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Reaching out to dads in jail: Fathers and children do better when parental identity is supported

Reaching out to dads in jail: Fathers and children do better when parental identity is supported
Cameron Bates

Cameron Bates visits with his family in the upgraded visitation room at the Dane County Jail.

While incarcerated in the Dane County Jail, Chi Williams wasn’t able to hug his daughter for over a year — the longest amount of time the 7-year-old had been separated from her father. 

Williams, 25, was released June 6, but said in March that neither of them had adjusted to his absence from her life.

“No matter how long you're incarcerated, you just don't get used to it,” Williams said. “It's troubling every day.”

Recent research shows that 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent serving time in prison or jail at any given time, with stark disparities by race and class. More than five million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. The majority of these children have a father behind bars.

Incarceration disrupts the lives of both the parent and the child. But for a child, that disruption can come “without warning,” said Dane County Jail inmate Charles Dickerson.

“It could be a few hours after making their child breakfast, the day after a parent and child played at the park together, the morning after reading a book to them at bedtime,” said Dickerson, father to three children — 7, 17 and 26. “To a child, it can seem like a parent is never going to come home.”

A parent’s incarceration can have adverse academic and socio-emotional effects on children. And the inherent rules and infrastructure of jail visitation — limited contact, talking through plexiglass or via a video monitor, unwelcoming visitor areas — are obstacles to maintaining a warm relationship.

Programs within the Dane County Jail, such as Parenting Inside Out and Literacy Link, seek to strengthen the parent-child bond by teaching parenting skills and promoting literacy activities. When relationships between incarcerated parents and their children are strong, research shows parents are less likely to reoffend, and substance abuse and criminal behavior declines. And children’s trauma symptoms are interrupted.

“If you have a strong and pro-social and healthy and supportive network of people who can help you navigate that experience while you're incarcerated, and can be there with you and for you when you are released, you would expect, on average, hopefully, to do a little bit better than if you didn't have that,” said Pajarita Charles, an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s school of social work.

Though implementing new programs in a jail setting can be challenging, Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney said county jail administrators and state corrections officials need to “think outside the box” for ways to improve the criminal justice system.

“Those who are sentenced to jail, those who are sentenced to prison ... all of these people are coming back into our communities at some point in time in their lives, and if we can improve their lot in life and the families that they represent, we improve our communities,” Mahoney said. 

Williams, who completed the Parenting Inside Out program, said not having a father in his own life pushed him to seek out the program while he was incarcerated.

“It motivated me to do anything and everything I could to be a better father and just opened my mind up to know that there's always something new to learn. There's always a way to improve on being a father,” Williams said. “The program is able to keep your mind going, trying to improve communication with your kids over the phone and even if it's through a glass.”

Parenting Inside Out 031120 10-03132020143841

Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney congratulates Inmate Charles Gregory on his completion of the new Parenting Inside Out program, during a graduation ceremony at the Dane County Jail Public Safety Building in Madison, on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The new program is aimed at teaching incarcerated parents how to improve their parenting skills.

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Parental identity

In her research, Charles focuses specifically on fathers, their involvement in the criminal justice system and their reentry into the community from prison and jail. Through her work, she has found that being a father can be a big part of a man’s identity, but that’s often ignored within the incarceration system.

“We need and want to be connected. You're a parent. Your role as a parent is a really big part of your identity,” Charles said. “In particular for fathers that are in the criminal justice system, typically as a society and as a justice system, we have not done a great job acknowledging their identity as a parent.”

Parenting Inside Out is a skills training program developed specifically for incarcerated parents. In February 2019, the Dane County Jail launched the evidence-based curriculum, one of five pilot sites across the nation selected to develop or modify the curriculum for a jail setting.

In March, the third cohort of fathers graduated from the program in the Dane County Jail. At a March 11 graduation ceremony, facilitator Chelsea Jones highlighted the dedication of the fathers participating in the program.

“You put the effort in,” she said, addressing the nine graduates during the ceremony in the jail’s gym in the Public Safety Building.

“I'm really confident that you guys are able to provide the nurture and the structure that your children need from you, no matter what the circumstances are,” Jones, a social worker in the jail, said. “I know a lot of you don't know where you're going or what's happening after here, but I think, no matter what, you'll all be able to support your kids.”

Parenting Inside Out is the only parent-focused curriculum that has been tested through an experimental study and reviewed by peers. The study was primarily funded through a $2.1 million National Institute of Mental Health grant awarded to the Oregon Social Learning Center.

The study found that, compared to their peers, participants in the program were less likely to have been rearrested, more likely to be involved in the lives of their children and less depressed. They also reported more family contact and less substance abuse. 

In the Dane County Jail, program classes are held twice a week in two-hour installments. Jones said she looks to draw 10 students, and there is typically a waiting list. To be eligible, participants have to be parents or caregivers and  believe they will be in jail for the duration of the program (about six weeks).

Participants are excluded if they have a record of any crimes that include sexual offenses against children, child neglect or physical abuse of a child. Jones said the program is currently focused on fathers, mainly due to staff capacity.

The county allocated funding in the 2020 budget to hire a family connections coordinator to, in part, expand parenting programs in the jail, but the coronavirus pandemic put hiring on hold. Jones hopes to adjust her own workload in order to still expand later this year.

Jones said participants decide to go through the program to ensure they maintain a connection — or start one — with their kids while they are incarcerated. Newer parents hope to build confidence in their parenting skills. Some tell her that they have not had recent contact with their kids, which could be due to guardianship issues or drug or alcohol abuse or addiction.

“This is a starting point for them,” Jones said.

Charles Dickerson visitation

Charles Dickerson visits with his family in the upgraded visitation room at the Dane County Jail.

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Visitation challenges

Though later iterations of Parenting Inside Out have included contact visits, many parents and children face challenges involved with jail visits. These challenges can exacerbate the psychological and emotional effects of a parent’s forced absence due to incarceration.

In the Dane County Jail, not all inmates are eligible for contact visits and there are fees associated with making phone calls and sending letters. Due to the pandemic, jail programming and contact visits were suspended March 13.

Lt. Brian Mikula of the Dane County Sheriff’s Office said the jail is continuing to monitor the pandemic situation. Also, the sheriff’s office was beginning to start training and testing remote video visitation.

Julie Poehlmann-Tynan, a child psychologist, stressed that child-friendly contact visits are critical to maintaining relationships and potentially mitigating the adverse effects — including a fear-based relationship with parents, delayed developmental milestones and academic challenges — that often accompany having a parent in jail.

Poehlmann-Tynan, who is also a UW-Madison professor of human ecology, said face-to-face visits between a parent and child that include structured activities and contact such as hugging or lap sitting can “continue their relationship or develop a relationship with the incarcerated parent.”

But at jails, visitors are often separated from inmates by a plexiglass barrier, which can be stressful for children. And the logistics of scheduling a visit to a corrections facility can be overwhelming. Visitation hours are limited, there’s a long list of rules and a dress code.

Poehlmann-Tynan and Charles have partnered with the Dane County Jail to offer what they call “enhanced visits” through a UW-Madison project called Improving Outcomes for Incarcerated Parents and Their Children During Jail Visits. These visits combine coaching for the incarcerated parent and at-home caregiver with video visits. 

Families are provided with a computer tablet to facilitate the virtual meeting. During the pandemic, these families are still able to stay in touch as the jail has been closed to outside visitors. Poehlmann-Tynan said book reading is one of the most popular activities on the virtual calls, which is critical to promoting literacy.

“I see the most amazing things where the tablet has popped up and the incarcerated parent is supervising a little kid brushing their teeth, or they're propped up during family dinner, chatting with their homework or the kids show their toys,” she said.

Poehlmann-Tynan said she hopes to incorporate enhanced visits into existing programs like Parenting Inside Out.

More than parenting

The parenting program begins with basic communication and problem-solving skills. Every lesson includes emotion regulation — taking stock of their feelings and using breathing exercises to regulate.

Dickerson, the father of three, said the program is “bigger than just a parenting class.”

“It's also a place that teaches you how to communicate in a proper way with people in general, as well as honing your parenting skills,” Dickerson said.  

Part of the curriculum includes role playing. Participants practice how to play as a way to inform the concept of engaging and building connections with their kids.

For Jaime Martinez, father of two children,14 and 17, learning to embrace his own personal identity as a parent was an important outcome of completing Parenting Inside Out. Martinez said he was taught growing up to follow in the footsteps of his father, a strict parent. 

“What the class actually helped me with my kids is not being so demanding as far as you have to be a certain way,” Martinez said. “They can actually be their own person.”  

A particular challenge for parents in jail, Martinez said, is that children can easily stop visiting or picking up the phone.

“The tools that they actually helped me with is just learning how to talk,” Martinez said. “You can't really discipline while you're in here, but you can kind of guide them in the direction that you think is best for them and just basically support them in the best way that you can.”

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Sheriff David Mahoney, standing outside of the downtown Public Safety Building, said county jail administrators and state corrections officials need to “think outside the box” for ways to improve the criminal justice system.

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What’s next

Those involved with implementing the program would also like to see a version of it available to former inmates who have recently left jail. Charles and Poehlmann-Tynan, along with the Madison-area Urban Ministry and United Way of Dane County, applied for a U.S. Department of Justice grant to conduct a randomized controlled trial of the Parenting Inside Out curriculum with parents in the re-entry process after they have been released from prison or jail.  

“We've recognized the need for the services in the community and my big picture idea is that we develop a linked continuum of services for parents, whether it be in a prison, in a jail or in the community, so they’re getting the same thing in all those spaces,” Charles, the UW-Madison researcher, said.

She has received a National Institutes of Health grant to conduct a feasibility and acceptability study of a community-based program for fathers returning home from jail or prison. The pilot study will combine Parenting Inside Out with therapeutic peer support and extended family interactions.

As soon as restrictions related to the coronavirus are lifted, Charles said the study will get underway in collaboration with Madison-area Urban Ministry and Anesis Therapy.

 Charles is also working to secure funding to conduct a study of the Parenting Inside Out program in the Dane County Jail. This study would add to a lack of research specific to parents serving time in jail, as opposed to prison.

Charles, whose research broadly focuses on the intersection of families and the criminal justice system, said there tends to be more research on parents incarcerated in prison, in part, due to the way jails operate.

In Wisconsin, jails are run by individual counties while the state Department of Corrections oversees and sets policy for all of the prisons. It can be more difficult to gain access and build relationships in different jail settings, Charles said.

Also, jail inmates have much shorter sentences than prison inmates — an average of 25 days compared to about two-and-a-half years. Jails are meant for short-term stays and therefore not usually designed to offer comprehensive services.

Ultimately, Charles said these programs are needed because they spark a “two-pathway model” for improving outcomes for both parents and children. The first pathway is to provide incarcerated parents with opportunities for improving communication skills, parenting skills and contact with their children.

“The second pathway is that if all of these things can happen, then ultimately a parent can have more positive experiences with their children during and after incarceration,” Charles said. “And that, in turn, can help to decrease antisocial behavior in their own kids, and ultimately, involvement in criminality and, hopefully, prevent risk for incarceration.”

Public Safety Building visitation room

Dane County Jail staff have updated the Public Safety Building visitation room to include brighter wall paint, alphabet-centric wall hangings, conversation prompts on tables and a shelf stocked with books.

Literacy Link

Recognizing that children of incarcerated parents are at risk for greater social and emotional challenges in addition to delays in communication skills, the UW Extension created a program to promote literacy through visits at county jails.  

Literacy Link statewide coordinator Mary Huser said the research was a “wake up call” for UW Extension to “build some partnerships to shore up some of those skills early in life.” The program also seeks to create “language-rich” learning spaces at county jails and promote  a critical life skill when children are present.

“If a person doesn’t have very good literacy skills, it affects (them) throughout their whole childhood and into adulthood,” Huser said. “The research is very clear that literacy starts very early in life.”

The Literacy Link program began in 2017 with $200,000 from UW Extension as a pilot program in four county jails — Racine, Dane, Buffalo and Pepin — to engage children of incarcerated parents and their families in literacy activities. 

Since then, the program has expanded into Ashland, Bayfield, Dunn and Kenosha counties.

Pam Wedig-Kirsch, the school readiness and family resiliency educator at the Racine County Jail, emphasized the two-way advantages of the literacy program: both parent and child benefit.

“Anything we can do to support these parents and in their role as parents is just so beneficial for them just as far as their confidence in parenting,” Wedig-Kirsch said. “Many have been very good parents. Now that they're no longer in the home, that's very difficult for them.”

The program aims to improve reading, communicating and listening skills in addition to maintaining and building relationships between children and their incarcerated parent or caregiver.

“Literacy is the tool that we’re using to build more of that parent-child connection, more of that at-home learning, more of that family positive interaction,” Huser said.

In Dane County, the program has facilitated physical changes to the visitation room on the first floor of the Public Safety Building. These include brighter wall paint, alphabet-centric wall hangings, conversation prompts on tables and a shelf stocked with books. First Book, a nonprofit that provides educational resources to children in need, supported the program by providing books. 

Also, the program repurposed an old vending machine to dispense books. Visiting children can receive a token from jail staff and pick out their own book to take home.

“It's a novel way of getting a book, and it reinforces the excitement, and the anticipation and the selection,” Huser said.

With a $10,000 grant from the Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of the Cap Times, the jail will be able to provide more books and two new vending machines made specifically for dispensing books. The two additional machines will be located in the Public Safety Building’s lobby and in the City-County Building visitation area.

Book Vending Machine

The Literacy Link program repurposed an old vending machine to dispense books. Visiting children can receive a token from jail staff while visiting their parent or caregiver in the Dane County Jail and pick out their own book to take home.

Bigger than books

Susan Whitbeck, a security support specialist at the Dane County Jail, described the excitement that children have once they receive their book token and can punch the numbers on the vending machine.

Whitbeck is known as the “book lady” and observes the family connections during visitation hours. She described seeing one child reading a book with their parent through the Plexiglass window.

“(The inmates) think it's really cool that the kids have a brighter environment to come to when they come to visit them because it was a really dark, dreary, depressing environment,” Whitbeck said. “When the kids leave, at least it's not going to be imprinted in their head, like sad moments, sad environment.

“It's not just this moment, but how does that then become part of the child's memory over time of their childhood?” she added.

Though Mikula said there was some hesitation from jail staff at first to implement this program, he said it is the “right thing” because the benefits to the incarcerated parents and children are clear.

“People that are coming here are part of our community, so that's one of our functions is to serve communities,” Mikula said. “That’s a big deal.”

 Program proponents said children leave the jail with a positive experience, parents feel confident in their interaction and jail staff view inmates as a whole person.

In many ways, the program’s reach extends beyond providing books to children. Chaplain Anthony Balistreri, who has worked in the Racine County Jail for 12 years, said these parent-focused programs return dignity to parents housed in jail.

“Now you're reaching someone at a human level,” Balistreri said. “Prisons and jails … there’s a human disconnect in the penal system. These programs bring back humanity.”

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.

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