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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Utah State Prison inmate Gilbert Randall holds his "baby" Zoe during a Total Parenting Experience class at the prison in Draper on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. The new program teaches male prison inmates how to properly care for infants and toddlers through the use of life-like babies.

Tony Duran was 17 when he became a dad, too scared to do much with his baby, who seemed so tiny. But in a recent parenting class at the Utah State Prison, he casually stroked the cheek of "baby" Michael and listened attentively, unfazed when the child needed to be changed and fed and burped and soothed.

Michael is a doll. And Duran, now 51, is a better dad than he used to be, by design.

He's in the final hours of a nine-week course called Total Parenting Experience, where he's learning skills with others so when he gets out of prison he can be the parent and grandparent he didn't know how to be before. The baby is a life-size simulator that can make 100 babylike sounds and has some pretty basic needs that Duran and his "co-parent," Kurtis Hunsaker, 26, have to decode while staying focused on the lesson.

The program is taught by correctional specialist Wendy Miller, who worked for more than two years to win its acceptance by the Utah Department of Corrections. It's one of numerous programs across America designed to help those who are incarcerated learn parenting and relationship skills that will strengthen their families and reduce the chance they'll reoffend.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics says more than half of those in state or federal prisons have minor children. Roughly 1.7 million American children have an incarcerated parent, most often the father.

Nationally, a number of “responsible fatherhood reentry programs” are helping dads reinsert into their children’s lives. Asked why that’s important, Kenneth J. Wolfe, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, pointed to a recent analysis by the Urban Institute that looks at pilot programs from New Jersey to California.

The authors noted that “reentry services provided before or soon after release can reduce recidivism, increase public safety, lower criminal justice system costs and help improve the chance of long-term reentry success.” Each of those pilot projects have economic stability activities, and healthy marriage and relationship components. But the first requirement is responsible parenting activities, from parent education to counseling, mentoring and encouraging, much like the Utah prison program.

It matters, said Miller, who looked at the six pairs of men sharing responsibility for the "babies" in her class at the Promontory Facility's Con-Quest substance abuse program and announced solemnly: "You are nurturers."

Lack of role models

Hunsaker met his daughter, who is not quite 2, in the prison visiting room. He was already incarcerated when she was born. He didn't have much parenting when he was growing up, he added.

That's a common story in this class. Asked how many have children, hands flew up. Asked about family relationships — how many grew up with dads at home, for instance — and the hands started to go down. Most of them grew up without fathers at home, they said. Some had parents in prison themselves.

Duran spent much of his childhood in foster care. Now his children are grown and he wants to help with his grandchildren. "Parenting is harder than it looks," he said. "I give my ex a lot of credit."

Craig Eatchel, 27, never really knew his mom, who was in prison when he was growing up. His dad was an alcoholic and his grandparents raised him. Both his parents died when he was young. He has a son who is 9 and another, almost 2. He wasn't much of a dad to the older one and intends to fix that and also do better by his baby.

His co-parent for the class, James Galvan, 42, has two teenage daughters and an older son. The men take turns with their "baby," Christen, who needs a fair amount of soothing. They joked that they often do the baby rock, that swaying motion that calms a child, even when the baby's been put away until next class.

Galvan bent his head to the doll and was asked whether he was sniffing its hair or kissing it. "Both," he smiled. "It smells like a real baby."

Not only did they largely lack the example of good parents, but many in the class were not good parents themselves, they said. Each told of signing up for the voluntary class to do better in the future. Some already have parole dates. They are getting out and want to do right by their children.

Steve Hague, 36, said he is confident he is a pretty good dad, but he derailed himself by drinking and is serving time for drunk driving. He phones home every couple of days. "I was an everyday dad, I think, and I'm still trying to be that dad to my sons."

The class

Miller led the men through a lesson plan that included the importance of affection and affirmation, which a child must have to trust that their most basic needs will be met. She discussed child development and that it's never too early to speak to the baby, who can hear in the womb, too, she told them.

They chimed in with thoughts on social and emotional development. They have learned that children with fathers who care and take responsibility are less likely to be depressed, and that fathers promote independence and exploration, and help language skills. Even rough-housing contributes to a child's development. Children with good dads get better grades, have more successful interactions with peers and can cope with stress.

As Miller talked, the men passed their babies across to their co-parents, cradling a head, smoothing a cheek. They diapered cooperatively.

Hague, who with Gilbert Randall, 37, co-parented baby "Zoe," knew a lot about dad things, but he didn't know how to instill good self-esteem in his boys, he said. That's part of the curriculum, a mix of parenting facts and scenarios they work through together.

Jonathan Lee, 33, and Jarrod Baty, 32, are "parents" for fake baby Kevin, who during this class was mostly happy and calm. Lee was happy to learn that some of the things he figured out as a father of two are pretty universal experiences. When Miller talked about ways to soothe a child who simply won't calm down, he said he thought of the times he took his own for long drives to lull them to sleep.

Baty is sure he'll be better equipped to help with his own 2-year-old. It's a sentiment echoed by Nickolas Montoya, 34, and Carlos Delgado, 26, who co-parent baby "Jesse."

In this class, reporters flocked to Randall because he is so determined to prove himself as a dad. It will be up to case managers and others to decide if he can hold that title with his children. He is trying to show that he deserves another chance.

"I was neglectful," he said. "But that's not who I am any more. I think I have the capability to be a good father." In prison, he's not only gained parenting skills, but said he's learned how to cope better with the tragedies that everyone faces in some form. His have knocked him off course in the past.

"I've had to learn patience," said Randall. "These seem like cute little dolls, but when they start crying. … Wendy has taught us to multitask. It will help us."

In response to scenarios Miller presented, they talked about bullying and empathy and teaching their children both. They debated ways to calm a child who cries hysterically, and what to say when children block a fictional toddler from using the park slide.

What's next

Derrick Williams, 38, and his co-parenting partner Ryan Valencia, 28, both have parole dates. Williams will be the first of this group to go back into the community and he's pleased with the refresher course on parenting. He has six children, the youngest 5, the oldest 9. As they talked about the future, they absently fussed over baby "April" and Williams' knee was in perpetual motion as he gently bounced her.

The program's future is being written, too, as the men learn these skills. Miller said they're in the process of buying more "babies" and hope to greatly expand the program into other facilities in the Utah Corrections system, including halfway houses. The course will expand into two classes a week, instead of one.

Corrections officials in this and other programs credit such classes with tapping into something warm and nurturing that few programs bring out. "The lessons translate into improved behavior once the inmates return to their own families," the Department of Corrections said in a written statement.

A new class will start immediately, for different inmates, a core life skills class, not an elective.

More nurturers.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco