Some Unique Concerns and Key Characteristics of Prison-based Family Literacy Programs
To a large degree, this section summarizes findings and recommendations from two major works: Gadsden et al. (2005) and the Hudson River Center (2001). It contains two parts: (a) a compilation of unique issues that families and practitioners face; and (b) recommendations for prison-based family literacy programs. The points raised here represent neither a comprehensive set of contextualizing issues nor a theoretical framework grounded in research. Nevertheless, they represent the best we know so far and can be used to inform the design of pilot programs and future studies.
Feelings hidden and revealed. Gadsden et al. (2005) interviewed 30 fathers incarcerated in federal prisons who had participated in prison-based family literacy programs. In addition, the team interviewed the children and their caregivers, the staff of the non-profit organization that provided the program, and the staff of the two prisons that hosted the program. The Gadsden team found that some children experienced a sense of shame that intensified problems they were having at school. One boy noted, "I don't feel�accepted by the teachers�I don't think they never [sic] really liked me�cause I made a bad impression last year�Having a father in prison also creates a bad impression" (p. 18). Because of the perceived bias against children with fathers in prison, this boy did not want his teachers to know about his incarcerated parent. Caregivers may also feel rejected by schools and overwhelmed by children's needs. One mother/caregiver noted that her adolescent son's school turned a "deaf ear" on her, as she struggled to get a handle on his behavior (p. 10).
Feelings of shame and embarrassment associated with incarceration may result in secrets within the family as well. Gadsden et al. (2005) found that 60 percent of the children did not know what their fathers had done that caused them to go to prison. Some children were not told, or did not learn, about their fathers' incarceration until they were older. When one boy did learn that his father had been in prison (not in a neighboring state as he had been told), he became deeply resentful of his father and deeply mistrustful of his mother for lying to him. As children tried to make sense of their incarcerated parents' absence, they struggled with conflicting emotions of shame, sadness, uncertainty, anger, resentment. They felt resentment that they had to suffer for the bad things their fathers had done, and they were jealous of peers whose fathers showed up for sports and other events. Even those children who did not have a close relationship with their fathers before incarceration felt the pain of absence.
Despite the children's anger and resentment, Gadsden et al. (2005) noted, "We were struck by the children's outpouring of affection for their fathers and for the time afforded them through telephone calls, videoconferences [and] the family literacy program" (p. 24). The children who participated in a summer camp program with their fathers were "overwhelmed with happiness" (p. 24) at being able to hug and touch their fathers. One girl noted, "It felt like I just came outta heaven. Because I'm actually face-to-face, no glass, no phones, just actually sitting down, having a conversation, and being able to kiss him" (p. 24).
Noticeably missing from the Gadsden study was evidence of caregiver resistance to the family literacy programs. The atypically high level of caregiver support may be attributed to the non-profit organization's careful work to reach out to the caregivers. Also, Gadsden et al. (2005) noted that their sample represented a "special sub-sample of children of incarcerated parents" (p. 25), since all of the caregivers were the biological mothers of the children. Further, all of the caregivers voluntarily decided to participate in the program, indicating their interest in helping their children reconnect with their incarcerated fathers.
Characteristics of successful programs. The Hudson River Center (2001) published an instructional guide for prison-based family literacy programs for the State of New York. The authors argued for flexible program designs and well-developed implementation strategies that carefully attended to the many potential obstacles that stem from the complexity of this kind of program. These potential obstacles included the "day-to-day administration and security of a correctional facility" (p. 12), the logistics of bringing families and agencies together through literacy events, and the resistance of some practitioners and participants. The authors noted that, "Respect is important for the smooth operation in any setting, but particularly so for the highly stressful setting of a correctional facility�Learners, teachers, correctional officers, administrators, and families should be allowed to voice their wishes and concerns" (p. 12).
Hudson River Center (2001) identified five components that should be included in a prison-based family literacy program: (a) literacy-focused instruction, (b) contact between parents and children, (c) strengths-based parent empowerment/education, (d) child-care linkages (including linkages with caregivers and community-based service providers), and (e) connections to post-release support. Further, they recommend:
Programs must be flexible enough to meet the various needs and goals of families. Services should be adapted to family goals, rather than fitting families into existing programs. The design should recognize that family strengths, interests, and needs are not uniform across all families. (p. 14)
Hudson River Center (2001) presented six values or dispositions that characterize effective prison-based programs: (a) all families have strengths; (b) parents can positively affect children, even if incarcerated; (c) parents are their children's primary and most enduring teachers; (d) parents teach by example, (e) parents have a profound effect on their children's success in school; and (f) children benefit from their parent's involvement.
Conclusion. This section described some issues related to the ways families communicate - both outwardly and internally - when they are coping with an incarcerated parent/spouse/partner. Regarding the issue of privacy, program designers need to be careful to "first do no harm" when attempting to support these families with prison-based literacy programs. Further, the Hudson River Center recommended five core components be included in prison-based family literacy programs. These components paralleled four core components found in other models of family literacy (DeBruin-Parecki, Paris & Seidenberg, 1996) and added one additional component that connects the parent's learning while incarcerated to continued support after release.