The White House and Department of Justice hosted a Roundtable and Forum on Responsible Fatherhood this week at Morehouse College in Atlanta. I traveled to Atlanta with PAIRS team members Lauren DelGandio, Francisco Robledo, and Tuly Wultz to learn more about the challenges facing fathers who are reuniting with their families following incarceration, particularly the impact on their sons, daughters and communities, and to share information about PAIRS Foundation’s unique experience in this field.
Panelists included U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, White House Special Assistants Michael Strautmanis and Joshua DuBois, former NBA star Allan Houston, senior staff from the Justice Department, and other national leaders with unique perspective and experience crafting innovative fatherhood initiatives for men who are incarcerated, both during their prison terms and throughout the re-entry process.
It was especially meaningful to be joined at the program by the Reverend Joseph Lowery and his wife, Evelyn. Reverend Lowery co-founded and later served as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He participated in most of the major activities of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, including organizing the Montgomery bus boycott after Rosa Park’s arrest in 1955. On behalf of President Obama, Mr. Strautmanis and Attorney General Holder both acknowledged Rev. Lowery for paving the way for the nation’s first African American President and Attorney General.
More than 630,000 offenders are released from prison in the United States every year. Nearly two thirds return to prison within three years. The impact on society, their neighborhoods, and children is significant and frequently multi-generational. African-American families are especially impacted both by the absence of hundreds of thousands of fathers from their children’s lives and the increased likelihood that the sons of incarcerated dads will themselves become incarcerated in the future.
Historically, only limited resources have been devoted to efforts to rehabilitate offenders through educational programs that strengthen attachment and bonding with their children and families. While there are many stories of men and women who have left prison and gone on to create productive, meaningful lives, these successes are more often the result of individual determination and circumstances – frequently impacted by efforts of local faith-based and neighborhood organizations and family members.
President Obama addressed the audience through a prerecorded video presentation, stressing the critical importance of a father’s active, positive involvement in the life of his children:
“In many ways, I came to understand the importance of fatherhood through its absence-both in my life and in the lives of others. I came to understand that the hole a man leaves when he abandons his responsibility to his children is one that no government can fill. We can do everything possible to provide good jobs and good schools and safe streets for our kids, but it will never be enough to fully make up the difference. That is why we need fathers to step up, to realize that their job does not end at conception; that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one.”
Relationship skills that help men understand emotions in themselves and others and create and sustain positive connections with their families through effective communication and problem solving abilities may be the most effective tool to reduce recidivism, create safer neighborhoods, and prevent a future in which millions of their children grow up to themselves become incarcerated.
PAIRS Foundation was one of the earliest pioneers to introduce relationship skills training to the prisoner reentry process. More than 15 years ago, Dr. Zev Appel of Israel’s Bar Ilan University began training graduate students to teach brief segments of PAIRS to prisoners and their spouses prior to re-entry. In 2004, I traveled to Israel for Dr. Appel’s presentation on the results of ten years of research in the Israeli prison system, showing sharp reductions in recidivism, with significant benefits for families, children and society.
As a result of early efforts in Israel, PAIRS Foundation began collaborating with the Shelby County Department of Corrections in Tennessee in 2007 to pilot a similar program in the United States. The results are highly encouraging. Combined, they offer a model that can help prevent hundreds of thousands of men and women from returning to prison, strengthen families, create safer neighborhoods, and empower millions of youngsters impacted by a parent’s incarceration with the resources necessary to fulfill their own human potential.
Over the coming year, PAIRS Foundation will be actively reaching out to potential partners nationwide to help strengthen fatherhood programs for incarcerated men in particular and encourage evidence-based relationship skills training founded on emotional literacy, bonding, and empathy as a central component in our national campaign for strong families and safe neighborhoods.