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Being a father, from inside prison

For prison inmates, being a parent is hard. You’re far away but you’re still here. And the visits and letters, those small points of contact, can become that much tougher for the distance. So, a group of inmates at Solano State prison are looking for help. 

In a parenting class for inmates called 'Parenting Inside Out,' many men are finding that being a good father starts with digging deep into your relationship with your own parents.

I had the opportunity to sit in on a class, and see for myself.

'Time out' vs. spanking

The men mostly look to be in their 20’s. They shuffle into the room in their blue clothes and high spirits, and give handshakes and hugs. There is a camaraderie among them that is palpable.

They pull up chairs, form a circle and look to Dr. Mary Jo Bauen, who's been teaching here for three years. The topic this week is ‘time out’ versus spanking.

"Raise your hand if you were spanked, because I was," Dr. Bauen says to the class. "And keep it up if you think it worked a little bit. Did it work a little bit? Uh huh, Uh huh. Some hands went down. You know, yeah, you get used to it. Some people might prefer a spanking to a time out. I’ve heard that before. Is that what you would say, B?"

B responds: "Nah, spanking just made me fight back. I got tired of it, like 'Man, you ain't gonna spank me no more.'"

Dr. Bauen reminds the class of the importance of discipline.

"We’ve started into the topic of discipline which is probably one of the most important things we do as parents, and discipline includes punishment and rewards. So, we’re disciplining our children to follow directions, and to cooperate, and to solve problems, to expect some failures.”

Demarcus Ralls is an inmate and recent graduate, who was chosen by Dr. Bauen to co-facilitate the class.

"What is the disadvantages of spanking?" Demarcus asks the group. He's writing the mens' answers on the board as they call them out.

"Resentment," says one inmate.

"Hate," says another.


To keep the conversation going, Demarcus reflects on his own childhood, and how he was parented.

"That not being talked to, that not being explained to certain things," he says, as though addressing his parents. "It was the fact that you never even considered my truth. I could get suspended from school for fighting, but you never even asked me the reason why I got suspended. As soon as I get home, you beating me and putting me in the corner and telling me to put my hands up for hours at a time, right? That's not effective parenting," explains Demarcus.

"What this class is about, what this group is about, is teaching us how to effectively be a father from the inside out," he sums up.

A model student

Dameion Brown, who goes by “Nation,” was in the very first Parenting Inside Out class back in early 2014. A year later, he was released from Solano.

I meet up with him in a conference room in downtown Oakland. He’s the father of five, so I jokingly ask him if he has a favorite.

He laughs.

"I just got a message from my daughter yesterday arguing the fact of who’s the favorite, but there are no favorites. I’m gonna say that I love all my children equally. However, I’m very attentive to the particular bends of all my children. I’m very aware of who needs what where and how much. Are you a parent?"

I shake my head "no."

"You’ll understand in time, you’ll understand. And you love them all the same, but some need more, some need less activity," Nation tells me. "But I love them all with everything in me, I do."

Credit Photo by Justine Lee
Nation Brown, a former inmate at Solano State Prison and graduate of 'Parenting Inside Out', stands in front of the Community Works West headquarters in Oakland, CA, where he now works as a case worker and mentor to young adults

Nation's children were the center of his world while he was in prison. Abraham Glasper, Brown’s friend and a current inmate at Solano, got to know Nation in the Parenting Inside Out class.

"His connectivity with his family exemplifies the need for familial interaction," Abraham says. "Listening to the stories of helping his daughter or his granddaughter go to sleep at night with a bedtime story on the phone. It’s why he got up everyday, striving to be free so that he could actively play that role."

Nation caught Dr. Bauen's attention, too.

"He didn't need to talk a lot, but when he had something to say, the eyes in the room turned to him and he had something really worth sharing from his own world," she recalls.

Nation spoke from experience. He spent 23 years in prison informally mentoring young inmates, playing the parental role he longed to play for his children.

"The things that I could not give my children, I gave to the young people in prison," Nation says.

It might come as a surprise then that Nation wasn’t always this adept at parenting. In fact, what sent him to prison in the first place represented a dark time for him as a young father: He was convicted of physically abusing his children, and was sentenced to 23 years to life.

Nation Brown: "The things that I could not give my children, I gave to the young people in prison."

Nation says he began to really understand the harm he had inflicted on his own children, through learning the story of one of the inmates he mentored.

"Corporal punishment was heavy in his upbringing, as was mine," Nation explains. "And he despised his dad because of it. And it was that that gave him license in his mind to go out and say, 'Okay, well I’m not the big chief at home, but when I go out here in these streets, I’m gonna be that big chief to someone else."

"And it made me look at me and the things that I had done as a dad.  Who was I bringing up in the world? What type of citizen was I creating? Because I’m looking at this young man who directly came through something like that and now he’s in a worse situation. So he taught me."

Nation became a model for good communication, anger management, and self-awareness. He was a respected leader in the 'Parenting Inside Out' class, regularly sharing insights and modeling skills. All of this helped improve Nation’s chances when he presented his case to the parole board back in 2015.

It helped, too, that Dr. Bauen advocated for him. She believed Nation could guide young people for a living -- and submitted a letter to the Warden as part of his hearing.

"And when I heard he was being paroled, I went to my boss, and I said you know, we’ve gotta, we’ve gotta hang on to Nation if we can. We’ve got to offer an internship if we have one because he’s got a lot to offer."

She kept her word. When Nation was released in 2015, Dr. Bauen's employer -- Community Works West, hired Nation as a case manager for formerly incarcerated adults aged 18 to 25.

In the past year, Nation has worked with about 40 people, helping them get their lives on track. One client, Oscar Pacheco, says recently Nation kept him from making a bad decision.

"In July, I had lost a friend. I've had gang ties in the past, and he got shot right there on 24th and Shotwell," Pacheco tells me. "I was in the verge of doing something about it. I ended up talking to Nation and he told me, 'If you want to go do it, you can go do it, but there's nobody gonna be out here looking out after your kid', and after he told me that, he just completely changed my mind and everything. I look up to him like another dad."

Nation says he has one goal with his clients:

"To keep you alive and to keep you free. And there is nothing that I do that deviates from that."

Checking out

Back in Solano Prison, the Parenting Inside Out class is always full. It even has a wait list.

Abraham says one of the most important themes of the class is that they are there to break the cycle.

"Because parenting doesn’t come with a handbook. And a lot of times our parents only gave us what their parents gave them, and so this is an opportunity for us to learn things that we didn’t necessarily receive from our parents."

Demarcus Ralls: You start with yourself, bettering yourself. If you better yourself, you give your child an example to look up to what a man is supposed to be.

Demarcus closes the session with some motivations.

"So you start early, you start very young in giving your children an ideal parent. You start with yourself, bettering yourself. If you better yourself, you give your child an example to look up to what a man is supposed to be."

At the end of class, we go around in the circle and do what’s called "checking out," stating our names and how we’re feeling.

"You gonna be a parent someday, Justine?" Dr. Bauen asks me.

"Yeah, I would love to be a parent someday…" I tell her; thinking about the idea with new perspective.

The class leaves me with a lot to think about as a potential parent. Most of all, I feel inspired by the men and their dedication to becoming better fathers, and in the process, better people.