Notes from the Inside: Being Fathers Now

Notes from the Inside features writing by inmates serving time in Iowa prisons. Little Village editors have made only minor adjustments for style and length.

Photo by Robert Freiberger
Photo by Robert Freiberger
By Tom S.

If asked the question, “What is one of, if not THE most important responsibility we have in life?,” most everyone would mention “parenting,” or, for the men here, “fatherhood.” The ingredients to a recipe for the successful fathering of our children include a list of many traits: discipline, sacrificing, patience, endurance, listening skills, honesty, understanding, communication skills, strength and loving-kindness are just a few of the necessary traits. The following article I’ve written was born from my involvement in a series of classes facilitated by two men whose lives have demonstrated the qualities I earlier mentioned. Their names are Dennis Harper, Ph.D. and Dale Blesz, Ph.D. I interviewed them both individually as well as spent hours listening and sharing with them over several weeks in classes.

They are a precious resource for anyone moving through Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) with children of any age. What they have to offer goes much deeper than I am possibly able to put in this article for you, yet both men emphasized that they don’t want this article to be about them but about the subject they know is so crucial to our lives, our families and beyond. So, I desire to bring exposure to the importance of this topic for the men here with children, to hopefully pique the interest and inspire thought on the subject of all who read this article.

Both men are very capable, with such an abundance of experience both in the educational and hospital clinical setting as well as direct contact with people and families in need. To be able to have the opportunity to learn from professionals of their stature is an opportunity we should not minimize or let pass as fathers.

So what do these men have as their goal in facilitating a class for incarcerated fathers? Dennis spoke to me of his recognition of the need for programming to assist us in being connected to our children with support to learn to be better, and become more active family fathers while in prison. To reinforce in interested men the importance of “being a father now while in prison.”

Dale’s attention to volunteering in a men’s prison and specifically here came about a bit differently. Coming to know Dennis socially and hearing of his involvement here, Dale’s interest grew. A heart attack occurring previously resulted in deeper thoughts of life. He wanted to become more active “doing good and caring” for humanity through direct means with little attention.

Both men recognize similarities between us and them and told me there were many. They believe we are basically the same as human beings when it comes down to it. Dale noted as we age, men often desire to focus on assisting others. He decided to accept the invitation from Dennis to join in the fatherhood class here with the intent of assisting others and imparting something of value to our lives. Dale mentioned that the two of them have spoken of long-term plans and further class development with input from the men.

Dennis has been coming into IMCC since 2010. He made the statement that, “Through my experience I realized that men existing in prisons are intelligent, capable and caring.” The more thought he put into that revelation, the more he believed in the importance of this class. As he spent more time with the men here, ideas to improve what he was doing became obvious to him and he has adapted his classes to meet his high standards and our ongoing needs.

Early on, Dennis began with mechanics of parenting being the key. That focus has changed over time to relations with our children and spouses becoming priority. Dennis informed me that the more time he spent listening to men, the more men opened up to him and the more profitable the classes became for all. I know that in the classes I have attended, it is the interactive flow between all of us that has been best. Dale and Dennis listen to our life experiences and use them to recognize our needs. With their vast amount of knowledge, both of them are equipped to identify our barriers to being functional parents and immediately suggest solutions and methods that we can each apply to our relationships with our families and emphasize the importance of acting now. This methodology makes their teachings valid through our individual experiences. Dale told me he knows that everyone struggles with many similar parenting challenges.

I asked Dale what he felt was the most destructive for families with fathers behind bars, and his answer was so logical and obvious yet so far from where my thoughts were. He said that, “The love is not communicated and the answers don’t come.” He continued stating that persistence is crucial and that we as fathers face a unique challenge of long-term separation in life, people not incarcerated normally do not face it to the degree we do. Dale suggests that we all constantly let our children know we desire a restored relationship with them and that we love and care for them. He also suggests that we work with what we’ve got and “take kids where they’re at.”

The course now has evolved and Dennis has purposely de-emphasized a lot of the structure and reduced the focus on mechanics and inspires open communication. He keeps the content basic and is attentive to our interpretation and attitude. Spending time in the classroom with Dennis quickly removes all doubts concerning his sincerity for our good and the well-being of our families.

Dennis told me that it is most rewarding listening and observing men become aware of the importance of their behavior in their children’s lives, and observing men recognize that they are able to do something now. Right now while in prison. He mentioned secondly watching the groups develop cohesiveness by the men choosing to involve themselves in supporting other men in the group. Third, Dennis said he is rewarded greatly by observing real-world success develop men’s lives. Witnessing participants in the community become close to their children and find victory in fatherhood are great rewards.

Dale is greatly rewarded first just by getting to know us men and developing relationships with us. He said he enjoys listening to our various personal histories and hearing about our goals. Dale’s empathetic and merciful attitude is easily recognizable and comforting when sharing in class. He made the statement to me that it was most rewarding to be invited into men’s hearts and life experiences. He finished his interview with me saying that he valued the privilege of being a part of our lives and looks forward to coming in and enjoying our company each time.

I asked Dennis what the future looked like. He told me that he would like this effort to be an example for other programs and the need for more similar program efforts to promote better family and child relationships as men return to their communities. He mentioned his hopes for more volunteers bringing information and discussion that will result in long-term, permanent success for many of us who choose to apply ourselves.
The time I’ve spent with these two generous men has proven to me that there are valuable resources right here in this prison. The long-term impact for my family and me from applying the knowledge of these two volunteers and the life experiences from my classmates can be great. I’ve heard of past participants’ children responding and my own have also begun. These volunteers and my prisoner classmates have created lasting impressions and memories for me that will flow into the lives of my children and family as well as theirs.

I sincerely want to thank all of the fellow prisoners in my class for all your help and sharing. I especially thank Dennis and Dale for their commitment and hearts of gold for the fathers here. I finish with a word of encouragement for any and all of you with children of any age, to join in the next class, which will begin soon. We need more programs like this.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 209.