ACI visitation program focuses on inmate-child time

Justin Brown, an inmate at the Adult Correctional Institutions, says he's received a second opportunity to become a parent through a weekend visitation program.

Most of us don't think about who's locked up in prison.

Many people figure they're thieves, crooks, monsters deserving of their fate. It hardly crosses our minds they could be fathers or mothers.

"We have children visiting (prison) every day," said A.T. Wall, director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

Wall knows all too well many of his inmates are parents.

"About 54 percent of our inmates report that they are parents," he said.

There are more than 3,000 inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions. That means about 1,620 are parents. Inmate parents average about two children apiece.

Justin Brown has three children. He said he's seen how it has affected them.

"Well my oldest, I see it affecting to the point where they know now where I'm at," Brown said. "My youngest child, she was born while I was incarcerated."

In Rhode Island, there are about 3,000 children with a locked up parent. Nationwide, that number climbs to 2.7 million, according to the Pew Research Center.

Sometimes Wall fears prison becomes a family legacy.

"We have three generations of incarcerated inmates in some cases, grandparent, parent and child," he said.

It's one of the reasons he not only focuses on his inmates but also their offspring. In fact, if you look at the limited research about the topic, you'll notice Rhode Island is at the forefront of tackling the issue.

The Annie Casey Foundation encourages other prison systems to copy the Rhode Island's move toward collecting data on incarcerated parents.

Wall's focus is two-fold -- keep the family intact and educate them. It's a plan he hopes will reduce the entry and recidivism rates.

"Kids need contact with their parent," said TeLisa Richardson, parenting coordinator at the Department of Corrections. "They need contact with the person they've grown to know, and learned to love. No matter what the parent did."

Richardson is in charge of several programs for locked up parents and their children. The most successful might be the Saturday Visitation program for inmates in medium and minimum security facilities.

"It's a very child-centered event," she said. "Kids now it's all about them and they just have their parent."

To make the atmosphere more child-friendly, the inmates painted murals on the walls. The facility provides toys like footballs, books and games.

Brown's youngest daughter adores the one-on-one time with dad.

"Whatever she wants to do really, but mostly we sit and color, draw," he said. "She tries to read to me now. She says 'I don't read that good.'"

Like any father, you could hear the pride in Brown's voice and see it in his eyes. But he knows he's locked up because he did things his children wouldn't be proud of.

"She doesn't know the difference of me being there. She thinks this is my home," he said. "She says, 'When are you going to come to my house?' And I tell her, 'I'm going to come there soon.' And hopefully she'll never have to come to my house again."

Some might see it as a luxury Brown and other inmates don't deserve, but children who never got that chance don't see it that way.

"That's great," said Lawrence Sabir.

The high school sophomore's father has been in and out of prison since he was very young.

"I didn't have that, but that's great. Even though a father or mother made a mistake, they get to see their children," he said. "When I went to prison to see my dad, we sat at a table -- him, my mother. We talked. He asked how I was and I didn't really have a lot of time to talk to him."

"The fact is that children suffer when their parents are incarcerated," Wall said. "We really want to break that cycle. The best way that we can avoid future generations of incarceration is by assisting the incarcerated parents in dealing with the issues that brought them here."

So they can also be productive fathers and mothers once their free.

"Through the program, I feel as though I get a second opportunity to be a parent," he said.