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A father and son walk across a basketball court
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This article was first published by Mule Creek Post, a newspaper at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

An incarcerated person’s shift in perspective, after examining his own life choices, led to the development of a curriculum called Discovering Fatherhood, that in turn, changed his fellow prisoners’ self-perception.

Mule Creek State Prison resident Hollie Garrett never had any self-help group experience. But as he found himself sitting in the administrative segregation unit in 2017, the passage of California’s Proposition 57 brought Garrett an opportunity to earn milestone credits for education and rehabilitative efforts. He enrolled in Folsom Lake College and signed up for a social work/human services internship program.

“I never took school seriously on the street,” said Garrett. “I had no interest in groups before Prop. 57. The Discovering Fatherhood program began as an idea during Professor Teresa Duran’s social work/human services course. I had the idea, but I didn’t know how to go about it.”

That’s when Dr. Kalinda Jones, the college’s prison program coordinator, provided Garrett with the continuing support and guidance he needed.

“During the internship we were taught how to create a program,” said Garrett. “I showed Dr. Jones and Professor Duran what I had. They told me to go back and study choice theory by a psychiatrist named Dr. William Glasser.”

Garrett developed the initial curriculum and invested two months into the study of choice theory, which posits that our behaviors — or choices — are motivated by survival, love, belonging, freedom, fun and power. He dissected its components and analyzed its potential applicability to his program. Garrett also worked with another participant in the Folsom Lake College internship program.

“We had to prepare a foundation then build a framework around aspects of choice theory that maximize success in relationships,” said Garrett.

During the first semester of the internship, he conducted interviews with Mule Creek residents.

“I wanted to identify a legitimate need on the yard,” said Garrett, “I asked questions like, ‘How often do you communicate with your kids?’ ‘How often do you discipline them?’ ‘How were you communicated with as a child?’ and other such inquiries.”

Garrett’s research yielded intriguing insight into something many prisoners struggle with — communication. Garrett had an epiphany. “Most of us don’t have good communication skills,” he said. “I realized that focusing on choice theory as it relates to inmates’ thinking patterns first, then addressing communication styles, I could teach them to shift their total behavior.”

Garrett began a first draft of the Discovering Fatherhood program with his co-facilitator's input.

“Once I had that, I wrote a proposal to implement the workshops at Mule Creek’s A Facility in March of 2019.”

The workshops ran for eight weeks during their second semester in the internship.

Discovering Fatherhood is a theory-based parenting program that addresses the barriers to parenting due to incarceration. Incarcerated parents learn to build trust, the significance of consistency in parental relationships, parenting styles and how to address emotional issues their children might have experienced as a result of the parent’s incarceration. The sessions included group discussions, role-playing exercises and reading and written assignments.

One Discovering Fatherhood participant said, “I like how personal the readings are. That they were actual accounts of one of the facilitator’s experiences with his own child made it relatable.”

Another said, “I always wondered if there was a book about how to be a father from behind the wall, but never found one. This group brought that.”

The group met twice weekly and Garrett used their feedback to refine his curriculum. At the end of the internship, Garrett and a dozen other interns presented their conclusions and data to Jones about their five different internship pilot programs. Garrett and his co-developer were even granted approval to pursue inmate activity group status for Discovering Fatherhood and to make their program an officially recognized self-help group.

“What I learned changed me,” said Garrett, himself a father of three children. He is currently working on Facility E as a peer mentor and helps to run the program there with a co-facilitator. Garrett is also seeking opportunities to make Discovering Fatherhood available to prisoners outside of Mule Creek State Prison.

Helping others to change changes us. This is the ultimate goal of rehabilitation — to end cycles of recidivism and repair the damage done by generations of incarcerated parents who did not have the tools to positively participate in their children’s lives.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Christopher Bryson is a reporter for the The Mule Creek Post, a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.