Inmate Re-entry Programs Aim to Strengthen Family Ties
While campaigning for the presidency, one of the themes then-candidate Barack Obama touched on was the state of black families. The Obama team has voice support for programs like Hope House, which helps incarcerated and formerly incarcerated fathers reconnect with their families. Adam Serwer with the National Minority Consortia reports on how the program may fit into the new administration’s agenda.
ADAM SERWER, National Minority Consortia: During his historic run for the White House, President Barack Obama seldom dealt directly with race. One of the few moments he did was during a Father’s Day speech about the state of the black family, where he highlighted a deeply divisive issue: Fatherlessness.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Too many fathers are also missing. Too many fathers are MIA. Too many fathers are AWOL — missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, They’re acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families have suffered because of it.
You and I know this is true everywhere, but nowhere is it more true than in the African-American community.
ADAM SERWER: Political observers called the speech a success for then-candidate Obama, who grew up without a father himself.
That summer, the Democratic Party released its policy platform, which featured a brand new plank: Fatherhood.
The language of the plank refers to funding transitional programs, which refers in part to re-entry programs — -programs for men who are transitioning back into society from being incarcerated. Across the country, the formerly incarcerated are often concentrated into poor, black neighborhoods. Nearly two-thirds of the formerly incarcerated return to prison within six years. Experts say this has a devastating effect on the communities they live in. The non-partisan Justice Center estimates that more than seven million children may have a parent in prison or in jail, or under parole or probation supervision.
VICKI TURETSKY, Obama-Biden Transition Team: First of all, you’ve got a certain level of crime in those communities. And sending someone to prison and then back again with no means to support themselves often means a renewed effort at crime, and that affects communities. There’s a certain point at which if there are enough people involved in criminal activities, that affects the safety and stability of the community.
ADAM SERWER: That’s Vicki Turetsky. She’s one of the authors of the Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Families Act, which then-Senator Obama co-sponsored in 2007. When I interviewed her she was with the Center for Law and Social Policy. She has since moved on to a position with the Obama-Biden transition team. Turetsky says the cycle of incarceration is particularly devastating to families.
VICKI TURETSKY: When that man, when that father is taken away and incarcerated for a number of years, it can’t help but affect both the parent-child relationship, but the child’s own sense of himself or herself, and sense of who that child is, who that child is going to grow up to be, the loss that comes from that of losing your parent to prison for years at a time, and then expected to re-establish a relationship.
ADAM SERWER: There are those in the re-entry field who say that without an effective way to repair the relationships between incarcerated parents and their children, fatherlessness and crime are likely to get worse.
That’s partially what inspired Carol Fenley to start the Hope House program in Washington, D.C., which helps incarcerated fathers keep in contact with their children.
The Hope House offers three major services. It records incarcerated fathers reading stories to their children and sends the recordings out to families.
It schedules Online teleconferences between fathers and their children.
And every year, it sets up a one-week summer camp in a local prison in Washington, D.C., where kids spend the day playing games and doing arts and crafts with the fathers they rarely see. It’s an unusual idea.
CAROL FENLEY, Hope House: When we say we do summer camp behind bars with fathers and children people kind of look at us cross-eyed like we’ve lost our minds.
ADAM SERWER: But Fenley says she hasn’t lost her mind, she’s found a purpose. She grew up in California, where she got married, and she says she lived like a normal, middle-class housewife. But after her husband died, Fenley moved to the East Coast, where she first worked at a homeless shelter near the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
When she got the idea for Hope House, she brought it up with the education administrator at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, William Muth, whom she used to bump into in the parking lot nearby. Muth was impressed with Fenley’s commitment to re-entry.
WILIAM MUTH, Federal Bureau of Prisons: She was incredibly knowledgeable about the security, the valid, very real security issues that prisons have to deal with, I think that Carol thinks the way a warden thinks.
ADAM SERWER: Security is the number one priority in a prison, and it took some time for Fenley to make the kind of connections she needed to get her program started. Fenley says she was determined to help families affected by incarceration.
Gerald Savage was a Hope House dad. Incarcerated at 17 for second-degree murder. He spent 24 years in prison, with his wife and kids on the outside.
GERALD SAVAGE, Hope House Father: Your whole emotional state is, like, torn in half. Because, I mean, you have to maintain your emotionalism being incarcerated, but at the same time there’s a part of you that’s missing out on your life.
ADAM SERWER: Now savage works for Peaceaholics, a program in southeast D.C. that aims to support children coming out of the juvenile justice system and squashes beefs between rival neighborhoods.
Savage lives happily with his wife and kids, but he’s never forgotten how hard it was trying to be a father from the inside. While he was still incarcerated, Savage’s son Jerele, then eight years old, had started getting in trouble.
GERALD SAVAGE: So he was kind of acting out. And, in meeting other individuals who may have known me. They would give my son a negative view of me. So he was thinking that he was connected to me — connecting with me — by, you know, simulating some behavior that he may have heard.
ADAM SERWER: When Jerele began failing math, Savage decided the best way to change his son’s behavior was to change the way his son looked at him. During their next Hope House teleconference, Savage put his plan into action.
GERALD SAVAGE: I told him math is my favorite subject, imagine I had all these algebra papers, so I would read it, and I would convey to him that I actually loved algebra, and he started getting As in algebra, and that let me know there that I could really, really, really have the effect that I wanted to have on him the way that my father had on me. That was real fulfilling.
ADAM SERWER: But it wasn’t all that simple. When Savage came out, his wife and five children were living in a crowded, two-bedroom apartment and didn’t have the financial means to move. Savage says the work Hope House did in connecting him with his family helped him understand his responsibilities when he came back.
GERALD SAVAGE: I was able to fulfill the responsibilities of a man. You know, a man, he’s to be that provider, that protector. He’s to be that role model, you know, he’s to be that presence, you know, that assuring hand.
ADAM SERWER: Today, Savage and his wife still live together with their family in a house. But Fenley says the men in Hope House don’t always have the option of returning to an understanding spouse.
CAROL FENLEY: No re-entry program really prepares families for the reality of coming home. While Dad’s been away, you know, Mom’s been the disciplinarian, the bread winner, the head of the household. Now Dad’s coming back, his expectation is that he’s going to move into that slot. But the kids aren’t feeling it. You know, the kids are not feeling that Dad’s suddenly the disciplinarian …”where have you been?”
ADAM SERWER: Sometimes, the dad doesn’t have a spouse to go home to. That was the case for David Jennings, who did nine years on a drug-related weapons-possession charge.
Jennings drives a tow truck from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. in the morning in the Adams Morgan section of D.C. He says working the graveyard shift helps him stay out of trouble with the law.
DAVID JENNINGS, Hope House Father: I took a night job basically, because that’s when I used to get in trouble, so to save me from getting in trouble, I work at night and sleep during the day.
ADAM SERWER: When Jennings came home, he had to make a difficult adjustment. The mother of his daughter was now married to another man, and he now lives with his mother.
DAVID JENNINGS: Before I was incarcerated, I was with my daughter every day, I used to take her to school and pick her up. So through my incarceration that stopped me from doing that.
ADAM SERWER: Hope House helped Jennings keep in contact with his daughter Davisha while he was in prison. He says that the program helped him see how his actions were affecting his daughter and his relationship with her. Jennings was determined to be a better father to Davisha than his father was to him.
David Jennings: It made me want to be a better father, it made me not want to do — the things that he didn’t do, it made me want to do them, but in return I chose to sell drugs, and that still separated me from her.
ADAM SERWER: Jennings sees his daughter every two weeks, but he’s still not as involved as he used to be. That, some say, is the problem. Charles Murray, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says that nothing can make up for a child not having their father in the home.
CHARLES MURRAY, American Enterprise Institute: When there’s no father there, the role model is the 14-year-old down the block. And that is the worst father figure in the world.
ADAM SERWER: Activists argue out that the number of people in prison is rising, and that doing nothing isn’t a viable alternative.
Obama has promised that his administration will support programs like Hope House with larger federal funding. Formerly incarcerated dads like Gerald Savage and David Jennings say that’s a good thing.
— Adam Serwer, National Minority Consortia and the Online Newshour