Classes Help Convicts with Parenting Skills

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A number of programs around the United States offer parenting classes to convicts serving long sentences. The classes are designed to help inmates be better parents both while incarcerated and after they return to society. James Chambers, who is serving a 30-year prison sentence, is among the students. From member station KUOW, Andrea Smardon reports.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here in the United States, more than two million children are not spending the holidays with one of their parents because Mom or Dad is incarcerated. Statistically, those children are more likely to end up behind bars themselves. Andrea Smardon of member station KUOW in Seattle found a program in Washington state that's trying to help incarcerated fathers and their children.

ANDREA SMARDON reporting:

How do you keep children from repeating the mistakes of their parents? James Chambers(ph) will tell you start by being honest with them.

Mr. JAMES CHAMBERS (Incarcerated Parent): They know I'm in prison. They know I did drugs and I've never lied to my children about why I'm here.

SMARDON: With his shortly cropped reddish hair and compact build, James looks as tough as any of the inmates at the Washington State McNeil Island Corrections Center. But talk to him about his kids and you'll find his soft spot; in this instance, his youngest son.

Mr. CHAMBERS: When I came to prison, he was in diapers, you know. He was about two, two and a half. The first time I seen him, man, he climbed up in my lap and fell asleep. I went back to my house that day, man and decided, man, `I'm gonna do whatever I can to stay involved with my children's lives.'

SMARDON: James likes to boast that he's more involved with his six kids from prison than some parents in the free world. He writes letters to them every week, and he talks to them every chance he gets. He even calls their teachers when they're having trouble in school. But James wasn't always so close with his children.

Mr. CHAMBERS: When I got here, I was kind of real standoffish with everybody. And I was kind of angry; I had a 30-year sentence to do.

SMARDON: Then James took a class offered at McNeil called Long Distance Dads.

Mr. JOHN PETERSON (Teacher, Long Distance Dads): I just want a big circle.

SMARDON: On this day, teacher John Peterson is setting up chairs in a circle, preparing for a new crop of inmates. He remembers what James was like at his first parenting class.

Mr. PETERSON: I didn't want to be around him. He was a hard, hard individual. Halfway through, he just broke. He came up after the class one night and just said, `I'm sorry. I've been a jerk.' James hasn't been the same since.

SMARDON: The curriculum for this 12-week program was developed by the private non-profit National Fatherhood Initiative. McNeil was one of the first prisons to offer the classes and it's now available in about 20 states. Inmates learn fathering techniques, especially tailored for men in prison and they learn about the risks facing their children, including higher incidences of drug abuse, teen pregnancy, involvement in gangs and eventual incarceration. That was the wake-up call for James. His biggest fear...

Mr. CHAMBERS: To see one of my kids in here with me or for them to get caught up into things that I was caught up in, in the drugs and stuff.

SMARDON: James is in prison for possession and manufacturing of methamphetamine and possession of firearms. He says talking to his children about how he ended up in prison seems to be paying off, especially with his 14-year-old daughter, Cassie(ph).

Mr. CHAMBERS: She came up one day for a visit and she said that all her friends in junior high, ninth grade, were using drugs and stuff. And she wanted me--she said, `Can you write one of my friends a letter because he's been using drugs a lot,' and she goes, `I'm really worried he's going to end up in prison,' you know.

SMARDON: Cassie says it's true. She's learned a few things from watching what her dad went through.

CASSIE (James Chambers' Daughter): Drugs I'll probably never, ever do.

SMARDON: And she says her dad has learned some things, too. She thinks he's ready to come home.

CASSIE: He'd be a different person. He'd be better. He wouldn't be, like, getting in trouble like he used to.

SMARDON: Studies have found that incarcerated fathers who reconnect with their children are less likely to end up back in prison after their release. If James has to serve his full term, Cassie will be over 30 when he gets out. In the meantime, Cassie says she feels closest to her dad through their letters.

CASSIE: This says, `I love you, baby. Please, keep praying for me. P.S., I will pray for you every day and every night. Stay strong. Love always, your dad.'

SMARDON: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Smardon in Seattle.

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