According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, more than 18 million children in America live without their biological father at home, which increases their chances of going to jail, living in poverty, teenage pregnancy, depression, and substance abuse. Among the reasons for absent fathers, incarceration is a leading cause. The Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that close to six million kids in the U.S. have experienced losing a parent to incarceration at some point in their lives.

At the Pinellas County Jail, fathers must live with the consequences of being separated from their children. However, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office social workers like Andrew Goldstein say that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. On July 13, 2021, Goldstein began teaching a class at the Pinellas County Jail called “InsideOut Dad,” which helps inmates work on becoming better fathers. “I think the father’s role is so important in children’s lives,” Goldstein said. “It’s not impossible to be a father from inside the jail, but they need to learn what they can do while they’re here. They can become better dads and have better relationships with their children and then take that with them when they leave.”

The InsideOut Dad program will be taught in two-hour sessions over 12 weeks, and each inmate will receive a certificate of completion for finishing the course. The sessions cover topics on communications skills, co-parenting, and learning how to nurture their kids effectively. The course includes video clips, prompts for group discussion, and workbooks that cultivate critical-thinking skills through question and answer exercises.

“When I was asked if I was interested in teaching this class, I had no hesitation,” Goldstein said. “My dad was always there for me, and all I ever wanted to do was be a good dad like him. He taught me to help people, respect people, not to judge people, and I want to pass those values on not only to my kids, but also to the men in this group.”

In addition to offering the course to inmates, Program Services also mails Sesame Street, “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” kits to inmates’ families and caregivers who provide support to children ages 3-8. The kit has a guide for caregivers on how to understand what their children may be feeling and how to notice changes in behavior. There is also a DVD and children’s storybook that discusses the absence of the incarcerated parent.

“I believe parenting shouldn’t end in prison or jail, and if the parent can be a positive influence in the child’s life, they should have the opportunity to do so,” Program Services Supervisor Ramona Schaefer said.

“A positive male presence can shape and form a child’s life. When fathers have consistent and continued contact during their period of incarceration, it strengthens the bond between parent and child. After being released, some men have a difficult time rejoining their families, especially if they’ve become estranged due to lack of contact with their children. Without proper interventions, the cycle of broken families and neglectful relationships will go on and recidivism (the reoccurrence of criminal behavior and jail time) will be more likely.”

Although the Program Services staff members don’t always know if their classes make a difference in inmates’ lives, occasionally, they receive feedback. A couple of years ago, Goldstein received an email from a woman. Her husband had been in the Pinellas County Jail and taken one of Goldstein’s classes on making smarter choices in the early 2000s. She wanted to let him and the Program Services team know that even though he recently passed away from cancer, he had talked about them all the time and how much they influenced him not going back to jail, being a better partner, a better father, and a better worker.

“There are people we see come back to jail, and then people we never see again,” Goldstein said. “The opportunity to help someone who is struggling and wants to change their life is why I come to work every day.”