Seeing Is Believing: Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program on Video

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Washington to Texas, Arizona to Connecticut, Milt Lee has traveled the country with one goal in mind: Getting in to prisons. Why? As part of the Maza Tiopa Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Lee shuttles videotaped messages from youth to their incarcerated parents and back in an effort to build a connection that could help brighten all of their futures.

"The more connected people are to their children, the less likely that they are going to go back to prison," Lee said. "And the child really gains a strength that can keep them from following in their parent's footsteps."

While communicating with family is often hard from jail, Native prisoners have an especially difficult time maintaining relationships with their children. Since a number of crimes on the reservation are considered Federal offenses, infractions may land a mother or father in a Federal penitentiary thousands of miles from home. And while phone calls and letters are important, the power of seeing a parent or child on film is undeniable. Just ask the family in one of Lee's recent sessions, which resulted in a promotional video for the program.

The first time they were interviewed, the three adolescent girls were visibly angry and hurt. They were dismissive of their incarcerated father's role in their lives. "I'm not looking for a dad anymore," one of the girls said. "But if he wants to be my friend, I'll be open to that."

Their father, who has been in and out of prison their whole lives, was clearly shaken by their comments but responded with understanding. "I know I'm going to have to initiate this," he said. "If she wants to be friends, that's more than what I can ask for. That's more than what I deserve."

By the second round of video letters, father and daughters were laughing, sharing stories, and talking about a future together.

As the Maza Tiopa mentoring program grows to serve more young people, Lee hopes to expand the video letters service as well. One of the biggest challenges he has encountered however, is convincing prison administrators to let him in.

"They say they are afraid the inmate is going to say something that is going to hurt the child," Lee said. "Or they are afraid they are going to say things that are codes for drug deliveries and crimes."

Lee has assured prison officials that videos are edited for appropriateness before family members see them.

Then, the healing begins.

National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth | 5515 Security Lane, Suite 800 | North Bethesda, MD 20852 | (301) 608-8098 | ncfy@acf.hhs.gov