Grad students help prisoner dads reconnect

By Sayyed Shah

Graduate students at the Department of Communication and Journalism are collaborating with Fathers Building Futures, an Albuquerque business, to help felons integrate into their families after incarcerations.

Tema Milstein, associate professor at the Department of Communication and Journalism, said the students from a PhD professional seminar class are collaborating with PB&J, a nonprofit organization working for the rights of children, and specifically with Fathers Building Futures.

“This unit of the class in which we are collaborating is focused on using research and teaching to help bring about positive change,” Milstein said. “We really wanted to engage our graduate students, who are going to be future professors, in understanding how they can bring about positive change in their work.”

Fathers Building Futures is an initiative of PB&J Family Services that provides hands-on service and skill-oriented training to previously incarcerated people in auto detailing, mobile power washing and customized woodworking, according to the PB&J website.

“Fathers Building Futures aims to connect formerly incarcerated fathers with their professional and civic promises while providing affordable, meaningful and useful services to the community,” a PB&J press release states. “In the process, child recidivism is cut by close to 50 percent, and children benefit from a father who is not role modeling behind bars.”

Fathers Building Futures is working to protect the futures of children as well as their parents, said Dean Ma’ayan, director of PB&J Family Services’ Development & Strategic Initiatives.

“In the majority of cases fathers are returning to jails not because they committed a new crime, but because they failed to secure housing or employment — which translates to their Probation Officer as a violation of their parole plan,” Ma’ayan said. “Creating a business to employ them as they leave prison was our solution to the tremendous problems these fathers face: not being able to get hired despite their talent and desire to work.”

She said that many Fathers Building Futures graduates have found employment in other organizations.

This workforce development project of PB&J Family Services has been funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Family Assistance, through its Responsible Fatherhood community-based pilot project grant.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, children of prisoners are 10 times more likely to partake in criminal behavior than children with non-incarcerated parents.

Milstein thought this project was a particularly good collaboration for her graduate students, she said.

“It is a nice way to engage the University with people who have served time,” she said. “I think what we are practicing is a kind of research service learning. This is the second year we have been doing this.”

The C&J students’ role in the project is to help fathers who have served time tell their stories.

“After we interview them, we go over with the stories with them and we give them their stories so that they could have something to hand on to their children — like what they went through and how they are trying to improve their lives,” Milstein said.

C&J students are also helping Fathers Building Futures and the organization Young Women United prepare some of these fathers for testimony in the current state legislative session, in support of a bill that will help the previously incarcerated fathers be considered for jobs.

“This year we are also helping them with a bill, which is at the State Legislature right now (Senate Bill 120),” Milstein said. “The bill is about trying to take away the felony box from work applications. We are coordinating with the organizations lobbying for the bill.”

Joseph Shaw, 33, is a woodshop supervisor at Fathers Building Futures. He said the business has helped him return to a normal life after almost 10 years of suffering.

“From about 2005 to 2011 I was just doing drugs; I was consumed in drugs,” Shaw said. “At one time I lost everything. I lost my car, my jobs. Now my life is good: I have two cars at my apartment, I have two kids and a wife. I have gotten a job here.”

Shaw is one of the men from Fathers Building Futures who was chosen to speak at the legislative session in support of SB 120.

“It is basically a shut door right now,” he said. “We are knocking on the door and we do not even get it opened because we get stereotyped before we’re even considered. It keeps us from progressing.”

The majority of these fathers are working hard to rebuild their futures, and some plan to enroll at UNM in search of a brighter future, Ma’ayan said.

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