On days when Irvin Hines’ 4-year-old son comes to visit him, he feels anxious.
“When I get into the visit room and he looks up and sees me, I see his face light up, my face lights up,” and all the anxiety Hines had felt is gone.
Hines is an inmate at Columbia River Correctional Institute. He said building a relationship with his son while incarcerated has been hard.
“Initially he would come in and see other guys that look similar to me and think that was his dad, you know, and that hurt,” Hines said. “But I also knew that it was no fault of his own.”
Of the more than 14,000 incarcerated adults in Oregon, an estimated 80% of women and 65% of men have children, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections. On Friday, The Contingent, a Portland-based nonprofit organization announced a new program for people like Hines, called ”Know Me Now.” It aims to connect incarcerated parents with their children for an in-person visit at least once a month.
Hines’ most recent stint in prison happened when his son was only 7 months old. Family members would share pictures with the boy and they would have video visits. He has three children and said he’s been to prison three times in his adult life.
“And now I could see that he knows I'm dad because he don't want to get off the phone. He goes to crying, he throws a fit,” Hines said. “They have to fill out another visit form on the videos so we can video visit to calm him down.”
Nichole Brown is the superintendent of Columbia River Correctional Institution which houses 600 male inmates. Most of them only have 12 to 18 months left of their sentence.
“There is an opportunity here to affect the lives of the children and families of these incarcerated adults with therapeutic interventions such as the treatment programs that we've offered, family reunification activities that impact long term success of the adults in custody and their children,” Brown said.
In its first year, Know Me Now will focus on the Portland tri-county area with the intent of becoming a statewide, 36-county initiative. Children will be transported to seven prisons within a 60-mile radius of Portland. And for the first 90 days, the program is focusing on incarcerated parents whose children are part of the foster-care system. They are committed to transporting young adults who have aged out of the foster care system, as well as children as young as nine.
The program seeks not only to connect children with their incarcerated parents, but also support those families upon reentry into society. A host of community based organizations, government agencies and volunteers are partnering to create radical change in the lives of individuals incarcerated in Oregon.
“We are going all in. We want to change the narrative that says a child who has an incarcerated parent is doomed to incarceration themselves,” Anthony Jordan, President of The Contingent, told the crowd Friday in the Columbia River Correctional Institution multi-purpose room. “We are committed to recruiting culturally responsive mentors that will walk alongside these 70 [foster] children.”
At the same time the program intends to bring children into prisons, it’s working to make the spaces for families more comfortable. The Columbia River facility’s visiting room has metal tables with sharp corners and hard metal seats attached. Off to the side is a cart with bins of baby dolls, books and games for parents to engage with their kids. The Contingent is working with business partners, civic organizations, and faith communities to re-imagine spaces.
“We have transformed over 100 visitation room spaces across Oregon. All of those have been local community organizations and groups that are adopting or sponsoring those local spaces,” Brooke Gray, executive director of mobilizing community at The Contingent told the crowd.
“So we've already been in conversation with some community partners and businesses here that are excited about getting involved and designing the spaces. We try to provide as much freedom and creativity to those local groups while keeping a trauma-informed lens to the space.”
Children with incarcerated parents face many barriers. Know Me Now hopes to to remove them and help strengthen foster families, like the bonds between Hines and his son.
“And now I see just in the way he says, 'Dad, I love you!' and 'Dad, what you up to?'” Hines said.
“That I know that my son is really harnessing that I'm ... I'm Dad.”