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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Incarcerated Fathers Program tagged as a 'Promising Practice'

"Don't do the crime if you can't do the time" is a popular euphemism that serves as a warning for would-be criminals facing an unpleasant life behind bars should they be convicted of a crime.

NMSU's Incarcerated Fathers Program has served 370 fathers in the first three years of the grant, as well as 912 children of inmates. (Photo by Joyce Fielder )

It's not just the perpetrator who pays a price for his actions; often, family members with complete freedom suffer from their loved ones' removal from society - particularly young children who grow up missing their imprisoned fathers. And when young fathers are locked up away from their kids, it can have a deleterious effect on the parent-child bond upon their release.

In September 2006, New Mexico State University's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, applied for and was awarded with a Responsible Fatherhood grant from the Office of Family Assistance (OFA), which is an unit of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. The grant will be used to "promote the well-being of children and families in general." NMSU was one of 100 organizations awarded a grant under the Responsible Fatherhood Program out of 2,000 organizations that applied. The grant provides funding for projects that support healthy marriage activities, which encourage responsible parenting and foster economic stability.

According to a booklet from the OFA, the program is designed to help fathers overcome barriers that impede them from becoming effective and nurturing parents by helping them improve their relationships with their children.

The college used the five-year grant, valued at $218,335 annually (with a required 10 percent match from the university), to implement the Strengthening Families Initiative (SFI) Incarcerated Fathers Program. The program provides research-based parenting education for incarcerated fathers, along with coordinated education and service components for parenting partners and minor children of inmates.

This summer, James Bell Associates, a leading evaluation and research services firm based in the Washington D.C., area, featured NMSU's Incarcerated Fathers Program as part of OFA's "Promising Practices" initiative to document programs that show evidence of participants' positive outcomes. The program was one of only eight featured, out of 100 grantees. It was selected because of "their ability to articulate discrete program activities and service models as well as their success in documenting positive preliminary participant outcomes."

"We have actually been performing some version of this program since 2001," said Esther Devall, professor of family and child science in the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences. "The state Human Services Department had been providing us with some funding to conduct parenting classes for high-risk parents, including incarcerated parents. This was an opportunity for us to implement more robust efforts."

Once the funding was in place, it was Trena Pollard's job to develop a curriculum and convince inmates of the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility and La Tuna Federal Prison to participate. Rather than be intimidated, Pollard, an Extension associate with the Cooperative Extension Service, went right to work.

"This is my passion," Pollard said of her opportunity to bring the prisoners closer to their children.

Following that passion, Pollard developed a handbook for the fathers, as well as a class curriculum. Pollard conducts a weekly 2.5-hour class for 15 weeks with 15 to 45 students per class. Part of the requirement for successful completion of the class is to create a total of six projects in the form of books and praise cards, etc., and they are mailed to the inmates' children. Homework is a requirement as well. The prisoners complete parent worksheets between weekly classes and often assist one another to complete them.

Through these efforts, SFI has served 370 fathers in the first three years of the grant, as well as 912 children of inmates. The program has been so popular there is a waiting list for future classes. The same curriculum is available to parenting partners who are also mailed a monthly newsletter.

"There were unique challenges," Pollard said of putting together a classroom program in a prison environment. "We had to get approval for everything we brought into the prison - paper, crayons, everything. But these materials are important. It means a lot to each father to have the right artwork or stickers or letters to create the best possible project for their kids."

The 15-week session culminates with a graduation of sorts, wherein families are invited into the prisons for a four- to six-hour "family day." To date, Pollard has never had an inmate refuse to participate in class activities, once enrolled in the program.

"One thing that is very satisfying about the program is that we administer both pre- and post-class assessments," Pollard said. "And each and every assessment reveals significant, positive growth in life skills, parenting attitudes and beliefs, and knowledge of positive disciplinary techniques."

"She is a very convincing educator," Devall said of Pollard. "It is obvious to the inmates that she wants to be there, wants to help them. And she works to keep them focused on their kids. She is motivated and carries into the classroom the energy needed to be successful."

The five-year grant expires in 2011.

"Hopefully, the state will want to continue to fund the program once the grant ends," Devall said. "The administrations at Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility and La Tuna have been very pleased with the results, so we hope this helps us continue."