, which is focusing Every Child Matters: are the policies fit for purpose? My second research study has taken me into the realms of offenders and their families, who struggle - or not - to get out of the cycle of multi-deprivation that led to the partner offending in the first place. I have a question/comment for the discussion.

The work carried out by the charity Partners of Prisoners (POP) in the NW of England does the most fantastic work in supporting the women who try hard to sustain their family life without their partners. POPS organizes prison visits so that the children can also attend in a non-threatening environment and it supports the partners through Prisoner Forums run at the prison, at which partners can voice their concerns. My research interviews have shown that all this good work is often negated by the aggressive, unsympathetic attitudes of the prison workforce, who treat offenders with little dignity or respect. Consequently, prison life makes little provision for offenders' personal development and well-being (especially the younger ones) which in turn exacerbates their criminal lifestyles and the cycle of offending/reoffending. This aspect of incarceration must work against the positive work done by the educators in prisons. Surely, people who live in a climate where the elements of punishment are consistently reinforced by the prison staff will not be disposed to access to the full, the literacy and education programs can offer?

Bill: Thank you for sharing your thoughts! It is inspiring to hear of the work Partners of Prisoners is doing in the UK. And I am especially interested in learning more about the Prisoners' Forum. While an employee of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP), I visited a parenting program that created a fathers' support group. The men met in a classroom one evening per week to discuss very personal parenting concerns-a daughter experimenting with sex, a son joining a gang…One of the men told me "the thing I'll miss most about prison, is this support group." Building trusting communities like this are fairly rare in prisons, is my guess. But doable. Please tell us more about your Forum!

Bill: Negotiating these two worlds is tricky but necessary, or else we must limit our roles as reformers to outside agitators. (Of course, this is an important role also.) But the Hope House model (and it sounds like your model as well) are attempting to work inside, which means with, the prison authorities. So,,, then we are back to relationship building - with prison staff, prisoners, caregivers, children, fund raisers…whew. And much is beyond our control. We may work for years to win over a warden, and then (s)he moves on and we start over again. As I am sure you know, relationship building is never ending.

BR: Thanks Dr. Muth, for addressing the daily internal conflict many of us face--the ability to work directly within the system in a hopeful (and hopefully effective) way, versus the desire to lay down in the parking lot out front to protest the entire dysfunctional system. I remain hopeful that more training will become available for all prison staff which teaches reflective listening and stresses cognitive restructuring. However, until American society at large acknowledges that this is everyone's responsibility (or "problem"), I remain a skeptic. Maybe the current economic crisis will encourage us to look more closely at the issue?

Bill: BTW, AP helped design and teach the 5-course on-line program mentioned earlier, and was a member of a cohort that participated in an on-line program cosponsored by the Correctional Education Association and California State University called the "Highly Qualified Correctional Educator." I mention this because, before HQCE, I was cynical about on-line professional development courses. Now, I'm just a skeptic: they can still be terrible & superficial. But the HQCE courses produced a vibrant and peer-supported "virtual community" as sustaining as any face-to-face one. AND, I mention this because...isn't that what we're trying to do in our distant parenting programs: build community?

LB: For those of us who can only think about ways to enrich expecting and new families lives no matter their circumstances, it might be surprising and then affirming to read the quote below too:

The warden, who was initially very stern and somewhat skeptical of the program at Plane State, has softened significantly and is now scouring the unit for every pregnant inmate to participate! The class size is growing, the women are opening up and taking the class very seriously.

Bill: I do not want to embarrass my colleague Carol, but one of the reasons why Hope House has established such a fixed presence in the FBOP is because Carol thinks like a social activist (which she is) and a warden (which she is not, but she did run DC's largest homeless shelter for 18 years). She has hard-won credibility with prisoners and keepers alike (and the transformative nature of HH is not limited to the prisoners). A second reason for HH's acceptance is that we achieved buy-in from the FBOP Director. This has had a great stabilizing effect as wardens turn over, as you can imagine. But even with Carol's skill set and buy-in from the top, it is a continuous effort to build trust with staff and with families.

So buy-in at all levels is needed, including policy makers, & agencies have to stop thinking in silos. Until corrections is charged with protecting and building family ties, in addition to incapacitating criminals, human rights issues-like a child's contact with her parents-will continue to be bureaucratized.

Carol: One of the other issues has to do with the tension inherent in providing services and being an advocate. For almost two decades I was a radical advocate on behalf of homeless people. I have an arrest record in five states for civil disobedience (it is a miracle that I get into federal prisons!), and several long-term hunger strikes under my belt. I say that to put forward my creds as an advocate. I quickly learned that I had to make a choice between hats when I started providing services in prisons. Which doesn't mean I don't find ways to do be an advocate behind the scenes. But it is not in as direct a way as I have done in the past. In ten years I have found the worst kind of racists and sociopaths on the staff of prisons. But I have also found some of the kindest and best people I know. It is sometimes hard to keep my eyes on the prize. But I remember that hundreds of dads rely on us as a lifeline to their families.

Program Outcomes

LJ: I think this project makes a tremendous difference in the lives it touches. What kind of measurable outcomes (outputs) do you get?

Carol: We regularly survey the caregivers of the children who receive the books. 86% of mothers whose children received these books and who responded to our survey, reported that their children are reading more as a result of getting books from their dads. This year, for the first time we are surveying the fathers who participate in this program. Since Hope House DC began, fathers have recorded more than 10,000 books, which have been sent home to their children. Bill has been doing some research on the impact this program is having on long distance parenting. I'll let him answer that part.

Bill: Here's a link to a May 2006 review of prison-based family literacy programs, including some very preliminary outcome-based studies. Trying to quantify the effectiveness of these programs is hugely challenging (as I am sure Daphne can attest), given their complexity and highly situated nature. Still, we continue to strive to measure programs; and lawmakers and foundations will probably always demand quantitative "proof". But the value of compelling stories should not be minimized, either. Especially when, for ethical and/or practical reasons it becomes impossible to conduct randomized studies. The link: http://literacy.kent.edu/cra/2006/wmuth/index.html

Carol: We have also found that the program works best if inmates make repeated and regular recordings. At some facilities inmates have participated monthly for years. Their children have grown up with the books their dads record for them.

Bill: Recent interviews with 30 Hope House dads have revealed some surprises (at least for me), and I'm thinking about them in Ross Parke's terms of fatherhood and fathering. Fatherhood has to do with what it means to be a father, broad beliefs about the father's role, and the role models in one's life. Fathering is about doing the day-to-day work of raising children.

Here's one surprise: most of the men agreed that a father's role includes providing for one's family. In terms of fathering, when they were on the street, some of the dads said they were caught up with the hustle of the street. For them, providing meant lavishing their kids with clothing and toys and other material things. Now in prison, they told me their ideas about providing had changed dramatically. About half said that they are actually better providers now because they are providing for their children emotionally.

One dad described this difference between being and buying:

"One thing - when we were out there, we were thinkin' that wealth was, you know, material things. How many sneakers, and how much toys and bicycles, and stuff you can buy for your child. That's what we were thinking wealth is, and bein' a father is. Bein' a provider. For physical things. Of material things. But now you realize that true wealth is the lessons that you can teach your child, the time that you able to spend with your child. These things that come from within self are true measurement of love. And this is truly bein' a father. Teaching your child is truly being a father, and not buying your child."

Those of us privileged to work in distant parenting programs (with fathers OR mothers) know that many of the participants seem to genuinely transform themselves. We can debate how permanent these transformations are, and if they will revert back to old parenting habits when they return to society. But I argue that this does not negate the real shifts that we've experienced in programs like Hope House.

What experiences do others have? And what are your thoughts about the capacity of parents (or, for that matter, any of us!) to change?

BM: The capacity to change is what keeps me (a health educator/medical anthropologist) in business. The capacity to learn and change is one of the laws of nature and of survival.

It often bothers me that intervention research hardly ever measures the people skills, tenacity and intellectual acumen of those with successful intervention programs. For example, transportation as a factor in the success of the videoconferencing is barely mentioned in most evaluations. This may be a place where social work, public health, psychology graduate student volunteers doing service learning might be useful.

Bill: Great points. They reminded me of JI's post yesterday and the projects at Brown University. Carol is considering a "family reentry summit"-one that specifically addresses these messy, multifaceted issues. A position paper on higher education's role as an untapped resource might be a great addition!

Bill: …here is how one of the dads described the way his support for his daughter also helped to rebuild functional relationships with her mother:

Hey, we [Ebony's mother and I] split. [I told her],"You go your way, and I go my way." But I never stopped dealin' with my kid. And that make her come back and say, "You know I was bein' a little harsh…" It makes the things…with the caregiver and the father, more strong. You know, because she see that you not doin' this just to get back at her, or try to get with her-you know, it show her that you really care about your kid.

JC: One of the most powerful aspects of our program is that we invite inmates who have completed the course (weekly for 1 quarter), to order a Gift Book for each child in his life. I purchase those through our library, since we are a library literacy program, and send them to those children. We have men taking the course repeatedly (one who's on his fifth cycle!) and find that they have now built a community within the prison in which they support each other as dads. Many stories of men reconnecting with children because of our encouragement for them to reach out and write.

Bill: …And yes, much good is undone by prison culture. One of the HH fathers, on the last day of summer camp, spoke to the dehumanizing forces inside prison and thanked Hope House, in a quote from Goethe, for "seeing us for what we might become…"

But also, sometimes the reverse happens. In order for the HH men to participate in summer camp with their children, they must be infraction-free for a year. One of the dads told me how he almost got into a fight and another prisoner pulled him away, reminding him about staying "clean" for his kid. So other prisoners-even men who, for various reasons, did not think that fathering was possible from inside prison-are getting it. Many are signing up for parenting classes and the HH book-taping program (in which about 100 fathers record and mail home books every other month). HH has also won over the most law-and-order warden (though it took 2 or more years -- that's a story for another day).

I do not want to paint too rosy a picture here. It's very much an uphill battle, and all could be undone tomorrow. But over much time and with support from the administration, the humanizing spaces of our programs do penetrate other prison spaces. But it will take many, many more programs to reach critical mass.

Bill: One of the men that participates in the Hope House program (called here, "Michael Fields") asked me (unsolicited) to post this for him. Since he is locked up, Michael does not have access to the to the rest of the discussion, but we regularly correspond via e-mail. I paste his message intact, except for name changes):

My name is Michael Fields II.

I am a 34 going on 33 year old incarcerated father.

I have 4 children, ages 6,7 and 10 respectively.

I have been locked up for 6 going on 7 tremendously long years.

And I'm scared.

I'm scared because I saw a statistic somewhere that said that most children are destined to stay in the same socio-economic bracket as their parents...

I am a incarcerated father.

I make .32 cent an hour.

I have 4 children; each who will probably have 2 of their own...

I am scared that because of me, my children and their children, might not only be victims of circumstance, but victims of numbers as well.

Ok, yes I broke the law, and I have to pay for my sins. And though I feel my time is definitely disproportionate with my crime, I believe in Karma, but why should my babies have to pay for my karmic empiricism? Why should they have to be born into a cycle of perpetual servitude?

So I teach Marti, Joanie, Marty and Michael III that drugs are for dummies. That only dummies sell drugs because they can't figure out a way to make money honestly and legally, and I hope they do as I say instead of how I did...It's kind of hard to show them 'how I do' from behind this razor wire. So I have faith, and alot of hope. And that's where Hope House comes in. They give us faith and hope, that our children won't have to repeat our failures. That maybe hearing their father read a book to them every month will not only make them smarter, more literate children, but it will help them see the things that even an incarcerated father can do... Maybe the yearly Hope Camp can help to reconnect that bond that was disconnected by my ignorance. And maybe, we'll figure out that incarcerating the solution will never solve the problem. Educating and reuniting them will. And the statistics will change. And I won't have to be scared any more.

After all, the antithesis of fear is Hope.



BM: In this economic downturn, where is the funding for Prison-based literacy projects?

Carol: We work with several local law firms who provide staff to address the envelopes for mailing as well as provide the mailing costs for us. Over the past ten years we have generated an array of sources of books for this program. One local school does a huge book drive for us each year. This year during the holiday season, a bookstore (with the best children's book section in the area), also did a book drive. In both cases the books that were collected are new

BM: One of the things I like about your program is the involvement of supportive outsiders such as the staff of law firms who address the envelopes and pay the cost of mailing. Transparency is very important to keep programs accountable and healthy.

Bill: Thank you for your question about funding prison-literacy programs. In State systems, basic literacy programs are often funded, at least partially, by the Workforce Investment Act. (Demands are of course, much greater than resources, even in States with mandatory literacy rules). The Federal Prison System receives its education funds directly from Congress, not WIA. States also have benefited from Youthful Offenders Grants that provided occupational education funds. Last April, the Second Chance Act was signed into law. It provides critically needed funds (to government agencies and faith-based organizations) for re-entry programs including jobs, family support, substance abuse programs, housing, mentoring, and victim support. Unfortunately, the law (Public Law 110-199) was not funded last October, (the government is under a Continuing Resolution).

Carol: Our funding comes from foundations and individual donors. In the beginning we had a hard time finding funding for men in prison. They are not high on most people's "I should care" list. We repositioned the requests to include at risk children-children of prisoners-since they are the recipients of the books, and this opened up lots of funding sources. Maybe I am in denial, but so far our funding for this program has not been hit that hard. But stay tuned.

LK: I am a teacher who has most recently been involved with adult reading programs. I was never trained in special ed. in my college courses and at this juncture, those types of classes especially for adult learners seem to be taking the budgeting axe.

For three years I worked with a gentleman in a reading program. Then I moved here to Davenport, IA and tried to hook up with the group here. I was told if I wanted to work with offenders (which is a HUGE personal goal for me) I should go through the community college who administered that program. I took the in-service offered but then it turned out that they did not actually work with the jail/prison.

Is anyone in Iowa that could give me specifics in how to get involved with this locally. The program you are describing here sounds just wonderful, too. The man I was teaching was not an inmate but he had many of the same needs and desires to connect with his son after a divorce situation and one of his big goals was to be able to read to his son. Any information you could give me, or point me to would be much appreciated.

BS: I am in charge of 4 county jails. I use Literacy Volunteers for the low readers (1-4) and I have NYS certified teachers for the minors and adults. In NYS, the local school that the facility is located in is responsible for teaching or they will assign another educational entity to do it through a COSER. Find out who is responsible for teaching GED to adults/minors (phone the local school district or call the facility. Each facility, state, school district etc have different rules.

Prison-based College Courses

SS: Do you know of any funding sources to provide college-level classes in prisons? I know that prisoners cannot access Pell grants.

Bill: The Youthful Offender's Act, which set aside federal dollars for post-secondary occupational education, has been reauthorized in the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Back in August Steve Steurer, Executive Director of the Correctional Education Association, noted that the changes might e funded until July 2009, but should have a number of improvements, including: raising the age cap from 25 to 35 years, expanding eligibility from 5 to 7 years before release, and raising tuition caps to $3000 per year. These funds are administered through State agencies. With the current economic conditions it is hard to know what will shake out July, so write your representatives in Congress to advocate for this, especially if they are on the HHS-Labor-Education Appropriations Committee.

BTW, if anyone has more current information about the HEOA, please let us know.

TR: I am the Parent Coordinator for DOC in RI. I believe a few individuals from the area colleges wanted to teach a couple of classes here at the RIDOC. So perhaps if you contacted the college yourself, the individual instructors may want to donate class time to the community. It not many classes but it is something to get folks started.

JI: A little more about Rhode Island: At present, college courses are offered at the ACI in RI, through the Community College of RI.
As well, a pilot project began last fall. Professors from Brown University are offering lectures to inmates; so far no academic credit is offered, but the hope is that it might be possible to earn college credit at some future point.

AP: In Virginia, we receive grant money from the Sunshine Lady Foundation in addition to the federal youthful offender grants for college programs. We are currently piloting a program using a virtual server with Eastern New Mexico State University to explore more diverse ways to offer college and at potentially reduced costs. Many of our students are self-paid, frequently with the assistance of families.

We have a family liaison for both our juvenile and adult facilities. Sometimes we forget that some of our juvenile offenders are, themselves, parents. We have Father Read and Mother Read programs in some, not all (approximately 36) of our adult facilities. I really like the program described by our co-facilitator at Hope House.

Carol: We have just started our program at Oak Hill Children's Center here in DC. We have had a slow start, but more young fathers are signing up each time we go there.

Thanks to those who responded to the questions about college classes behind bars. This is not my area of expertise, but in working with various facilities across the country, I have found several individual prisons that have connected with local colleges to provide free or reduced price classes. I know that after Pell Grants were lost many facilities struggled. Sing Sing has some great programs that are connected to a NY University or College. It has been such a long time since I did work up there that I can't remember which one. Also, one of the theological colleges has a terrific program that offers a counseling certificate program in several of the NY state prisons including Sing Sing and Greenhaven. It took a few years after the Pell rules were changed, but many facilities have regrouped and created partnerships with colleges and have some terrific programs again.

BS: I believe that Mercy College does the down state but I also know a few community colleges are involved and I am looking into another four-year college.

Bill: On a positive note, the Virginia Department of Correctional Education took an unprecedented step a few years back by helping a prisoner/mother-Susan Kennon-achieve her MA degree in psychology, and, after she was released, hiring her to teach parenting inside.


Graduate Programs:

  • California State University, San Bernardino offers a Masters in Correctional-Alternative Education. It is not an on-line program, but some of their courses are available on-line. Here is a link to the Center for the Study of Correctional Education at CSUSB: http://www.csusb.edu/coe/programs/correctional_ed/index.htm
  • At Virginia Commonwealth University we offer an on-line 5-course certificate program in adult literacy (with an emphasis in correctional and alternative settings). Please contact me off-line if you'd like more info about our program wrmuth at vcu.edu

Closing from Carol & Bill

Carol: Thanks to all of you for letting me sit in on your conversation this week. If I can ever be of assistance to you, feel free to give me a shout.

Bill: I'd like to thank Daphne Greenberg for inviting Carol and me to facilitate this discussion. Thanks also to all those who provided insight, suggestions & encouragement-both on and off line. We tried to present the Hope House program in a positive light, but at the same time not sugar coat the complexities, inadequate policies, dehumanizing cultures, geographical displacements and other barriers that, if we are to hurdle, will require our collective hearts and minds working together as a community. We know the situation isn't hopeless; it would be much easier to turn away if that were the case…

Please continue to e-mail if you have ideas, questions, or just want to rant. wrmuth at vcu.edu

Thank-you from Daphne

Carol and Bill,

On behalf of the Diversity and Literacy List, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! Your dedication, experiences, and commitment are models for all of us. We appreciate you spending time with us, and sharing part of your world with us. I think that the letter that Bill shared with us says it all. This kind of work is important, and what you do is inspirational.

To all of you on the List who shared experiences and resources-thanks to you as well!


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