Ohio inmates get time with their kids

Children visit fathers in weeklong experiment

July 02, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - Dominique first heard the strange word directly from her father four years ago, when she was 8 and he was going away. But she did not grasp the meaning.

"Daddy said `incarceration,'" recalled Dominique, who knows the word well now that she has spent much of a week within the confines of the prison that has kept her father, convicted of violent assault, 300 miles from her.

Nine convicts have been free to exchange hugs with their children, some of them hesitantly at first, and to play and advise and gaze upon them for four hours each morning for a week. Sharing thoughts and meals, they tested a program, as merciful as it is experimental, to let 11 children and their imprisoned fathers repair family ties.

Small scenes of joy - fathers and children making cutouts and paintings together, laughing, embracing, airing difficult problems, sometimes crying - are hidden from society here in the confines of the fathers' home behind bars and razor wire.

"I would cry when he first went away," Dominique said. "But Daddy would write me letters and tell me always do my homework."

In the midst of his 6- to 18-year sentence, her father, Alonzo Thompson, found himself lying down hand-in-hand with Dominique one morning on the floor of the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center's visitors' room, where each father and child had their own piece of silhouette paper on which to trace their outlines for a life-size mural of their reunion.

"That's my heart right there," Thompson said of his daughter as she colored in fanciful details of the two of them and made the fingers securely overlap.

Their laughter never made it outside to this gray city of burned-out steel mills. Youngstown is quietly becoming the prison capital of a nation that, to use Dominique's hard-learned word, is now the world leader in incarceration. Five prisons operate here with about 40,000 inmates; two more are on the way. Many of the prisoners are young fathers with plenty of time to ponder long lists of regrets, with their children, often little known and less seen, at the top of those lists.

In this prison, there is even a class on being a parent for clueless fathers. Jeanette Jenkins, a stalwart mother of six, grandmother of seven and retired prison guard, fervidly teaches the convicts that they still have the responsibility, and the power, to inspire their far-off children along the straight and narrow.

"It's going to hurt when my boy goes back home, and I just may cry," admitted DeWayne Mixon, 32, in his sixth year of a nine-year assault sentence. His son, Diamond, 9, nudged him as they painted the record of themselves.

"This week spoiled me, but it tells me I got to put all the old nonsense behind me and do the right thing," said Mixon.

The experiment originated with an inmates'-rights volunteer, Carol Fennelly, who followed 1,300 inmates here when they were moved three years ago from a condemned prison in Lorton, Va., a Washington suburb. Now an overnight trip away from their families, the inmates suffered a severe decline in family visits.

"Most people don't care about prison inmates; there's not even a debate any more about rehabilitation," said Fennelly, who settled here and opened Hope House, a one-woman volunteer program for which she is constantly seeking contributions. "But people care about children, so I thought maybe this way society will pay a little more attention to the problems of prison."

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