CASA GRANDE - It's never too late to try being the best parent one can be - even from a prison cell miles away from home.
More than 100 Hawaiian prisoners housed in Eloy are learning to do just that, through books, thanks to a program of the Hawaii-based Read-to-Me International organization. For example, it's been hard on Garret Borges, an inmate at the strictly Hawaiian CCA prison Saguaro Correctional Facility in Eloy, and his family since his incarceration.
His daughters, one 6 and a set of 4-year-old twins, haven't seen their father in the flesh in almost four years. Letters can only do so much, and a single 20-minute phone call to Hawaii costs about $5.
But Borges and about 130 other Hawaiian prisoners with children on the outside have discovered a new way to keep a relationship with their kids despite being apart - simply by reading books to them.
Thanks to a $1.25 million "Promoting Responsible Fatherhood" federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Saguaro has been able to give incarcerated parents a program called "Fathers Bridging the Miles," part of the Read-to-Me International organization. It's given hundreds of Hawaiian inmates a chance to choose two books a month to send to each of their children ages 2 to 10 years. But the biggest gift is that they get to read the books themselves, using a digital recorder so their children can pop in the CD and read along with their physically absent father.
Borges has been participating in Fathers Bridging the Miles for just over a year. And with three kids, he's taken full advantage of the program, having read almost 80 books so far.
"My wife had to buy a new bookshelf, just for all the books I send them," he says, laughing.
The program also commits inmates to take part in a yearlong parenting class to prepare them for their eventual return to their families. The parenting classes cover everything from child discipline and anger management to supporting child identity and financial management. The program also gives prisoners taking part one-on-one mentoring with social worker Patryce Samuel.
"It's a pretty comprehensive program," Samuel says. "They get to keep in touch with their children, and it increases their confidence as fathers."
And the program is open to all prisoners, no matter the length of time they have left to serve. Prisoners with a history of domestic violence or crimes against children, on the other hand, are screened from participating.
Samuel says that statistics promote doom and gloom for kids of the imprisoned - predicting they'll turn out just like their parents. "If we can help facilitate a bond with the father and their children, then we can reduce those numbers."
As parents, inmates in the Read-to-Me program lament that they've missed out on some of the most important moments in their children's lives, such as their first steps, words or first days of school, but they hope that the personal touch this program allows them makes up somewhat for those missing years.
And it's a boon for the men, as well. Randy Konohia, serving his sixth year of a 10-year sentence, admits that before entering the Read-to-Me program, he wasn't a big fan of books. But since his children, between 6 and 9 years, have been getting the books and his recordings, he himself has gotten more enthusiastic about reading.
"My kids tell me, 'Oh, Dad, I like when you laugh on the CD and make all kinds of noises,'" Konohia recounts. "That's what they like, and it made me happy to hear them all excited about hearing my voice."
Fathers in the program also say that Bridging the Miles has helped them feel like they're taking a more proactive role in their children's lives, even if it's just as simple as choosing a book tailored to their child's personality.
In addition to doing what they can to keep up with their children's lives and interests, the program has been beneficial for inmates like Samuel Guzman Jr. Guzman has a 3-year-old son he's yet to meet. When asked whether he felt he'll be ready in two years to take on the full responsibility of being a father, he expressed optimism.
"I grew up without a dad," he explained. "But just to have (my son) is a blessing, and whatever responsibility that comes with it. No matter how hard life gets."
Every fiscal year, the program allows another 60 prisoners to join the program. Saguaro's participation is expected to grow to 180 next year.