Portland inmate Irvin Hines says visits from his children can be stressful.
The father of three children ages 5, 14 and 21, Hines is in custody at Portland's Columbia River Correctional Institution. He described the thin mat he and his young son had to sit on in a corner of the facility's cafeteria. He also talked about the tables' hard edges that seemed at the right height to bonk the heads of high-energy children.
He said mothers weren't eager to take their children to see parents behind bars and were often agitated by prison-visit clothing restrictions. Hines said an uninviting environment made it more difficult for incarcerated parents to maintain a connection with their children.
There were times Hines almost wished his young son would not visit him. But, he said that playing a role in his child's life was important. "I want to spend some time teaching him some lessons maybe I didn't get taught," Hines said.
A new initiative unveiled in mid-January could help parents like Hines overcome barriers to staying connected with their children. In recent years, Oregon's Department of Corrections has sought to humanize and rehabilitate the more than 14,400 adults incarcerated in state prisons. An estimated 80% of incarcerated women and 65% of incarcerated men have children. Research shows that having an incarcerated parent has a negative effect on a child's wellbeing.
Portland nonprofit The Contingent launched its "Know Me Now" initiative with the Department of Corrections a Columbia River Correctional Institution event. The initiative rolls out this year. It will start by helping with transportation to visits to seven prisons within a 60-mile radius of Portland.
Renovated visiting spaces
Program Director Hosheman Brown said Know Me Now would try to renovate prisons, at no cost to taxpayers, to improve the "connection, dignity and safety" of children and their incarcerated parents. The program would begin with the Columbia River Correctional Institution.
Brooke Gray, The Contingent's executive director of mobilizing community, said renovations could include new paint and furniture, as well as activities and toys. She said new visitation rooms would be designed with ideas and help from community groups and businesses.
Gray said that often-austere visitation rooms have just a thin mat on the floor and a box of outdated toys. Part of the initiative includes filling boxes for children visiting a parent in prison with toys, books, snacks and activities. The program would also generate more community support for incarcerated parents after they're released, Gray said. Instead of just giving recently released prisoners a black bag full of their items, Gray said volunteers could put together duffel bags with gift cards, ID applications, resource guides and other helpful items.
Felicia Tripp-Folsom, executive director of multicultural leadership at The Contingent, said that the initiative would also seek volunteers to help formerly incarcerated people navigate life. "What we found is that, yes, having a job and housing and all those things are wonderful," she said. But, she added that having a community network was just as critical.
Contingent Chief Executive Officer Ben Sand said Salem's Santiam Correctional Institute would have one of the first renovated visitation spaces. In addition, mentoring services for children of incarcerated parents would begin in Portland area and be expanded to the rest of the state. One goal would to ensure that children of incarcerated parents get regular visits.
More than 90% of the people in Oregon prisons will be released at some point. Hines said it made sense to "get a better product that goes back into the community." Hines said he had been in prison for involvement in drugs and gangs and wanted to stay out after he's released later this year. He said his young son gives him a reason.
"Every day that I wake up, I try to do something different than yesterday, because of him," Hines said. "That motivates me."
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