Extension Logo
Extension Logo
University of Minnesota Extension

Fathers Forever: Extension’s work with incarcerated men

Extension partners with MN Corrections to work on parenting with incarcerated men

In January 2017 the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) asked University of Minnesota Extension Center for Family Development’s Family Resiliency program to teach a 12-session parenting class to fathers incarcerated in three state correctional facilities — Moose Lake, Oak Park Heights and Stillwater. This partnership offered a great opportunity to provide education to a group we had not previously reached in this way. We had previous experience teaching within correctional facilities and local county jails, but had never taught parent education in this context. This opportunity offered a chance to expand our horizons as well as provide a valuable service. We have continued to partner with the DOC and are in the fourth year.

We approached course development from three perspectives:

  1. Fathers are critical to healthy child development.
  2. Men who are incarcerated are equally likely as the general population of fathers to possess or be able to develop parenting skills.
  3. The likelihood is based upon the parenting strengths and assets they already possess. 

Each class consisted of 12 two-hour class sessions and was taught on a weekly basis. Participants learned parenting and relationship skills to use both while incarcerated and upon release.

In order to shape conditions for learning to take place, we needed to consider class context: state correctional facilities. There are rules about what materials can be brought into correctional facilities and many of our parenting activities were not appropriate for the setting. We needed to develop a new method of illustrating concepts in meaningful ways. We addressed this challenge by remaining flexible and innovative and adapting activities to be acceptable for use in correctional facilities. 

The context also required us to be innovative in teaching. Because these parents are not in the physical proximity of their children, we needed to approach parenting one step removed. Lessons were designed to be relevant even when parents and children were not living together. We did this by focusing on the parent-child relationship and highlighting various means of bolstering the relationship and supporting their children, even though they were not together. For example, we gave each participant a parent-child conversation starter and asked participants to check in by answering one of the questions. Originally, the questions were designed for parents and children to have a face-to-face conversation but we suggested that they could use them as a way of connecting with their children from a distance. Ideas included writing the questions in a letter or email, or discussing them over the phone. We emphasized that learning answers to the questions is wonderful but the true benefit to this activity is that fathers strengthened a foundation of positive interactions with their children. This exercise reinforces the idea that, regardless of whether they are in the same physical space as their children, fathers can find ways to support their children’s healthy development.

Evaluation played a major role in this project. We worked with our evaluation team to create a packet which included a pretest, post-test and 12 session evaluations. We used the session evaluations to adapt lessons throughout the pilot year. For instance, participants repeatedly requested more active learning. It seemed that, as far as they were concerned, the more activities the better! In response to this feedback, we created more active learning opportunities for the remaining classes.

We used pre and post evaluations to learn whether our class was meeting objectives. The results were very favorable showing that learners greatly benefited from the class. From before the class to after, fathers significantly improved in their experience as a parent on many items related to class objectives, including: confidence in parenting skills; awareness of how children change; knowing how to discipline children without hitting or spanking; having confidence in parenting skills; and feeling positive in their role as parent. 

Evaluations clearly showed that fathers learned valuable lessons in this class. For example, fathers reported positive changes in 95% of the evaluation measures. In particular, fathers reported notable changes in these key areas:

  • “I know about setting clear limits for my children 26% increase)”
  • “I have confidence in my parenting skills (27% increase)”
  • “I feel positive in my role as a parent (25% increase)”
  • “I feel confident in managing my relationship with my co-caregivers (29% increase).”

Despite COVID-19 and the inability to currently meet in person with the resident, our grant was renewed in July 2020. With all the unknowns we continue to connect with DOC education directors as to future distant learning opportunities. As our DOC Family Resiliency team continues to work together and with the DOC staff at each facility, we have been brainstorming ways to pivot this educational offering to meet the needs of the participants.

Check out a few of the stories from the facilitators to illustrate the impact of the course on participants. 

“One guy was set to leave prison before the parenting class was completed. He asked if he could receive the materials and certificates ahead of time. He took the handouts, completed the evaluations. On his last day in class, he was very encouraging to the others, saying that they should hang in there and that things really didn’t come together for him until about 90 days from release. He had his children removed from his ex-spouses home due to her drug use, and his father had obtained a foster care license. He purchased a home and moved his father and children into the home. He reported that the thing he was looking forward to was receiving parental rights when he was released and co-parenting with his dad.” — Lori Hendrickson

“One of the unintended outcomes I watched develop was how the guys began to support each other. Every night of class we began with “conversation starters.” The guys answered the questions to get us started. The last night of class it took us 50 minutes to get through this opening activity. When we were done, I said, ‘OK now we’ll start class!’ One of the guys replied, ‘Hey, think about the first night of class and we hardly talked. Look at how far we’ve come!’” — Ellie McCann 

Participants also expressed impact from the class as illustrated in a note that one facilitator received the last session, “It was a privilege to have you as a teacher, not just because of your knowledge and insight, but because of the fun and engaging way you taught. You didn’t just go through the motions, but you encourage and inspired active participation. Coming into a place like this to share your knowledge and help us to become better men and fathers is much more than being a good teacher…it’s a kindness that will never be forgotten.” — Sharon Powell 

“One of the guys was in prison for 30 years and got out the last day of my session.  He shared many things with me, this is the one that brought tears to my eyes.  He hasn’t ever seen his girls since being incarcerated.  He wrote them individual letters, but because he has never been given their addresses, he posted them online. One of his daughters saw his letter and contacted him.  She was thankful for his letter and asked to meet up with him. They were meeting the day he got out of prison.” — Anita Harris Hering

Becky Hagen-Jokela, Anita Hering, Ellie McCann and Sharon Powell

Related topics: Family
Page survey

© 2023 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.