Students help facilitate family day for inmates

July 5, 2016
Students at correctional institute

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Seven students from the Platteville Community Restorative Justice student organization at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville recently helped facilitate the first-ever Family Day for inmates and their families at the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Thirty-five families attended, including 67 children and 50 adults.

Fourteen non-uniformed staff from PDCI coordinated the event, assisted by 20 community volunteers, including the UW-Platteville students and Robin Cline, lecturer of criminal justice and advisor for the Platteville Community Restorative Justice student organization.

The goal of the event was to provide an opportunity for family reunification and skill development with planned pro-social/pro-family activities. The event was tied in with “Sesame Street - Little Children, Big Challenges” kits designed to help build qualities and skills young children need to become resilient, such as self-confidence and the ability to express themselves.

A wide variety of activities designed to encourage family participation were provided throughout the day, including charades, airplane contest, memory game, bridge building, family story necklaces, tie pillow activity and more. During the activities, inmates, family members and other participants talked about a variety of topics, including sharing, how to make others happy by giving time and energy, the diversity and beauty of families and more.

“The biggest thing I learned during the family day at PDCI is how big the ripple effect of incarceration is,” said Megan Goodney, a senior from Platteville with a double major in psychology and criminal justice with a corrections emphasis. “Just because one person is serving time behind bars does not mean that other people aren’t being punished on the outside as well. Seeing some of those inmates with their children, parents, wives and other loved ones really opened my eyes to how far one crime can spread like wildfire and affect everyone in that inmate’s life. This family day really helped give not only the inmates but their families a chance to strengthen the relationships damaged by the crimes committed.”

“Volunteers were an essential part of making the day successful,” said Lisa Pettera, program supervisor at PDCI. “UW-Platteville students came up with some great family-centered activities; they coordinated materials and managed the families’ participation during the event. They really helped us make it a great day for everyone. Inmates and their families shared many positive comments along with their thanks for staff/volunteer time and efforts.”

“Relationships are at the very heart of our everyday motivations, and if a child and father can connect in a deeper way, the motivation for both of them to stay on a healthy track is affirmed,” said Cline. “To see families decorating cookies and talking over crafts, science experiments, bean bags and storytelling were amazing moments to witness. Fathers who had done nothing more than give their child a quick hug and talk to them across a coffee table for years, and in some cases the child’s entire life, were able to grow their bonds right before our eyes.”

“Increasing family and community connectedness is an effective way to reduce recidivism in a state where 30 percent of inmates released will likely return to prison to be housed for about $30,000 per inmate per year,” said Cline. “The prison system is costly and devastating to families and communities who are losing their fathers/mothers, not to mention income earners. We, as a state, need to do more to reduce offending and to heal families previously affected by crime. Our students were able to make a big impact that day; I’m proud of them for attending.”

“I am very thankful to our department chair, Dr. Staci Strobl, for supporting the Platteville Community Restorative Justice student group’s efforts to assist in facilitating this event,” said Cline. “It was a fantastic event and we hope to see it happening again next year at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution and perhaps other institutions too.”

Families and inmates were each asked to complete a survey before the end of the day. All surveys included positive comments and most included thanks for holding the event.

A few of the comments from inmates included: “It was good because we were able to do activities together for the first time. Thank you very much for this day!”; “Just being able to sit down and eat with the family and talk made it feel right at home”; “It was good for me to play outside games with them. It helps them to open up to me, communication wise”; “Being outside and being able to actually interact with my kids. Thank you!”

A few of the comments from family members included: “It was wonderful seeing my son and his kids bonding, talking, sharing”; “There were games here that were played by the family before the inmate was incarcerated. It brought back good memories”; “Fun, enjoyed interacting with their father. First time they ever played together. Anything is better than just sitting at a table across from each other”; “I feel this was such a precious special day. You have impacted everyone in ways positive.”

Platteville Community Restorative Justice student organization strives to spread interest in restorative practices centered on respect, listening, understanding, consequences and community. Restorative justice focuses on repairing harm that commonly includes facilitating dialogues between victims and offenders. It focuses on victims talking about what he or she needs in order to heal, the offender taking responsibility for his or her actions, and the system and community taking an active role in the healing and re-integration processes for both victims and offenders.

UW-Platteville students who helped in the preparation and/or facilitation of the event included: Teresa Royce, Courtney Remus, Megan Goodney, Karlee Cleary, Meghan Freitag, Renee Peters and Samantha Schipper.

As UW-Platteville pursues its vision of being recognized as the leading student-focused university for its success in achieving excellence, creating opportunities, and empowering each individual, it is guided by four strategic planning priorities. The volunteer work at the correctional institute aligns with the priorities of providing an outstanding education, fostering a community of achievement and respect, and enriching the tri-states.

Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu.

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