For the Children's Sake
Can you become a better parent in prison?

Illustration by Bill Tsukuda.

Mary Hensley has a recurring dream about her 4-year-old son, Trevor. In the dream, he says to her, "Mama, I got sentenced to five years," and he shows her his arms, which are covered with burns and bruises. "Mama," Trevor says, "I'll have all these boo-boos for 5 years."

Hensley is 23 years old, blonde with carefully made-up blue eyes. She has been incarcerated at the Lakes Region Correctional Facility in Laconia, N.H., for 14 months for selling a controlled drug, possession of a narcotic and a driving offense. For a number of years, she was a heroin addict. She is ashamed of the track marks up and down her own arms, which she calls "disgusting."

She is not sure how to interpret her dream, although she has done some research to try to figure it out. "I think I just feel so much guilt for having abandoned Trevor," she says quietly. As she talks about her history, her voice is wistful, bewildered--she can't quite believe all that has happened to her, and how her life has turned out.

We don't necessarily think of prison as a place where one might establish a loving relationship with a child, or gain self-knowledge. Hensley feels as if she's made progress on both these fronts, for one reason: the Family Connections Program, a collaborative effort among UNH's family studies department, UNH Cooperative Extension's family and youth development program and the New Hampshire Department of Corrections. Since 1998, these groups have been working to maintain or rebuild families from inside the prison's walls.

"They have helped me feel like a human being again. I'm not just my prisoner number," Hensley says. "And they recognize me and respect me as a mother. In my support group, I can talk about my fears and anxieties and learn from other single mothers. They've helped give me the strength to want to change, for Trevor's sake."

The program is offered to any prisoner who is a parent--as are 65 percent of the approximately 340 inmates at Laconia--and has three components. First, participants are required to take an eight-week parenting class. Then, they can choose to be part of a parenting support group. Finally, if their child's caregiver agrees, they can have one-on-one visits with their child in the family-friendly Family Connections facility, which is on prison grounds. These visits are closely monitored by program staff who watch from an observation room, taking notes on the quality of the interaction between parent and child. The visits, which are learning opportunities for the parent, and bonding opportunities for both parent and child, are what make the program unique.

"This is really cutting-edge," says Charlene Baxter, program leader for family development at Cooperative Extension. "We're not aware of anyone else in the world doing this kind of work." Until June of this year, the program was funded by federal funds from the New Hampshire Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Recovery. Staff members are searching for other grants to keep the program going beyond June 2004.

It is work that is desperately needed by a population that has largely been ignored by the corrections system. According to the Bureau of Justice, approximately 1.5 million children under the age of 18 in the United States have a parent in prison. Children of inmates are six times more likely than other children to be incarcerated when they get older. They are also more likely to leave school, and to fall prey to depression and substance abuse.

Until recently, according to Kerry Kazura, associate professor of family studies, the prevailing corrections philosophy has been to focus on the inmate separately from his or her family. "In fact, the family has been seen as a distraction from the inmate's rehabilitation," Kazura explains. "As a result, there is very little research on the impact of incarceration on the inmate's children and the family unit as a whole."

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