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Oregon Prison Parenting Program Dramatically Reduces Recidivism

Oregon prisoners who complete a parenting program are significantly less likely to engage in criminal behavior and substance abuse after release, a long-term study found.

More than half of America’s 2.3 million prisoners have children under the age of 18 according to a 2010 Pew study. In other words, one of every 28 children in the U.S. has an incarcerated parent. Around half of incarcerated parents were their child’s primary financial provider before being arrested. According to another study by the Brookings Institute, African American parents who did not graduate from high school are 50 percent more likely to spend time behind bars before their child’s fourteenth birthday.

“If we are going to improve the lives of children and keep them safe and healthy, if we are going to reduce poverty, stop crime, and make communities safer, we must find effective methods of intervening in and breaking the intergenerational cycle of criminal behavior,” said Colette S. Peters, Director of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC). “To do that, we must look to the needs of the children of incarcerated parents.”

Teaching prisoners good parenting skills is an important step in breaking that cycle, according to Peters. To that end, ODOC officials partnered with the Oregon Social Learning Center and Pathfinders of Oregon in 2003 to develop the “Parenting Inside Out” (PIO) curriculum. PIO teaches prisoners effective parenting skills and promotes closer relationships with their children.

Program results are promising according to a $2.1 million, five-year study that tracked 359 PIO graduates one year after release. Study participants were parents of children between three and eleven years old who had some past and expected future parenting role. Fifty percent were men and 41% were racial and ethnic minorities. The research team, led by Dr. J. Mark Eddy, compared the program graduates to a control group that received little or no prison parenting education.

The study examined PIO impact on recidivism, substance abuse, parental participation and attitude. Researchers found that women PIO graduates were 48% less likely than the control group to have been rearrested one year after release. Male graduates were 27% less likely to have been rearrested. All graduates were 91% less likely than non-graduates to report having engaged in criminal behavior one year after release; they were also 66% less likely to report substance abuse during the same period.

Program graduates scored significantly higher than the control group on prison adjustment scores and reported more total family contact, involvement in the lives of their children and use of positive reinforcement. They also had lower parental stress scores and dramatic reductions in depression when compared to the control group.

After reviewing the study, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration added PIO to its National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices, according to Mindy Clark, director of national outreach for Pathfinders of Oregon.

“Parenting Inside Out is the only parenting program for incarcerated or criminal justice-involved parents that has demonstrated a positive impact on both parents and children,” said Clark. “It gives children a parent who is engaged with their lives and can help them through the tough times and good times – even from a distance.”

“I went straight to making lunches, taking my kids to school, putting them to bed, setting expectations. I know without a doubt that’s because of the program, because there’s no way my kids would have been able to trust me, had I not had all that practice before I left prison,” stated Nova Sweet, a former prisoner at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility who participated in a similar parenting curriculum called the Family Preservation Project (FPP). 

FPP suspended operations in 2014 due to a lack of funding. After intense lobbying from participating prisoners, the ODOC announced in August 2015 that it would extend the program for another two years. As part of Senate Bill 5507, FPP was granted $400,000 in general fund appropriations and now formally falls under the YWCA’s Portland chapter.

“We’re looking, in partnership with the Department of Corrections, to see if we can serve more women, just as deeply, and to expand on our work with the women to support each other inside the prison,” said YWCA executive director Susan Stoltenberg.

The program re-launched in September 2015 and facilitates bimonthly visits between about a dozen prisoners and their children. It also provides training and support from social workers, and offers support to the children’s caregivers on the outside.

“They’ve given me hope that someday I will be able to have my baby back in my care,” said an FPP participant, who also stated the quality bonding time with her daughter and the emotional support she received from program staff helped her cope with her incarceration.

Sources: The Oregonian,,,, 

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