Summer Camp In State Prison: A Chance To Bond With Dad

Aug 16, 2014
Originally published on August 16, 2014 2:33 pm

On the list of activities for this summer camp: visiting Dad in a maximum security prison. The nonprofit group Hope House runs three camps to keep children connected with incarcerated dads who might not be close to home.

There are also plenty of arts and crafts, mosquito repellent and campfire songs.

Carol Fennelly founded Hope House in 1998, after a Washington, D.C.-area prison was closed, sending thousands of inmates to far-flung institutions. That made it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for relatives to visit.

Today there are three Hope House camps: one in North Carolina and two in Maryland. Fennelly also partners with groups that run summer camps in New Hampshire, Texas and California.

Inmates usually find out about the program through word of mouth or prison social workers. Dads are eligible if they have clean conduct for a year and take a parenting class.

I spent the end of summer camp with nine Hope House kids and traveled with them to visit their fathers at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md. That's a maximum security state prison. I shared the experience on Weekend Edition Saturday.

You'll want to hear the kids tell their own stories, so listen to the audio above.

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Going to summer camp is a tradition for many American youngsters. They can hike in the woods, play games, get mosquito bites, tell scary stories around the campfire. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji visited a summer camp near Cumberland, Maryland, where youngsters do all that and also visit their fathers in a maximum-security prison.





SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Welcome to Camp Hope and the smells of smoke, mosquito repellent and grilled meat and the sounds of campfire songs and corny jokes.

KOBE: Knock-knock.

UNIDENTIFIED CAMPERS: Who's there there?

KOBE: Darren.


KOBE: I'm daring you to tell a funnier knock-knock joke than this.


REJON: We've been having campfires. We've been on a hayride. We made tie-dye shirts.

MERAJI: Rejon is 13, and this is his first time at summer camp.

REJON: I been seeing mountains, all these different animals.

MERAJI: Like what?

REJON: Like bears, skunks. I don't see skunks that much, but...

MERAJI: He doesn't see his dad that much either.

REJON: When I was a kid, when he was home.

MERAJI: When did he leave? How old were you?

REJON: I think, like, two.

MERAJI: Rejon's dad is an inmate at the Western Correctional Institution, a state prison in Cumberland, Maryland. He's serving 59 years for attempted murder. Rejon or Ray Ray, as everyone here calls him, says he saw his dad once in 2012 on family day. This week, he boards a van from camp to the prison to see his dad every day.

REJON: I'm kind of mad 'cause I don't want to go yet. I want to stay for at least two more days.

MERAJI: How many days has it been?

REJON: Well, four days - tomorrow five days.

MERAJI: Kobe, the kid telling knock-knock jokes - well, this is his third and last Camp Hope. He's 15 and too old to come back. His dad, Carlos Goodall, is serving 13 years for robbery and drug possession.

KOBE: Even though it's 15 days or three years, I feel like - man, we've been talking for months. It really has changed my life.

MERAJI: Inmates usually find out about the program through word-of-mouth or prison social workers. Dads are eligible if they have clean conduct for a year and take a parenting class. Kobe says his dad called him out of the blue from prison to invite him.

KOBE: He apologized for not being there for me and that made me - I wouldn't say it made me feel like I have sympathy for him, but it made me like want to do it and, you know, want to make an attempt by giving us a relationship.

CAROL FENNELLY: Tomorrow's also a real hard day 'cause emotion - we're saying goodbye to our dads and all that. But if we can get some rest tonight it'll make tomorrow a lot easier.

MERAJI: Director and founder of Hope House, Carol Fennelly, says some parting words before she puts out the last campfire. Fennelly started working with incarcerated dads 15 years ago after a big prison outside Washington, D.C. closed. Thousands of inmates were sent to far-flung institutions, making it hard for relatives to visit. She wanted to keep families connected and says there were summer camps like this for incarcerated moms but nothing for dads. Now she runs three - one in North Carolina, two in Maryland and has partners in New Hampshire, Texas and California.

FENNELLY: All right, you all ready to say goodbye to the last campfire?

CAMPERS: Goodbye.

CHRIS WILDEMAN: For African-American children, 25.1 percent will have their father sent to prison at any point between their birth and their 14th birthday. So that's fully one in four children.

MERAJI: Chris Wildeman is a professor at Cornell who co-wrote "Children Of The Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration And The Future Of American Inequality." Wildeman says he was shocked by the lack of research on how the jump in prison rates for African-American fathers affects kids. And he says the same can be said about programs designed to help these children.

WILDEMAN: It makes it really difficult to know whether they're good for kids on average or bad for kids on average - if there are specific types of kids or specific types of dads that they seem to work really well for.

MERAJI: Wildeman says black children with a dad in prison are 65 percent more likely to be living in a homeless shelter or on the streets. He says behavioral problems rise sharply too. Hope House founder Carol Fennelly says she may not have the hard data to prove it, but she's certain her summer camp program is making a difference.


MERAJI: Camp Hope kids line up in front of the prison metal detector at 8:30 a.m. sharp for their last day at camp. For a group of nine to 15-year-old girls and boys, it's quiet. But once they get into the prison library and reconnect with their dads, the mood shifts.


MERAJI: They're making last-minute touch-ups to huge murals of their perfect days together - a safari scene where a father-daughter are riding an elephant - another father and daughter sunbathing in the Bahamas. Kobe Goodall and his dad Carlos play football.

KOBE: We got our fans watching.

CARLOS GOODALL: Kobe wanted to - you know, his aspirations for this school year is to play football.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What position?

KOBE: Wideout.

GOODALL: Taking after his father.


MERAJI: In their mural, Rejon and his father, Reggie Barnhill, shoot hoops.

REGGIE BARNHILL: He said if I was home, it's what he would want to do. He'd want to be playing basketball with me, him and his brothers. I'm clapping my hand over there just, you know, just being with my children. And we just - that was our special day if I was home.

MERAJI: Barnhill doesn't know when he'll be home. But Kobe believes his dad will be out soon and says he's already learned a lot from him at camp.

KOBE: A better sense of responsibility, saying I'm sorry, being the bigger man - I think that's what he's taught me the most. You know, when we get out - when he gets out, you know, I'll expect the relationship to stay there.

MERAJI: Carlos Goodall says Camp Hope is great. But putting in the time with his son Kobe on the outside is when being a father will really count. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.