Columns, Op-Eds, & Interviews

The Journey to Becoming a Better Dad Inside Prison

Folsom Lake College / Photo by UncleVinny
WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

By Hollie Garrett, Prison Journalism Project

In 2011, a 20-year prison sentence turned my life completely upside down. 

This was not my first time being incarcerated, but it was the longest sentence I had ever received. This new reality was hard to accept. Twenty years was enough time to lose the people I cared about and damage the relationships I hoped to maintain. 

My biggest fear centered around my relationship with my three sons. I worried we would grow distant or that, as I was on my way out of prison, one or more of them could be on their way in. I had to stop generational incarceration, but before I could do that I had to get myself out of prison. I had no clue how to do either. 

Over the next five years, I worked on my appeal and continued to stay in contact with my children the best I could. But it wasn’t easy at the start of a long sentence. My thoughts were a fog of hatred, fear and confusion. I was focused on surviving in prison and trying to exonerate myself. 

When I did speak to my children, I had no idea what I was supposed to say. My relationships with their mothers were not great, which made our communications even more anxiety-provoking. Sometimes I wanted to give up and wait to try to rekindle these relationships after I got out. But I didn’t want to abandon my children, so I kept calling and writing.

In those early years, I read books for guidance, but they were rarely helpful. No groups or resources were available to me. I continued to do the best I could, figuring it out as time went by. 

I was seven years into my sentence and had just submitted my final appeal to the federal courts when I got the opportunity to enroll in an associate’s degree program in human services and social work at Folsom Lake College.

In 2017, we got an assignment in one of my classes: If we could create a program that helped our prison community, what would it be? 

The answer was easy for me. I would create a program that would teach incarcerated fathers how to be the best parents possible. For the assignment, I wrote an implementation plan and presented it to my class. 

My teacher, Mrs. Duran, showed special interest in my idea. She brought me research and commentary on similar programs running in institutions across the country. Now it was a personal challenge. Was this something I could really do?

As I went through my college career, I became more confident as a father. I not only had something new to talk about that I could be proud of, but I took classes on such subjects as child and growth development that gave me a better understanding of what my children needed. 

Some of my classes taught me how to effectively communicate and be more assertive. I also learned how to resolve conflicts, and I studied a number of psychological theories. Most importantly, I was gaining greater self-awareness. The fog that had clouded my mind for years was starting to clear.

All the while I held on to the idea of my program for incarcerated fathers. In 2018, I was selected as one of the first interns in the Human Services and Social Worker internship program. It would be my responsibility to create a program to help my peers within the prison. This was perfect. I knew what was needed because it was something I could never find myself. With the support of my internship teacher, Dr. Jones, I started creating an initiative that would come to be called Discovering Fatherhood.

My internship partner and I started by interviewing men on the yard about their experiences as incarcerated fathers. Through this needs assessment, we found that the greatest barrier was not knowing how to communicate effectively and assertively.

Once we completed the interviews, I wrote down all the subjects I wanted to talk about and began to form a workbook. I thought it would be easy: Just take some of what I learned and some of my own experiences, mix it all up and make a curriculum. With Dr. Jones’ guidance, I soon realized this wouldn’t be enough. I needed to base the curriculum on a theory. 

I dedicated the next two months to studying William Glasser’s Choice Theory. Choice Theory is centered on relationships. It tells us we only have power over our own behavior and cannot control the behavior of others. This seemed like the perfect ideology for incarcerated fathers, or any father for that matter. 

I knew we would divide the workbook into three parts. The first would teach Choice Theory as it relates to incarcerated fathers. The second would teach effective communication skills. And the final part would be divided into different subjects based on my own experiences. 

These included the quality of a child’s world, co-parenting, and growth and sustainability. As an education clerk, I had access to a computer to type up the over 100-page workbook. As I finished each of the 16 chapters, I’d print them out and review them with my internship partner, Dr. Jones. 

During the internship’s second semester, eight of our peers volunteered their time to participate in the group. Seeing these incarcerated men read the words and respond to the questions posed within the workbook impacted all of us. 

Everyone could relate to each other as we talked about what fatherhood meant to us and what kind of fathers we wanted to be. Choice Theory prompted many of us to rethink the way we approached our relationships. Communication skills gave us tools to communicate effectively. For me this was a shift in the cultural norm within the prison.

Now, I want to make Discovering Fatherhood accessible to the entire prison population in the U.S. Since my internship, I have been able to implement two small cohorts of Discovering Fatherhood. Moreover, I am training the latest group to be facilitators themselves, while I continue to update the final draft. My internship partner is in a different institution now and wants to start the program there as well. 

After my release at the end of 2023, I plan to self publish the curriculum, and turn Discovering Fatherhood into a nonprofit so we can distribute the workbooks to other institutions. I plan to expand the program for formerly incarcerated fathers too. Release presents a whole different set of challenges for parental relationships, and I want to support fathers through that process as well.

What I created now has a life of its own. While the work is far from done, I will continue until this program is available to the public. I discovered what it is to put the needs of others before my own, and in that process satisfy my needs as well. This journey was my own discovery of fatherhood.

This article first appeared on Prison Journalism Project, and is republished here under a Creative Commons license. If you’d like to support this important program, you can donate here.

For those unfamiliar, the Prison Journalism Project (PJP) trains incarcerated writers to be journalists and publishes their stories. They aim to empower a marginalized community to be a vital voice in criminal justice reform.

Leave a Comment