`This lets us escape'

Reading program allows incarcerated fathers to read with their children

August 12, 2007|By Sindya N. Bhanoo | Sindya N. Bhanoo,Sun reporter

Normally, when 7-year-old Laila Dimakakos visits her father in jail, he has two minutes to hug her and 58 minutes to talk, with no other physical contact. But yesterday, she spent three hours in Tobias Gough's arms, laughing, playing and reading.

Gough was among about 40 inmates at the all-male Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup who took part in "Reading Unites Families," a newly relaunched program that brings incarcerated fathers and their young children together.

"This lets us escape," Gough said. "A day like this can get me through the whole year."

The program was launched eight years ago with state funding, but budget cuts put it on hiatus about 18 months ago.

Determined to revive it, inmates at the medium-security prison proposed a fundraiser, and with the support of Warden Carolyn Atkins and other staff members, made and sold submarine sandwiches in prison. After raising $2,200, without a penny in taxpayer contributions, they brought the program back to life yesterday.

The money will cover the cost of four more events where children read, share a lunch with their fathers and take home books and school supplies, said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

In preparation for the children's arrival yesterday, inmates decorated the visitors' room with handmade banners and paintings of palm trees and butterflies. Other staff members, including security chief Dehavilland Whitaker and correctional officer Keesha Thornton, volunteered hours of their own time to help pull the program together, Vernarelli said.

Laila and Gough, 27, an East Baltimore native who was convicted two years ago on drug-related charges, could not have been more thankful.

"I can read that, Daddy," the girl said, pointing to the tattoo her father got when she was born. It reads "Laila" in cursive letters.

"Just don't say a word about jail to her," her father whispered. "Laila thinks I'm in the Army."

When Gough was sent to prison, he explained, Laila faced awkward questions at school, so that was the story family members told her.

"She's getting more mature now, though," said her grandmother, Patricia Williams. "So we are starting to tell her the truth."

In prison, Gough has been studying bookbinding and hopes to find work as a cutter who sizes paper, he said. "It isn't an easy job. I'm hoping to make about $18 an hour doing it when I get out."

Holding her father's hand, Laila smiled. "You're going to buy me a pink phone to talk to you?" she asked.

"Yes," he said, planting a kiss on her head.

Vernarelli said Larry Bratt, 55, an inmate who does not have any children, came up with the idea of the fundraiser.

"Everyone wants to do what they can for the children of incarcerated fathers," Bratt said.

Thornton, the correctional officer, said two other prisoners in their 50s, Roger Osborn and Robert Morgan, were also instrumental in helping put together yesterday's event.

"We try to set an example for the younger men with children and teach them to take advantage of the opportunities in prison," said Morgan, who has 10 years left to serve for a bank robbery.

Morgan, who has studied culinary arts in prison, helped prepare the day's feast, which included carved watermelon baskets, hamburgers, cupcakes and pastries that inmates made from scratch.

As the families sat down to eat, the chatter grew softer, with each family growing absorbed in its own world.

"It's like they are at home at their kitchen tables," said Beatrice Gallup, an adult educator at the facility who volunteered her time for the program. Typically, the slightest indication of physical contact with visitors beyond the initial two minutes could result in more restrictions for inmates, Gallup said.

Inmate Eric Johnson cradled 1-year-old daughter Erica in his arms as he brought a bottle of juice to her mouth.

"This lets us have a little family time we don't otherwise get," said Johnson's wife, Kristen.

The program benefits officers as well as inmates, Thornton said. "It motivates the prisoners to behave because they want rewards like this. It makes our jobs easier."

The idea is to help inmates strengthen family ties, Vernarelli said. "The reality is that 98 percent of inmates will be released. We want to give them GEDs, job skills and help them connect with their families."

The program inculcates the value of education in the children of prisoners, Vernarelli said. About 1.5 million children nationwide had parents in prison in 1999, according to the most recent numbers available from U.S. Department of Justice.

"I want to teach these children that they don't have to be snared into a life of crime like me and others," said Bratt, who is serving a life sentence for a double homicide he committed more than 25 years ago.

For Laila and her father, the day was too short. At exactly noon, the room was emptied, the food was cleared and the children and mothers reluctantly filed out.

Laila clung to her father as she sang to him, "Take me out to the ballgame, take me out with the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack ... "

sindya.bhanoo@baltsun.com

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