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'Celebrate your children': sing sing fathers spend quality time with their kids.

There were more than 20 neatly dressed men, some in ties with crisp clean shirts. Flowers and hearts adorned the walls of the spacious room. Original artwork was everywhere--even on the faces of the dozens of children who lined up to get their face painted. White table cloths set a nice backdrop to the fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables placed neatly on the covered tables. Oh, did we mention that music from a DJ, wonderment from a magician, and pure, simple joy from a parent embracing his child filled the air in what was surely described as one of the most amazing celebrations one could ever imagine?

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And did we also mention that this celebration took place at one of the most iconic, maximum-security prisons in the world?

Throughout the halls and units of Sing Sing Correctional Facility--a maximum-security facility in Ossining, New York--inmates prepared for Friday, April 8, 2016. This special date debuted the "Celebrate Your Children" (CYC) program, a groundbreaking event that offered 22 inmates an opportunity to spend the evening bonding through quality time and activities with their children. The fathers cherished and feared this moment, a beautiful opportunity to reconnect with their kids. As a result of the event, two other facilities in New York State are planning their own similar events: Wallkill Correctional Facility in Wallkill, New York, plans to host an event in Fall 2017, and Gowanda Correctional Facility in Gowanda, New York, plans to host theirs in Spring 2018.

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The visiting room at Sing Sing Correctional Facility was transformed, if only for a few hours, into an inviting, bright, family-friendly room. CYC was the brainchild of a committee made up of the deputy commissioner for program services, two assistant commissioners for program services, a chaplain, volunteer services and recreation staff working out of New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision's Central Office. What resulted was an evening designed for the inmate fathers to spend a few precious hours with their children and grandchildren (without the presence of mothers, grandmothers or caregivers). The importance this role was the main focus of the event. The committee recognized the importance of this role as well as the obstacles these fathers face in spending quality time with their children during regular visits, a time when adult concerns often overshadow the relationship-building process. This event provided them the opportunity to bond.

Preparation for the event

As early as January 2016, the facility began posting flyers advertising the event around its units, and the applications started pouring in. First, inmates were screened to ensure they did not pose a risk to anyone who would be attending, and a requirement stipulated they have a satisfactory custodial adjustment in the year prior to the event. The approved inmates then attended three workshops to work on preparation.

During the first workshop, staff videotaped the inmates reciting messages for their children. In these workshops, the inmates also made "message flowers" and/or "message hearts" for each of their children. These crafts, as well as a continuous loop of the video messages, were on display during the event. When the time came to meet, the inmates and their children walked around and read each message, and the children had to guess which one their dad made for them. During CYC, a craft table was also set up, where the children could reciprocate these messages by making their own decorated flowers or hearts for their dads.

In anticipation of the event, the CYC committee faced a major obstacle: funding. Fortunately, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison came to the rescue. This organization, located also in Ossining, New York, provides college education, life skills and reentry support to incarcerated, and formerly incarcerated, men and women to help them make a positive impact on their own lives, their families and communities. Together, they believe this will result in lower rates of recidivism, incarceration and poverty. When CYC approached Hudson Link about assisting with fundraising, they graciously agreed to fund the entire event. Sing Sing Correctional Facility is a special place for the organization as it was the first facility to offer college-level courses through Hudson Link. Devoted to the rehabilitation of incarcerated men and women in New York State, Hudson Link believes, in addition to education, family is an important component of an inmate's successful release.

Additionally, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has several community organizations that they work closely with on many levels--one of which is the Osborne Association. Located in the Bronx, the Osborne Association's mission is to offer individuals who have been in conflict with the law opportunities to transform their lives through innovative, effective and replicable programs that serve the community by reducing crime and its human and economic costs. This group offers chances at reform and rehabilitation through public education, advocacy and alternatives to incarceration that respect the dignity of people and honor their capacity to change. A volunteer from the Osborne Association attended CYC's second workshop, where the inmates received information on parenting skills, communication and bonding in preparation for the time they would spend with their children.

The final workshop featured a guest speaker from the Grace Baptist Church's Station of Hope Prison Ministry in Mount Vernon, New York. This ministry focuses on bringing lost souls to Christ by advocating for and ministering to the needs of those adversely affected by the criminal justice system. This guest speaker focused on child support as well as other financial issues facing the inmate during his incarceration and upon release.

Concerns and hurdles

One concern for the committee was how the mothers would feel about leaving their children in the care of correctional staff for four hours and what they would be doing during that time. This led to the "Caregiver's Event." Held at the Star of Bethlehem Baptist Church's main hall--which is located approximately half a mile from the facility in Ossining--and with free transportation from the facility provided by Hudson Link, this event afforded the caregivers an opportunity to network with other women experiencing the same challenges. Guest speakers discussed issues such as financial strategies, and a woman shared stories of her experience growing up during her father's 30-year incarceration. Also, staff showed the videos of the fathers' messages for their children at this time. All together, these testimonies from guest speakers and the video presentation made the event a powerful moment for the mothers, grandmothers and caregivers in attendance.

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At the conclusion of the Caregiver's Event, each woman was given a gift bag from the Elements Day Spa in Lake Placid, New York, which were provided at cost and supported by the Trinity Episcopal Church in Ossining graciously supported this endeavor.

Approximately 20 volunteers donated their services in several capacities. Volunteer escorts were available to take the children from the visitor processing area to their fathers in the visiting room. This helped to ease concerns of the caregivers who were not accustomed to leaving their children unattended in a maximum-security correctional facility. Volunteer chaperones were assigned to several families to assist during the evening. They ensured that each family member had an opportunity to visit the photo area, face painter and craft table. Male and female New York State-certified teachers volunteered their time as bathroom monitors to ensure the safety of everyone in attendance.

The next hurdle for the facility was making the visiting room look like something other than a maximum-security facility. Sing Sing's executive team reached out to the Inmate Liaison Committee (ILC) to assist with this task. The ILC purchased canvasses and paint, and a group of inmates began working on a variety of family-friendly canvasses. Once finished, the canvasses covered the vending machines and some of the windows in the room. The inmates also designed an event banner, which featured a man and his child. The inmate artists also painted character boards that were built by the Vocational Carpentry Shop at Sing Sing that featured popular characters, such as Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Elsa and Superman. Thirty-two children and their fathers enjoyed having their photos taken with the character boards.

Results

The committee used the donated funds to purchase "linen-like" table clothes, clear plastic plates and glassware, as well as plastic eating utensils that looked real. They also rented cloth chair covers and tied each off with spring-colored fabric. Gone were the sporks, Styrofoam plates and cups that the inmates and their families were accustomed to using. The neighboring Bedford Hills Correctional Facility's horticulture program donated fresh flower arrangements, and the room was truly transformed.

Hudson Link introduced the committee to congregants from the Episcopal Church of Heavenly Rest in Manhattan. The church provided volunteers, gift bags for the children and, most importantly, a professional photographer to document the event. Each inmate and each child received a printed photograph that was placed in a frame, decorated by the fathers and their children, to commemorate the event. Everyone left that evening with one of these amazing keepsakes.

The CYC committee was privileged to locate some amazing donated talent for the event. A local priest/magician provided an entertaining magic act, during which freshly popped popcorn was served. An amazing teenage artist transformed the children into their favorite characters with face paint while a disc jockey played popular dance music.

A few weeks after the event, the committee sent each caregiver an evaluation form to complete and return. The response was overwhelming, with comments from the children and caregivers that made all the hard work of the committee worth it. The following are some quotes that sum up the event:

"We loved being able to contribute a photograph so your families have a lasting memento of a powerful evening overflowing with love, family, respect and lots of fun."--the volunteer photographer.

"Was wonderful. So inspiring... the fathers got an A-plus. Staff did a beautiful job and the children priceless ...."--an Hour Children volunteer.

"Thank you, Mr. McKoy. What you and the Department did was provide a vehicle to mend and build one of the most important relationships in the world--the relationship of a father and child."--a Sing Sing inmate.

"They [the children] were very impressed with the face painter. My son said, 'and mom, he was a teenager!'"--a mother.

"I was so filled with joy, coming to visit a loved one has always been a cloudy experience, until this day."--a caregiver.

The event would not have been possible without the generous contributions from Hudson Link, Star of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Trinity Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church of Heavenly Rest, the Elements Day Spa and Salon, and the many dedicated volunteers and staff. The committee is hopeful that this event can be expanded to others facilities in New York and is currently looking at several potential locations.

BY LISA BRENNAN

Lisa Brennan is assistant director of family and volunteer services at the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and is current president of the New York Corrections and Youth Services Association, a dual chapter of ACA.
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Title Annotation:FAMILIES; Sing Sing Correctional Facility, New York
Author:Brennan, Lisa
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 1, 2017
Words:1849
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