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Wednesday, May 7, 2008 04:42 am

Feeding the good wolf

Teaching prisoners how to be better fathers — and better men

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Untitled Document At the beginning of class, Mary Ryan goes around the room and shakes hands with her students, calling each man by name, making eye contact, offering a smile: “Hello, Frank. How are you, Dave? What’s up, James?”
It’s a casual ritual, but it’s her way of reminding the men in their prison uniforms that she sees them as human beings. “These guys are known by number,” she says. “When they come into [the first] class, they always want to give me their number. I don’t want to know their number, and I don’t want to know what they did.”
Ryan and her teaching partner, Ed Scott, are probably the only people at the Jacksonville Correctional Center who aren’t interested in inmates’ register numbers or crimes. Ryan and Scott, both private-practice psychotherapists, each go to the prison once a week to teach a class in “positive parenting” for inmates. I’ll admit that I was skeptical about the notion of a parenting class for locked-up men. But here’s a number that should interest anybody: A few years ago, an independent researcher analyzed the program and found that the recidivism rate for men who completed the eight-week course was 5.9 percent, compared with 46 percent for the general prison population. Scott, the director of a Jacksonville-based child-welfare agency called Hobby Horse House, founded the program at the request of the prison chaplain about two decades ago. In the beginning, half of the classes were led by a schoolteacher with a focus on more traditional parenting education. Ryan stepped in when the teacher retired about five years ago. With two therapists leading the class, the emphasis shifted to what Scott describes as simply “helping [the inmates] be more whole.”
The inmates get nothing — not even “good time” — for attending the parenting class. In fact, just being seen in the classroom, its desks arranged in a circle instead of straight rows, makes the men targets for the derision of the more hardcore prisoners. On the day I visited, I could feel a slight chill ripple through the room every time another inmate or guard sauntered past the long row of windows that look out onto the corridor. The men in the class would glance nervously at each other, then shrug off the chill for a chance to talk about their kids, their own childhoods, their own growth. “I’m guessing we get the cream of the crop. They’re doing this because they want to,” Ryan says. “There’s some stinkers sometimes, but generally even those guys come around, because the rest of the class is just so heartfelt.”
During the two-month course, Scott and Ryan distribute handouts full of suggestions to help the men connect with their kids, find ways to communicate from behind bars, and answer — honestly — the inevitable questions about why Daddy can’t come home. But the most practical parenting advice they offer has to do with staying out of prison. “It’s all couched in the foundation of ‘Let’s just be better people and then figure out the parenting stuff,’ ” Ryan says.
Scott, who leads the class on Wednesdays, always begins the first of 16 sessions by prying the men open with three seemingly simple questions.
“How many of you have ever taken a parenting class?” he asks. Rarely does anyone raise a hand. Next question: “So where’d your education on being a parent come from?” The inmates, of course, answer that they got it from their own parents. “OK, what did your father teach you about being a father?” That question gets the inmates talking about their relationships with their dads.
In an average class of 17 inmates, only one or two tell Scott that they had a positive relationship with their fathers. Instead, they talk about fathers who were incarcerated, plagued by addictions, or otherwise missing. By this point, the men are engaging in what therapists call self-disclosure, which is where the healing can begin. Ryan, who teaches the class on Fridays, starts with the story of a Cherokee elder who tells his grandson that inside every person are two wolves:
“One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, fear, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
The grandson asks, “Which wolf wins?”
The grandfather responds, “The one you feed.”
Ryan translates the two wolves into modern terms — the “higher self” and the “lower self” — and the inmates have no trouble catching on. They list their own higher-self and lower-self behaviors on a chalkboard. They talk about the forces that pull them toward one or the other.
Over and over, throughout the course, Ryan reminds them: “The higher self is a magnet for the higher self.” It’s a concept they can use when interacting with other inmates, prison guards, their friends and family on the outside, and their children.
It works even for Ryan and Scott, whose Illinois Division of Children and Family Services grant funding the parenting course expired years ago. They now teach the inmates for free — because the men they meet in class bring out their own higher selves.
“They have a lot of wisdom that most people don’t have at that age,” Scott says. “Mary and I both joke that we should pay for going there, because what they have to say applies to all of us.”
“It surprises me how much incredible heart and soul is in that room,” Ryan says. “Every single class just blows me away.” 

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com
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