Helping kids reconnect, strengthen relationships with incarcerated parents
In January 2020, the nonprofit The Contingent launched a program called Know Me Now to facilitate visits for kids with their incarcerated parents. Oregon has more than 14,000 people in prison. An estimated 75% of the women incarcerated at the state’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility are mothers, and more than half of men serving time in Oregon are fathers. During the pandemic, the program quickly retooled and shifted focus to virtual visitations. Hosheman Brown is the director of community engagement for Know Me Now. He says creating strong parent-child relationships is part of creating the pro-social networks that prevent recidivism and support parents’ success when they are released. We talk with Brown and Antoinette So’Fine, who is a mother currently serving time in the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: In January of 2020, a new program started up in Oregon called Know Me Now. The idea was to nurture and improve relationships between kids and their incarcerated parents, both during incarceration and after release. The pandemic upended in-person meetings. But as of last month they can start up again. For more on how this program works and why it was created in the first place I’m joined by Hosheman Brown, Director of Community Engagement for Know Me Now, Antoinette So’Fine, a mother of three who is serving a 12 year sentence at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and Irvin Hines, a father of three, who is formerly incarcerated. It’s great to have all three of you on the show. Irvin Hines, my understanding is that your son was a baby when you went into prison in 2015 and you had two older children. How much were you able to stay in touch with your kids when you were behind bars?
Irvin Hines: It was confusing to say the least. They have a system to which you make phone calls. But the way we do our correspondence, to get the best results, would be in the mail, sending a letter out. Catching family members on the phone or on a visit is very hard to do at any point in time because their lives go on. As you know, we go to incarceration and their lives still have to go on.
Miller: I imagine mail doesn’t help too much if you’re talking about a newborn or a one-year-old or a two-year-old. So how much contact did you have with your son?
Hines: It was minimal. At first I was in Salem. So when they would have an opportunity to drive down I could see my younger son [but] it was hard to try to stay connected with [him]. He was six months old at my time of incarceration. It was really hard trying to be a consistent parent in his life with the incarceration.
Miller: Did he know who you were?
Hines: No, he didn’t. That was the hard part.
Miller: How did you try to foster a relationship?
Hines: Through his older sister and his mother. I’ve been in his older sister’s life for her whole life. She’s my number one. So me and her had a great relationship and what I used to do when I was talking to her [was] to try my best to incorporate me being in there with family. And I tell my daughter to just put me in areas, don’t let my son forget who I am. Always have a picture of me around. At times when they visit with me, we’ve taken pictures in the visiting room. And her mom would always tell her to point at my picture and say, ‘that, Da-da’. That kind of keeps me in the fold the best way possible. [We were] as creative as we could get. When a little boy is still trying to grow out of a child into a little boy then puberty comes. Through that period I just wanted to be there for that.
Miller: You are still in prison, five years into a 12 year sentence at Coffee Creek and with three kids. How old were your kids when you began serving your time?
Antoinette So’Fine: They were six, seven and nine.
Miller: My understanding is that you had fairly regular visits with your two younger children. But you’ve gotten help from Know Me Now to support your relationship with your 14-year old. How often were you able to talk on the phone or to see her in person before the pandemic?
So’Fine: I’d talk to her on the phone probably a couple of times a year and I’d probably see her once a year.
Miller: That’s barely any time. What were those conversations or meetings like?
So’Fine: It was pretty awkward because we haven’t seen each other. So it was kind of hard to find anything to relate to. But I just did as I always did [by] remaining her mother and asking important questions about what’s going on in her life and just hugging her and kissing her and giving her all the affection and compassion I can give her in the time that I have.
Miller: Did it feel like she wanted to be there?
So’Fine: Yes. Yes she did.
Miller: How did you figure out what to talk about? I imagine, if you’re not there all the time for the boring stuff of life that makes up most of life, it seems like it would be harder to figure out how to connect.
So’Fine: Correct. At the beginning I just asked her if there was anything she wanted to talk to me about and it was kind of hard for her to open up at first. But they have games here so as we played the games, she started winning, we began laughing and stuff. Then it was easier for her to start opening up to me.
Miller: Hosheman Brown is the Director of Community Engagement for Know Me Now. This initiative started in early 2020 and is part of the nonprofit, The Contingent What led you to start this new initiative?
Hosheman Brown: We started Know Me Now in January of 2020 when we did some research. After [the analysis of the data] we learned that one of the biggest gaps in Oregon was the care for adults upon returning to their community from prison. And so we decided to meet with some key community members and ask them, ‘what would it be like if we were to engage and try to make an impact in the reentry world’. And that’s when our leadership got together, put together a concept paper and did some research on some of the top major programs in the country. And out of the birth of that, it became Know Me Now.
Miller: What is it about family visitations that made you want to zero in on the connections between people who are behind bars and their kids who are in the outside world?
Brown: The one thing about the connection between the parents and the kids is that we understand that all kids need to have a parent and all parents need to have an opportunity to be able to parent their kid, whether they’re incarcerated or not these parents will be coming home. And so at Know Me Now what we decided to do was to give them an opportunity to be a parent while they’re incarcerated and have that one-on-one connection with their child. [In addition we also wanted to] put wrap- around services for them as they’re being released from incarceration. We also [wanted to] build a program of mentorship for the child while the child is dealing with the parent being incarcerated and really build that love and that engagement while the parent is incarcerated. So as parents are coming out of incarceration we can help them have a very healthy relationship with their child and then become a parent again.
Miller: What wasn’t working in terms of family visitations at the Department of Corrections or Department of Human Services - their approach to family connections in the past.
Brown: I don’t know if it was anything with their approach. A little over 14,000 people were incarcerated. Of them 80% are women and 20% of them are men. As a former case worker with the Department of Human Services for some time, I knew how long sometimes it took for a kid to get visitation. So when we looked at those numbers we wanted to do something about that because we wanted to break the cycle of generational incarceration.
Miller: Irvin Hines. One of the things that I’ve been curious about is what visiting rooms inside are like. Are they places where a two year old would feel comfortable and want to play?
Hines: I found I had to get creative. I knew once I had gotten to the visiting room with a little boy I had to get creative. I knew that what we had at our disposal wasn’t a lot. So with [limited] time that was being spent with me, I didn’t want [my son] to spend too much [time] trying to find something to do because there wasn’t much to do. I wanted him to get reacquainted with me every moment that we had. I wanted to take that opportunity where we could play a game together, whatever that game was, I would get creative and make the game into something that wouldn’t divide us, you know, in that moment but bring us closer together, not with just me and him, but also my daughter. I had to figure out ways to give him some time and her some time at the same time. I was thinking my son doesn’t have me to raise him - to do any of his firsts, you know, there’s his first words, his first steps. My daughter had that [from me] so I wanted to make sure that even in this moment of my incarceration, I gave them equal time in that visiting room and [didn’t] pay too much attention to the things that weren’t around us, but what we could do with the moment that we have with each other right then.
Miller: You said that there was a time when he didn’t know who you were. Did that change?
Hines: Yeah. I mean it changed towards the end of my incarceration when I got closer to Portland, where I was closer to my family. I got moved to CRCI, Columbia River Correctional Institution here in Northeast Portland and the visits got a little bit more frequent. So I got a chance to put in what I wanted him to have, that I didn’t want him to spill into the world. And that wasn’t anything that I could give him. Right? I just wanted him to know that I was his dad and I was there for him, even though I wasn’t there in the physical sense. I’m his dad, you know?
Miller: What does he call you?
Hines: He calls me ‘dad, Da-da’. There were times when it really hurt me to know, and I would say that it was a funny moment, but there were moments where my son would see guys who resemble me. And he would point at that person and say, ‘Da-da’. That tore me up the most. But I knew I couldn’t allow that moment where my son was unknowing of me to make me feel like I’m a bad dad. No, I had to create a space that said, ' no, I’m his dad. And he’s going to know that’. I just have to be more available and accessible. And for me that’s being accountable.
Miller: Antoinette So’Fine, we were talking about this program in January of 2020 We had big hopes of helping dozens of kids and their incarcerated parents connect in deeper ways. And then the pandemic hit, which shut off in-person visits at all Oregon prisons. What did that mean for you and your ability to connect with your kids?
So’Fine: My mom was just dying to bring them up here. It was the main source of me being able to see them face to face. My mom is older, so she really doesn’t know how to do video visits [or] anything about technology. That was the only way for me to really see them, have interaction with them. So it was really hard.
Miller: For close to a year and a half you had none of that? How did that affect the way you experienced your time behind bars?
So’Fine: Oh, it made it extra hard. You know, my kids are everything. So not having that communication and that drive makes [it] hard to get into things. It was really hard to get motivated into anything and do anything.
Miller: Hosheman Brown in most of the last year and a half you like everybody else had to pivot. What did Know Me Now do during the pandemic?
Brown: We [had] just launched Know Me Now right before the pandemic hit. So it really pushed us into a tailspin about how we were going to work. Our initial thoughts were to transport kids down to each facility within a 60 to 70 mile radius and have those kids do one-on-one visits with their parents. Pandemic hits. Our team got together without leadership, reacted very quickly and we started talking with the Department of Corrections about seeing if they would be able to put kiosks in all 14 of the institutions here in Oregon. and what they were able to do without building that relationship.
As we’d been working with the Department of Correction and ODHS throughout that year, they were just pleasant and said, ‘yeah, we’re willing to do that’. So we launched the first visitation center here in Oregon, where we have computers, games, a living room area and healthy snacks. It’s just a beautiful space for these kids to actually come in, sit down behind a computer and connect with their parents for about 25 minutes. Some have an hour on a weekly basis to really connect with their parents.
The very first visit we had in that space was this kid who reached out to us online and said, ‘hey, I’m reading about your program and haven’t seen my dad in two years. Next week is my dad’s birthday. And I would love to just be able to have a conversation with him.’ So our team jumped in, we connected with the Department of Corrections and we were able to make that happen. Just watching that kid connect, watching that first two minutes of silence was just unbelievable. And I’ll never forget that moment. And that’s what we’re aiming for with Know Me Now. We want to be able to create those connections. We want to be able to see parents connect with their kid, coming out, receiving our services and walking back into life into a community that they have been away from for whatever [and for] however long they’ve been incarcerated.
Miller: Let’s turn to walking back into community. Your program doesn’t end once incarceration ends. My understanding is you recruit community members to join what you call ‘crews’ as a way to help people when they’re released. What do these crews do?
Brown: So we call them ‘crews’. These crews walk alongside this mom or dad who’s being released from incarceration. We’re asking for a minimum of a year and they provide a pro-social network of support, love and engagement. So we’re recruiting crews of three to five people to walk alongside these moms and dads helping them with [issues of] addiction, finding housing, needing parenting skills, or looking for a job. We have been able to connect and write a grant with JOIN, [an organization] who’s really been so influential in helping us with finding temporary and permanent housing for these adults who are in custody within the first year.
Miller: Antoinette So’Fine, what’s your hope for your relationships with your kids by the time you’re released?
So’FineI just hope that it’s the same as when I came in, you know, they know that I’m always here for them and that they can come to me for anything and that we can be as close as we were.
Miller: Even with this program, does that seem possible to have the same relationship with your kids you had before you were incarcerated?
So’Fine: I think it’s possible, especially with this program, you know. It’s building our edge, helping us build our relationship back.
Miller: Irvin Hines, my understanding is that you recently went to your son’s first football game, is that right?
Hines: Yeah, I went to his first flag football game. I was so thankful. I used to sit in prison and think about all the firsts that I would miss. But this was just the top of the iceberg for me to watch him get that football and run around as wild as he wanted to be. And then the first time he touched the ball he ran for a touchdown. So that was the icing on the cake. All those moments that I used to think, in despair, behind those walls, not knowing how good a dad I would be to my firstborn son. This moment that I spent with him two Saturdays ago just let me know that patience is all I need. [With] continuing patience everything will work out with my son and my daughter, and my other daughter.
Miller: According to recent numbers from the Department of Corrections, about two thirds of men behind bars have children and a higher percentage of women have children. When you were behind bars, how much did you talk with people around you about being a father?
Hines: Oh, a lot because I’m, I’m an older guy,  so a lot of the younger generation would come to me and talk to me about the issue they were having with loved ones and especially their children, especially the younger guys becoming young fathers at 19 20, 21, 22 years of age. And they’re still trying to be a man and they’re still trying to raise a child while still trying to develop into a man. It dumbfounds a lot of the men. So for me, being there and being available to give back good feedback, especially[about] trying to maneuver fatherhood the best way I knew, I was just trying to be open to new discoveries and open to new traditions.
And for me, always being there for my kids. Since I’ve been released from prison, I’ve been around my children every day or at least every day, I get an opportunity outside of work and, and volunteer work that I do. I always try to spend as much time with my kids and give them equal opportunity to know me now, to know the new guy. I knew that coming home, I couldn’t just insert myself into their lives and like ‘daddy’s home ' like it doesn’t change. It does change. So I have to start thinking differently. I have to start reinvigorating myself every day to make sure that my children know that I’m here for them. You know?
I tell people all the time that my children have a predisposition genetically because they have everything that their father has - my attitude, my walk, they sound just like me. They are me. Right? So for my children’s sake, what I have to do is for them to see me doing something different. The best evidence for them is to watch their dad do something different. That way the evidence is clear. If they see dad going to work every day and coming home and tired and wanting to get his feet off the ground, they know dad’s been hard at work trying to provide. And that’s what makes me [have] more gratitude and more graciously be there for my children. Taking that time to show them their dad can work hard and be a productive member of society. And all I want you to do is to be the best version of you that you can.
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