By Rose Hoban
In a recreation room outside Hillsborough, six men spent a recent rainy Saturday afternoon painting birdhouses, playing cornhole and having lunch with their children.
What seem like normal weekend activities for parents and their kids was a unique experience for everyone involved: All of the men are currently incarcerated at the Orange Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison housing 220 inmates about a mile south of downtown Hillsborough.
“Where am I sleeping tonight, Dad?” asked DeMorris Tucker’s 8-year-old son when he arrived. (Children’s names are being withheld for privacy.)
Tucker had to explain to his son that he wouldn’t be staying overnight, but that they would have almost four hours to hang out and play games.
“He was three and a half years old when I came here,” said Tucker. “This is the first time we’ve had since then to spend any time alone together.”
Children punished too
“I think our system punishes kids for something that their dads are convicted of,” said prison chaplain Dave Nichols, who’s been working at OCC for a little over a year. “The kids don’t deserve to be punished; they didn’t do anything.”
Nichols helps coordinate the facility’s pre-release committee, and was in a meeting with a group of the men earlier this year when the issue of visitation with kids came up. The men started asking if there wasn’t some way they could have opportunities to connect better with their children so they wouldn’t be complete strangers when they eventually went home.
“Some of the most powerful stories I’ve heard from guys are from grandfathers who talk about how one of their biggest regrets is that they weren’t there for their kids when their kids were growing up,” Nichols said.
One of those grandfathers is Bruce Miller, a long-term inmate who prepared a lunch for the event. Miller had children when he was locked up at age 22; now they’re grown and have children of their own.
“We come to prison, we’ve deserted our families,” Miller said, pausing to compose himself. “I can’t make it up to mine, what they’ve missed. I can help these guys make it up to theirs, what they’ve missed.”
Birdhouses, books and cornhole
After watching a short film about bluebirds, the group gathered around tables to paint birdhouses donated by the N.C. Bluebird Society.
Several of the children, who ranged in age from 6 to 15-years-old, positioned themselves such that they leaned continuously against their dads as they worked.
Muted conversation mixed with laughter from both kids and fathers as they painted; but once the games started, the room got louder. Cheers and shouts went up as father-child pairs playing cornhole against one another hit their targets.
MIller served a lunch of fried chicken, potato salad and a special dessert he called “flower pots” – crushed brownies and cookies mixed with gummy worms, placed in red plastic cups and topped with fruit flowers.
“I figured it’d be fun for them to eat,” Miller said.
Inmate Jamie Ault still has close to two years to serve on a 10-year sentence for second-degree murder, but his 12-year-old daughter was already bubbling over with plans for his release.
“I’m gonna teach him to play mudball, and we’re gonna go fishing and hunting and to the movies, and I’m gonna teach him how to ride [horses],” she said as Ault looked on, bemused.
“She was 4 years old when I got locked up. I put her on her first horse when she was 2 or 3,” Ault said. “This is the first time we could do something like play catch. It’s really great.”
Ault said there was a lot for him to do when he got released – from finding a job to learning how to use a cell phone to re-learning how to drive.
“And I’m gonna teach him how to drive,” his daughter said with a big grin.
Providing time for families is good policy, said Melissa Radcliff, head of the Chapel Hill-based Our Children’s Place, a not-for-profit that advocates for the children of incarcerated parents.
“Visitation helps both in terms of incidents of misbehavior while people are still in prison, and then when people leave they have a support already in place, which then leads to a decrease in recidivism,” Radcliff said. “They’re going back to a known entity, instead of having to re-establish all of those relationships all over again.”
Radcliff said a recent study from the University of Minnesota showed that more-frequent family visits and stronger family ties make prisoners less likely to re-offend once they’re released. The study also showed that having better family relationships makes both finding housing and work more possible. Both are strong factors in whether a prisoner will re-offend.
Radcliff pointed out that most inmates in the prison system will eventually be released, and it makes sense to help them to re-integrate successfully. She also said there’s little hard data on how incarceration of a parent really affects kids’ mental health.
“We don’t know in North Carolina how many children have an incarcerated parent,” she said. “Different figures range from 15 to 17 thousand, but if you don’t have that good a number, it’s hard to figure out how many are depressed, have problems in schools, are involved in the criminal-justice system themselves, and how many are doing OK.”
Besides helping organize the visitation day, Radcliff is looking for grant money to survey the children of incarcerated parents in North Carolina.
As the day came to a close, long hugs were followed by the men crowding around the door and waving to their departing kids.
Then they sat down in a circle with moderator Riley Waugh to debrief. Waugh works with inmates in several states.
“It was tough to see them leave,” Ault said.
Waugh told the men they needed to handwrite letters to their kids telling them how much the day meant to them.
“A phone call’s great, but a letter is something they can hold onto. It’s really important,” Waugh said. He pointed out to them that this was just the beginning, and that in some ways parenting from prison is easier than the day-to-day.
“You don’t have to do the discipline, to be there when they’re sick,” he said. But he also told the men that days like this would make it easier to make the transition back to being a full-time parent.
All of the men enthusiastically said how much they appreciated the opportunity to spend the time.
“Is there any way we could improve the day?” Waugh asked.
The men were silent.
Prison program director Alicia Hughes, who had come in on her day off to be at the event, said a number of men involved in planning the event were not present because their kids are too old.
“It helps the morale of the whole place” to get other men involved, Hughes said.
She also said that they wanted to keep it small the first time, but that she was pleased with how the day had gone.
“I enjoy things like this because I have kids of my own, and mine were that small at one time. I don’t see it as work,” Hughes said.
“I would like to do it again and again.”