Dancing, playing replaces partitioned prison visits for kids

By Pat Eaton-Robb, The Associated Press

ENFIELD, Conn. — Myles Brown remembers how visits with his dad used to be.

There was glass between them. They had to use a phone to talk. It was kind of scary. He didn’t always want to go.

On Monday night 11-year-old Myles was again inside a prison visiting 25-year-old Christopher Brown, who is serving a 3-year sentence on firearms charges. But this time he and his sister, 7-year-old Chloe, got to dance with their dad, play games, eat pizza and laugh. Dad also got to hold his 10-month-old daughter, Ameila.

“It really means a lot.” said Myles. “Now, I get to hug him. It was like we lost a bond and here we get to try and rebuild it.”

The family dance at the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution is part of a prison pilot program from the National Institute of Corrections called Family Connections, which is being tried out at Cybulski and at prisons or jails in New York, Wisconsin, Texas and Oregon.

The idea is to make it easier for parents inside to connect with their children and to resume the role of mother or father once they are released.

“We need to be there to support the families,” said Trina Sexton, the Correction Department’s director of re-entry services. “The families did nothing wrong. Incarceration is not just affecting the mother or father who’s in. It’s affecting the entire family unit. So, how can we make that better?”

The program takes different forms in different prisons. At Cybulski, the last stop for prisoners before they reach their release dates, the visiting room has been repainted green and pink and the inmates are creating a giant mural of a white birch tree. It will be stocked with toys and games. Guards are receiving training on how to interact with young children and teenagers to create a more welcoming environment and the inmates are taking parenting classes.

“They give you different skills to bring home and techniques to use with the kids, because you’ve missed a lot of their life,” said Gregory Canepa Sr., who has a parole hearing soon. He spent the evening playing and dancing with his 5-year-old son, who shares his name. “I feel like I’m absolutely ready to be his dad,” he said.

In other states, changes can be as simple as revising the forms inmates fill out when they enter to system to include information about their families, said Alina Martinez, a program manager with Community Works-West, a research and advocacy group that provides training for the Family Connections program. That allows the prison system to know which inmates are eligible for family services or programs both inside and outside of prison.

Other prisons are allowing contact visits for the very first time.

“Most of these changes are low-hanging fruit,” Martinez said. “They tend to be low-cost and high impact. Research has shown that if inmates have a better tie to their families, more of a connection, they are less likely to return to prison and they are more likely to have success with re-entry.”

About 5 million children in the United States have a parent in prison. Connecticut Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook said he hopes to expand the family program to other prisons in the state.

“Every one of us relies on our family when we need something, need help or start something new,” he said. “It’s also so important for the kids to have these people in their lives. We want to begin that process.”

Seven-year-old Jy’aja Wells had been counting down the days to the dance and the opportunity to see her dad, TySon Wells.

“I will give him a hug,” she said.

Her father, who is serving time for robbery, said it has been two years since they were last able to do that. He is hoping to be released from prison after a parole hearing later this week.

“I will do everything I can do to be the best father I can be,” he said. “This has given me motivation to go out and do the right thing. I want to show her that we can be a family and I love her.”

Pat Eaton-Robb, The Associated Press

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