This time of year parents across New Hampshire are starting to make family plans for the summer...even... inmates in the New Hampshire Prison system.
For the first time, the Department of Corrections will run a summer camp program for children of incarcerated fathers.
10-20 kids will spend two days with their dads at the men’s prison in Concord.
Dan Gorenstein: There’s a saying when you’re in prison after three years people start to ‘drop off.’
Ciresi: “The longer you are in, you start to lose friends, you start to lose letters. You start to lose contacts.”
DG: That’s 44-year old Michael Ciresi who understands that loss.
He’s served 4 years so far, with as many as 8 more to go.
Ciresi: “It’s only with your close family that you really maintain any kind of contact. And even then, sometimes they tend to fall off.”
DG: Ciresi knows about that too.
When he first arrived at the Concord Men’s Prison his twin boys used to visit every two weeks, then it was once a month...now, they’re nine and he hasn’t seen them in four months.
Ciresi says when they do come; he peppers them with questions, trying to get to know them.
Ciresi: “I want to know their hobbies, their interests. What’s going on. Do they like girls, who’s coming around...anything intimate is what I get into.”
DG: That kind of intimacy is hard to come by in prison.
Especially in the Concord Men’s Prison visiting room.
Toth: “There’s 100 or so other people, 50 or so other kids and kids just want to play with other kids. They say ‘hi dad. I love you.’ Big hugs, but then they go and play.”
DG: That’s Kristina Toth, who runs the Family Connections Center for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections.
She says for the past 13 years the department has worked to build relationships between incarcerated parents and their children.
Toth says corrections officials have embraced running a summer camp...to the point where wardens will transfer inmates from Berlin to Concord if necessary.
Toth: “Everyone I’ve agreed with, any of the fathers in Berlin that are part of our program, could they move down for a week....’sure, no problem.’ It’s amazing.”
DG: This August, as many as 20 kids will spend 12 days at Camp Spaulding in Penacook, a few miles from the prison.
Most of that time will be spent doing camp-y things – arts and crafts, canoeing, rope courses.
But for two days, Toth says kids will be with their dads in a totally different way.
Toth: “They are talking and they are hugging and they are eating together and they are doing normal everyday activities together. What I hope those children get is the knowledge that they are loved.”
DG: This summer camp idea comes out of the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Hope House.
Hope House has run 27 camps across three states.
The group’s director Carol Fennelly thinks the program works because the intense time together forces dads to ask themselves difficult questions.
Fennelly: “What is my legacy in this world? What am I going to leave behind? These guys are behind bars. They don’t have the ability to create that legacy. All they have is there kids.....and I think that for them, that becomes the transcendent thing. And are they going to leave a positive legacy in that child or a negative legacy in that child?”
DG: Fennelly says she believes that self-examination leads to transformation.
Fennelly: “I know we’ve got some bad guys in there who have done some bad things, I’m not delusional about who they were. But in prison with their children, they are just dads.”
DG: The more these inmates think of themselves as dads, the New Hampshire Department of Corrections believes the better.
Research suggests a good bond helps keep the parent from returning to prison and helps make sure the kid never winds up there.
Concord inmate Michael Ciresi says the hope of getting his kids to camp this August is keeping him on the straight and narrow inside the walls.
To participate fathers have to stay out of trouble.
Ciresi says he doesn’t want to blow this chance.
Ciresi: “On the visiting schedule, to break it down, I only get to see them two days out of the year by the hours that I get to see them which is absolutely nothing. So to have an extra two days, like full contact...there would be nothing more to me to be with my kids every single day.”
DG: Only a tiny fraction of the some 800 fathers in the New Hampshire Prison system will be directly involved in this program.
But the whole concept – camp for kids of incarcerated dads – is so popular several inmates are making the rounds raising money for scholarships.
They think they can raise enough money among themselves that they’ll help send a few kids to camp.