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Dads Behind Bars Hope to Walk Out as Better Fathers

Behavior: In a prison classroom, men are trying to break a sad cycle. The stakes are high for them and for their children.


WASHINGTON — Until they were caught this last time, Joe is telling the class, he and his wife were dragging their two youngest ones around shoplifting 12, 13 hours a day, and the kids would be begging, "Daddy, please, we don't want to go to the malls again."

The other men in the parenting class either stare down at the gray linoleum tiles or up at the fluorescent lights. Their expressions suggest that they, too, are thinking of their children--how they've let them down, each in his own way--as they sit on hard plastic chairs in a classroom at the Montgomery County Jail.

The eight men in the room have volunteered to come to this eight-week class because they want to be good--or at least better--fathers.

The stakes for them and their children are high. Fatherlessness repeatedly shows up in studies as a leading indicator for a plethora of societal problems: infant mortality, alcohol and drug abuse, criminality, low test scores, depression--even suicide. The prisoners in the jail, commonly known as Seven Locks, know this firsthand; many of them are fatherless themselves. At least for the moment, they are intent on breaking the cycle.

Pat Rosenquist, a certified family life counselor, began the class as a pilot in 1985. Each week, she keeps driving home two major points: You are responsible for your children, and they will forgive almost anything but abandonment.

Most of the men have less than a year to serve. Some intend to live with their children when they get out; others merely hope to make contact.

As the first homework assignment, each man is to write a letter to his children on the topic, "I remember the day you were born." Sometimes the assignment has to be adapted to, "I remember the day I heard about the day you were born."

Rosenquist insists that the assignment be completed even when the men don't know where their children are or don't even remember their names.

She tells them: "Some day a 6-foot man is going to walk up and say, 'You are my dad.' You can say, 'I wrote a letter to you a long time ago but didn't know where you were. Here is the letter.' "

In the classroom, Joe is saying that he understands he has to pay for his crimes but that it really hurts to see how his children are paying, too. He wants his children to visit the jail, but he knows they will remember seeing him through the glass as long as they live.

"It is hard to see your kid through that glass," George says. "My daughter looked at me yesterday like, 'How come you can't hold me?' But it's good to have that pain on a gut level. It will correct our behavior. It should hurt."

Then he breaks down.

"I don't want be a [jerk] when I get out," he says through his tears. "I really don't."

For a time, Rosenquist allows them to talk, only occasionally adding comments of her own. Joe mentions the questions that are unbearable, such as, "Daddy, are you coming to my birthday party?" He called his parents' house during the party for his 3-year-old. His 11-year-old got on the phone and reported that his wife--arrested with him but already released--hadn't shown up with the cake.

"She's gone again. Mama's gone," the girl said. Joe told her that she had to be strong for the two younger ones, that they were depending on her. Now he thinks he was putting too much pressure on her and wonders what he should have said.

He answers his own question.

"I didn't say, 'Kara, this isn't your fault.' I should have said that."

As often happens, thoughts of their children bring to mind their own childhoods.

Ralph Saah, the only prisoner who agreed to allow his full name to be used, says he'd heard that his 6-year-old son ran to his room and cried when he received his father's letter from jail. The boy sleeps with the letter under his pillow. An older son, who Saah says is skipping school and getting into trouble, never answered.

"He needs you straight up," a classmate tells Saah, who has since been released. "You need to get out of here and go get your son."

"I know he needs a lot of support," Saah says. For some reason, that reminds him of how he once went to his son's football game. "I'm sitting there thinking about how my father never came to my games. I was feeling more jealous than guilty."

It is time to bring structure to the class, and Rosenquist tells the men that one day, their children are going to look at them and ask themselves, "What did he give me? How did he parent me?" She wants them to begin by thinking about who parented them.

The men hunch over their desks and write a sentence or two about the most nurturing forces in their lives. Then they read aloud their answers.

"I had the normal--a grandmother and a grandfather."

"I never got a little hug or kiss. I had a lot of envy for my stepbrother, cause my stepmother hugged him."

"The military parented me. That's where I learned responsibility, and to be a man."

"This place kinda raised me in a way," reads Saah. "Seven Locks jail is like a community. It gave me a sense of wanting to belong to something, a sense of being."

Rosenquist leads the discussion from the importance of being nurtured to the idea that they can be positive forces in their own children's lives. They can employ the best of whatever they got, she tells them, and see through their parents' failures what they need to change.

Discipline is always rich ground for discussion. Sometimes the men will talk approvingly, even proudly, of how their fathers beat them. Rosenquist has a standard reply: "That didn't keep you out of here, did it?" Sometimes, she says, it's as if a light bulb goes off in their heads.

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