A Program that Changes Lives: Inmates Talk About Lessons They’ve Learned About Parenting and Love

April 1, 2004

by Danielle Frost of the Wilsonville Spokesman

It was the final straw.

Inmate Monica West looked across the intake room at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in March 2004, and saw a familiar face staring back at her.

It was her 21-year-old daughter.

“When I saw her looking at me, I thought, ‘I have got to get help. This is enough.'”
West had spent most of her adult years behind bars. She battled addictions including cocaine, crack and heroin.

“I got involved with the wrong man, whom I loved dearly, but was a very active drug dealer,” West, 45, recalled. “He was the father of my four daughters. I just picked up the behaviors. My mom shielded me from this kind of life, but I got involved with that man, and we began having children together and using together. Those short days in jail became long months and long years.”

Her son followed in her footsteps. It was a lifestyle that would end in tragedy. Shortly after being released from prison in 1997, he was gunned down, execution style, in a gang-related shooting.

This followed on the heels of her daughter’s father being shot and crippled two years earlier.

“I didn’t think I could go any lower,” she said. “By then, nothing else mattered.”

That was until she saw her daughter in prison.

Alone and terrified at the prospect of another child following in her footsteps, West made tentative steps to reach out.

She wanted to enroll in a parenting program at Coffee Creek, but was told her children were too old. West was persistent, however, and was finally asked if she wanted to enroll.

“I had to learn to re-parent myself, and to parent my children the way my mom parented me,” she said. “Basically, I bought my kids’ love so I could keep on using drugs and doing what I was doing. This program has given me a lot of hope, and it’s better than any treatment center I could have gone to.”

She enjoys playing with her nine grandchildren and giving them the time she was never able to give her kids.

The program West is in is Parenting Inside Out, a research-based training curriculum written specifically for the incarcerated.

It is based on the belief that incarcerated parents continue to parent their children from prison.

The program is like none other in the country, Assistant Superintendent Lory Humbert said.

“We went across the country to look at programs, but none of them met our needs of parenting from afar,” she said. “So we designed our own program. It’s evolved from parents being videotaped interacting with their kids to more of a parenting support group.”

After an intensive 12 weeks of parenting classes, women who want to continue meeting do so. This is where it becomes more of a support group.

Currently, the program has a waiting list of 430 inmates.

“It’s very popular,” Hubert said. “It’s also a part of a 10-year study by the Oregon Social Learning Center. They’re trying to see what kind of difference it makes in attitudes.”

Inmate Cari Fiske said it definitely changed some of her ideas about parenting.

“I learned that I was putting a lot on my daughter,” she said. “I would write her letters and tell her, ‘Mommy’s so sorry, I’ll never do this again.’ But I learned that I needed to just let her know I was safe and making friends.”

Fiske, 42, never imagined she would be parenting from inside prison.

“My parents are very successful and I didn’t use drugs until my early 30s,” she said.

Fiske began hanging around the wrong crowd and using methamphetamine. She and her husband quit for nearly seven years, but ran into old friends on a trip to the coast and ended up on a meth binge.

Soon after, she was sent to prison for identity theft and her husband was imprisoned for various drug related charges.

“I was very broken when I came here,” she said. “I hadn’t seen my daughter in three months.”

Fiske heard about the parenting program and thought it might provide an opportunity for her to be reunited with her 5-year-old child.

“I learned how to parent her while incarcerated,” she said. “I learned that visiting time was also parenting time. When she comes to Coffee Creek, I clean her ears, clip her toenails and do her hair. It’s a great opportunity to parent her. Her Dad is really excited about this program as well, and he’s starting to take the classes.”

Fiske said the parenting program was a lifesaver.

“Being in the group has given me an opportunity to see the serious needs of people,” she said. “I am very fortunate to have had the family I had. The program gives people skills that some never learned when growing up.”

Crystal Torres is one of those women who didn’t have a healthy family background.

“I don’t like to say it, but it was what most people would call white trash,” Torres, 48, said. “Both of my parents used speed and they had six kids. We grew up with physical abuse, emotional abuse and drug abuse.”

Torres began prostituting herself at the age of 14. She was joined by her mother. She also began using drugs as a way to escape reality.

Torres, the mother of four, has been in and out of prison for 25 years.

“When I was in prison, I didn’t do anything,” she said. “I had no contact with my kids and I just felt like a loser. My intentions were always good when I was released from prison, and I did well for three or four months every time. Then I’d get arrested for prostitution and drugs.”

Torres has no contact with her older children. Her 13-year-old son was adopted out. She has only one child left. He was her inspiration to change.

Torres completed the parenting program at the prison, and was so successful, she was asked to be a mentor to other inmates.

She sees her son every weekend and is involved in a family literacy group and a Boys Scouts Beyond Bars group.

“I’ve done a lot of damage to my son, my family and my husband,” she said. I’ve been a menace to them. But now, I have the tools to be a winner.”

Jessica Tufti, who was released from prison the day after she was interviewed for this article, is hopeful for the future.

The mother of two boys, she is looking forward to life outside prison.
“I don’t want to come back here,” Tufti said. “There’s lots of tools I’ve learned in the parenting class that I’ll be using, like discipline. I had my boys with me before, but I didn’t want them to know I was drinking and using drugs. I would just try to buy their love with toys. It is going to be different now.”

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2004, The Register-Guard, www.registerguard.com