You don't often see state prison inmates playing with multi-colored pipe cleaners or drawing with crayons. But that's exactly the scene that played out during a recent APA Adults and Children (ACT) Against Violence program at the Allen Correctional Institution (ACI), a medium-security prison in Lima, Ohio.

The voluntary, 11-session program, launched in March 2006, uses arts and crafts to show inmates ways to foster positive relationships with children, says Donna Dickman, regional ACT coordinator. Using pipe cleaners to illustrate the values they want to instill in their children, for example, or role-playing violence-free ways to discipline helps inmates understand the effects their behavior has on their children, she says. Even though nearly half of the inmates who participate in the program don't have their own children, says Dickman, they are eager to learn more about anger management and proper behavior around children.

"Even if they don't have children, they're still in the community and kids are watching them," Dickman says. "[After the ACT program,] they better understand the importance of role modeling good behaviors for children."

Stopping the cycle of violence

APA's ACT program focuses on adults who raise, care for and teach young children. It is based on research showing that early childhood is a critical period in a child's life when children learn basic interpersonal skills, problem-solving and self-control, says Julia da Silva, director of the national program.

ACT's popularity with early childhood development teachers and parents involved in Head Start and other community parenting organizations in Ohio prompted Dickman to initiate the program at ACI. To date, Dickman has worked with more than 50 inmates, and the program's waiting list continues to grow. At ACI, nearly 95 percent of the inmates report fighting and hostility in their homes as children, making them fervent for lessons on violence-free conflict resolution, she says.

"Of all of the groups I have presented this information to, these guys are the most ready to absorb it and think about it because it directly relates to their lives," Dickman says.

The program kicks off with sessions on the basics of child development and how to best respond to problem behaviors at different ages. In working with toddlers, for example, the prisoners are taught that these children may be easily angered because they want their needs met immediately. The session teaches participants how to avoid getting angry and use gentle but firm words to calm the child down and distract them with a book or toy. Subsequent meetings teach participants how different parenting styles effect children's behavior and touch on the affect of media violence on children.

And evaluation forms show inmates take the program's messages to heart, says Dickman. Pre- and post-test responses from one ACT group showed that the number of inmates who agreed that spanking is a normal part of parenting decreased by nearly 50 percent after participating in the program.

"It helped me understand [that] raising a child is not a trial-and-error process," one participant noted. "We must educate ourselves because we are raising the future."

Branching outBuoyed by ACT's success at ACI, Dickman is creating a distance-learning version of the program with the Community Connection for Ohio Offenders Inc., an inmate re-entry service organization that serves 35 Ohio prison facilities. Dickman plans to launch the ACT program via videoconference to three more Ohio prisons this fall. She also hopes to initiate a couples program at ACI, where inmates can attend the lessons with their children's caregivers-often the inmates' wives.Meanwhile, APA is seeking support to expand the ACT program in prisons throughout the country, says da Silva. She adds that the program's success in Allen County proves its effectiveness with tough-to-reach groups."We really never thought this particular audience would be interested, but Donna is doing great things in Ohio," says da Silva. "We'd like to take this program to other parts of the country."

Further Reading

For more information, go to www.actagainstviolence.com or contact Julia da Silva.