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July 13, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Power of the written word Power of the written word (July 13, 2005)

Reading program aims to reconnect convicts with families

by Sue Dremann

Howard's body language communicates "tough guy"; he's got the gangsta moves down. At age 20, he's facing three years in state prison. But all that melts away when reading "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs" by A. Wolf.

He likes the pun in the author's name -- it's one of his favorite books. As he talked about a future in San Quentin prison, Howard swallowed hard. But he's looking forward to the day he'll be out and able to read Dr. Seuss's "Oh, the Places You'll Go," to his eight godchildren. "I want to be a positive role model. They all look up to me," he said.

Howard recently graduated from the Parenting Fathers Program, a parenting, reading and literacy program in the Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City. Parenting Fathers, also called the Fathers 'N Families program, is a 4-year-old effort backed by Project READ.

In lessons such as "Setting Goals for Children," "What do Children Need?" "How Children Learn: Child Development," "Images of Father: Role Models," and "Communication vs. Punishment," inmates learn child-rearing skills.

Teaching a group who often reject the rules of society requires a unique approach. The men receive the lessons in simple terms, reading children's books such as "The Chocolate Covered Cookie Tantrum," a story about dealing with temper tantrums; and "My Man Blue," a story about positive male role models. Issues such as "I Wish Daddy Didn't Drink So Much" and "When Andy's Father Went to Prison" help inmates deal with issues related to their incarceration.

At the end of the 16-hour program, inmates read at least one children's book on audiotape; a copy of the book and tape will go home to their child -- even if daddy cannot. The program was developed by Palo Altan Bill Burns, Project READ Director Kathy Endaya and Burn's assistant Denise Salas. It's based on a similar effort developed at San Quentin prison and the San Jose jail, according to Burns.

"As children, 80 percent of these guys were never read to. Reading has been shown to break the cycles of illiteracy and recidivism. This is a way to introduce reading into the home," Burns said.

The men are also reshaping their self-images by learning accountability and goal-setting. Among the eight inmates in Howard's group, most said the biggest change they saw in themselves was the power of becoming a positive role model.

"I learned how important it is that children need their father to be the nucleus of the family. I'm learning also how important it is to change my life and stop committing crimes. The class always reminds me there's someone out there who depends on me," said Darnell, who has an 18-month-old daughter.

Perry doesn't have children, but wants to provide comfort to kids living in crisis. "I'm taping stories to give to kids living in a group home," he said.

Maguire jail is where infamous murderer Scott Peterson cooled his heels while awaiting trial. As the 63-year-old Burns, bearded and silver-haired, passed through the metal detector at the facility, khaki-colored metal doors automatically slammed shut behind him.

For three decades, Burns was head of the San Mateo County Juvenile Hall court schools. Now retired, he works part-time for Parenting Fathers, which is also linked to such jail literacy programs as high school GED certification, inmate tutoring and prisoner poetry classes.

He could have receded into a comfortable retirement. At the jail, Burns takes a risk each time he walks through the metal doors. Each year is a grim reminder of the dangers he faces when he renews an indemnity form, in case he becomes a hostage, Burns said. But he loves his job because it effects real change in people's lives.

Sometimes, the person he least expects to influence is the one who triumphs, Burns said.

His own father was an alcoholic who died early from the disease. The turmoil of his father's condition contributed to Burns' own struggles. "In high school and college, I was an angry young man. I almost didn't make it out of high school, except for the influence of two teachers and my mom. My mom signed me up for college," he said.

After a couple of years at San Jose State, he dropped out. He led a rudderless life, working odd jobs and pumping gas.

An older friend, Jim Birdsong, set him on the right path. "He just told me, 'What are you going to be 20 years from now?' He made me believe (having a vocation) is a possibility," Burns said. "He said, 'Just shut up. Don't think, just get it done.'"

Burns loved writing, so he earned a degree in English from San Jose State. Writing helps him process the complexities of his life -- the loves, losses and confusion, Burns said. Poetry is his main mode of self-expression.

Burns has published two volumes of poetry. Sometimes, it examines the same subject matter he teaches the inmates: the role of the father and its impact on a son. He wrote one poem, "My Father's Cough," about how a small gesture such as a habitual cough summed up his father's identity to Burns. "I have his same cough," Burns said, reflecting that one is eternally linked to the past.

Watching him in action, it's clear Burns learned from his life's lessons. In the glass-fronted class room, the eight men shifted uneasily in their seats; an air of tension filtering through the room. They are of all ages and races, dressed in orange down to their socks; some sport tattoos. As Burns spoke, passing around books and handouts, the inmates immediately relaxed, responding to his affable and unassuming air.

Burns isn't judgmental; he doesn't ask why the men are in jail. "I don't want to know. Even in my three decades of working in juvenile hall, I didn't want to know -- unless it became apparent that some kid had a real problem and I needed to know. I don't want their record to influence my opinion of them," he said.

It's graduation day. The last lesson is about the importance of reading aloud to children.

The men read out loud from the handouts: "Read aloud to children of all ages, even babies," reads Etienne.

"Read books that are easy for you and that you like, so it is fun to read," Armail, a lean man with dreadlocks said.

"Use the book to talk about things in your life that are important to both you and your child," Ron said.

"What can you do to help kids learn words when you're shopping?" Burns asked.

"Point out things, like the color of a vegetable, red tomatoes, or green peppers," Howard said.

"Reading aloud is the single most important thing you can do to help your children succeed in school," the men recite.

Burns hands out the diplomas. The men examine the engraved paper, their names written in calligraphy. Nate, another young inmate, was angry. He missed passing his GED by only two points; he'll miss wearing a cap and gown; getting his picture taken to send to his family -- for now. Frustrated, he talked earlier about giving up but now was holding the Parenting Fathers diploma in his hands -- his first successful step forward. "That looks good," he said.

Burns stood before the class, beaming. "A teacher always learns something from his students. I learn from you," Burns said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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