On display right now at the Kimball-Jenkins Estate in Concord is a series of 12 murals. Each tells a story of a perfect day with mom or dad, and they were painted during a special summer camp for families dealing with incarceration. NHPR’s Peter Biello spoke with Kristina Toth, the program administrator for the Department of Corrections’ Family Connection Center.
[This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Tell us about the summer camp portion, because it's different from what we normally imagine a summer camp to be. What makes it different?
This summer camp program is held at the YMCA Camp Spaulding in Penacook, New Hampshire. Children who have a parent who is incarcerated in the state prison and is involved in the Family Connection Center, they can go to camp for free for two weeks and they do the regular camp activities: horseback riding, archery, camp fires.
And then for two days they come into the prison and spend the day with Mom or Dad and they get to have meals and play games and dance and read books. And most importantly, or maybe not most importantly, but the final product is these life-sized murals that are three-dimensional, that come off the paper. The children and their parent works together with an artist to come up with what's a perfect day with Mom or Dad, and then how to bring that to life on these large pieces of paper.
What's the rationale behind it? Why is it a good idea for these parents and kids to participate in this art project?
Art is a wonderful medium that brings people together and it’s taking what's in your head and putting it on the paper. I'm not an artist, I wish I was, they would probably be able to explain that better, but it really isn’t the end result of the mural but it's the journey getting there. So it's first coming together, sketching it out, talking about many different things that obviously the parent can't do with the child because they’re incarcerated. But if they could, what would it be? And sometimes we have them up in space, sometimes they're camping at the campground with the tent, and roller coasters, that’s a big positive theme too. So they just get to imagine where their imaginations go and make it come to life on the paper.
Are you there watching them create these things and if so what's the experience like?
Yes, I'm taking a lot of pictures and lots of videos and it's wonderful. I've seen paint fights between parents and children and just normal, healthy interactions between a parent and their child. They don't get those in the prison visiting room and obviously the parent is not at home. So this gives them a small piece of what it would be like if they were living together, which I imagine most of them would want to do. So it's wonderful to see them go through that journey.
What is the benefit for the inmates and for the children when it comes to a corrections perspective? For example, does this have an influence at all on rates of recidivism?
We assume it does because, to be involved in our program in general and especially to get to the point that you're allowed to be participate in the camp program, an incarcerate parent has to be on good behavior or not get any kind of disciplinary reports. So this helps them stay on the right track.
Actually one of the fathers had shared, the first year he was ineligible to come to our camp program because he was doing things that he shouldn't be doing. He said he felt he was entitled, like he thought he would be able to come to camp. And then when he found out he couldn't, he was really upset because he thought he was a good dad. He said he realized at that point he kind of couldn't do both, play the games inside the prison and also be a good dad. So at that point he had to turn things around and he's been involved in I camp program ever since.
What do you say to people who criticize the program by saying: these people are in prison, they're there to be punished, this is a bit too much of a pleasurable, fun experience for people who are in prison to experience. What do you say to that criticism?
We do hear that, unfortunately. I say that going to prison is the punishment, or the consequence of the crime. From there on out there should not be more. But the reality is, they’re parents, they have children. Their children are in school with our children and we want all children to feel safe, happy, secure and know and be loved.
Friday is the last day these murals will be on display at the Kimball-Jenkins Estate in Concord. From 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. there will be a public event to celebrate the center's 20 year anniversary. Current families and past participants will be in attendance.