- Associated Press - Saturday, August 19, 2017

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) - Sci-Port and the Caddo Parish Sheriff's Office have teamed up to provide a unique opportunity for incarcerated parents to see their children.

Inmates enrolled in the sheriff’s Re-entry Program can opt to participate in the 12-week program, in which they both learn about and teach science to their children.

Sci-Port staff first teaches inmates the activities, such as how to make ice cream from scratch or build rockets. The next week, the inmates teach those activities to their children during a two-hour visitation.

“This is a lot of interaction time with their children,” said Sci-Port’s program coordinator, Heather Kleiner. “Not a lot of correctional facilities allow this.”

Sholanda Russell, a vivacious young mother of two, was supervising her 1- and 4- year old sons in the waiting room of the re-entry facility.

Her husband, Tabiaus Russell, serving time for possessing drugs with intent to distribute, graduated from the Sci-Port program in May. But Russell said he had requested special permission to re-enroll.

“He just explained and expressed that he enjoyed being with our sons. It helped him be able to transition,” she said. “Now, every other week, he has something to look forward to.”

Russell said he joined the program to see his sons, who ran up to him and hugged him when he appeared in the waiting room.

“I am close to them, and I raised them,” he said, balancing his older son, Tabiaus Jr., on his knee. “Now I get to see my kids every other Wednesday. It motivates me to stay out of trouble. And it taught me to do more things with them.”

Sholanda Russell said she’s noticed a marked difference in the quality of time her husband spends with their sons.

“It is 100 percent his motivation, to have our two boys waiting on him,” she said. “Sci-Port has opened his mind. Before, he would play video games with them. Now, he can’t wait to come home and build things with the kids.”

The Russells have big hopes for their boys. Tabiaus Russell said he wants them to get an education and go to college. While the program has helped keep him close to his boys, it’s also helped his relationship with his wife.

“It’s helping keep us close and connected,” Shalonda Russell said. “I can tell him certain things to talk to the boys about. He’s not in the house, but he’s still able to parent.”

Marcus Bruton, who is serving three years for aggravated flight, also said he joined the program to see his children. He’s the father of three girls ages 4, 9, and 13.

“It helps me a lot because I get to see them and learn new things,” he said. “Every time they come, they ask me what they’re going to do.”

Bruton said a favorite memory from the program was the day he taught his daughters how to make ice cream.

Bruton said he and his children’s mother have been together for 17 years. He said she’s told him that she’s proud of him for being in this program.

“I’ve made some bad decisions, but I’ve always wanted to be a part of their life,” he said. “I want them to live life to the fullest, see them go after their dreams. Me and my fiance, we never got to go after our dreams.”

Shalonda Russell recommends the program to others. “They can learn from it,” she said.

Kleiner said Sci-Port is in its second year of the program. She and former Sci-Port CEO Ann Fumarolo approached Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator and re-entry program director, David Boone, who agreed to the idea. The Carolyn W. and Charles T. Beaird Family Foundation sponsored the program in its first year, Kleiner said.

“It was a risky idea. But dads wanted to see their kids and share what they’d learned,” Kleiner said. “It’s one of the happiest things to see, when the kids come and grab their daddies around the knees.”

The children aren’t the only ones who benefit. Kleiner said teaching their children helps the fathers become “more confident” - and better parents.

“A lot of gangs run in families,” Kleiner said. “Now, instead of teaching them what a gang is, they are teaching them science.”

Boone, the re-entry program director who has been with CPSO for more than 24 years, said the program pulls inmates from 11 parishes. Inmates must be Department of Correction’s offenders who are serving sentences of less than 10 years, Boone said.

Being convicted of a violent crime does not necessarily prevent inmate participation, Boone said.

“I had one very violent offender, very violent past, who did fantastic in the program,” Boone said.

Those in the Re-entry Program attend classes five days a week from 8 a.m. to noon and again from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. for 30 days, or 100 hours. Those who complete the program can have their sentences reduced by up to 120 days.

“Just locking them up is a scare tactic that doesn’t work,” Boone said. “It’s a huge success for the ones who want to succeed. The program can also plant a seed in those who might not really want to change.”

Local experts teach inmates about vocational skills, money management and job etiquette.

“They’re getting cutting edge information, and once they get out, they are more likely to go to that bank or that housing authority for help,” Boone said. “It helps to bridge the gap. There are a lot of people in prison who want to make a change, but it’s difficult.”

Boone said the program aims for 20 percent recidivism, or those who reoffend after release. Its one-year recidivism rate today is 17.4 percent, with 581 releases and 101 returns, said Ken Pastorick, spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Corrections. The program’s three-year recidivism rate is at 34.6 percent.

Fathers who complete the program receive a free one-year family membership to Sci-Port. Caregivers receive a three-month free subscription during the time of the parent’s incarceration.

Kleiner said the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a Washington, D.C- based grant provider, is funding the program through 2019.

“This is the most rewarding program we do at Sci-Port,” Kleiner said. “This will keep me working with Sci-Port forever, working with these dads and helping them turn their lives around.”

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