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Could an initiative launched in the world’s biggest prison system be adapted to conditions in a small Eastern European country?

When Andrei arrived at the high-security penitentiary in Leova, his wife was pregnant with their daughter.

Andrei kept in close touch with his daughter from behind bars, and as a result he was  allowed more family visits than any of the other 360 inmates in this prison near Moldova’s border with Romania. In March, he was released on parole and is now back with his family.

“I believe that my wife is a hero mother, because as long as I am here, everything rests on her and I will be grateful and in debt to her all my life,” Andrei says. 

Trying not to traumatize the little girl when she and her mother used to come to visit him, her parents explained that she was going on a trip to see her father “at work in England.”

In Moldova, just as in many countries, the majority of incarcerated adults are also parents. Although research has demonstrated that children whose parents spend time in jail have an increased risk of ending up there themselves, Moldovan prisons offer very little assistance to inmates who want to build closer relationships with their partners and children. While Andrei’s experience shows that fathers can maintain strong ties to their partners and children even from behind bars, he has accomplished this largely through his own initiative.

A prison parenting program used in dozens of prisons in the United States and other countries could be a model for Moldova, if adapted to local conditions, people knowledgeable about the Moldovan prison system told Transitions. But that is easier said than done.

Myriad Challenges 

A serious complication facing parenting programs in Moldova is the high recidivism rate of over 50%, which means that more than half of those sentenced to prison will return at some point, once again leaving their families to fend for themselves.

There are several reasons for the high recidivism rate, says Alexandru Zubco, head of the Prevention of Torture Department at the Moldovan Ombudsman’s office, who has more than 15 years of experience in defending the rights of prisoners. One is long sentences. A person who is imprisoned for more than three or four years will struggle to reintegrate into society and into their family, he says: “For someone has been living there for more than five or 10 years, [prison] is now his space, his ‘house’ – it is a familiar environment.” 

  • Almost one in eight of the 5,200 men imprisoned in Moldova as of January 2020 was convicted of a crime against family members or minors.

Prisoners are also caught in the recidivism trap because of the lack of meaningful opportunities for work or personal development in Moldovan prisons, Zubco says. Few inmates take advantage of what assistance is on offer. The National Penitentiary Administration’s (NPA) 2021 annual report shows that the greatest demand was for the early release program, but not for the benefits it might offer, says Zubco.

“In order to qualify for parole, [an inmate] must pass this program. But he does it just to tick a box. The programs offered in prisons do not produce effects with impact, but side effects,” Zubco says. His view is that the Moldovan detention system is based more on guarding and supervising detainees than on rehabilitation.

Andrei worked as a librarian while serving his sentence at the Leova prison. He watched his daughter grow up from behind bars.

It’s not that Moldovan prisons aren’t trying to help inmates reintegrate into society. The NPA currently runs programs on topics such as health education and developing social skills. There is also a program on rebuilding relationships with families and groups – although just 100 inmates took part last year.

The prison administration has also directly addressed the problems of families with imprisoned fathers. Until the pandemic, the NPA held an annual “day with my father” when inmates were allowed to spend the entire day with their children. They took part in various activities and were entertained by clowns, says Elena Madan, interim head of NPA’s social reintegration department. In an ongoing program run jointly with the National Library, a video of a detained parent reading from a book is sent to their child’s local library, where the family are invited to watch the clip as their reactions are filmed, later to be shared with the imprisoned parent. This project is running in only two penitentiaries and in 2021 only seven men participated.

The NAP currently runs three prison programs for inmates with families. However, these programs do not go deep enough to bring visible results in parenting skills and building a relationship with the family, according to Ina Vutcariov. She coordinates activities for people in conflict with the law at the Initiativa Pozitiva (Positive Initiative) NGO. The group runs several education programs for detainees.

Not all prisoners have a close relationship with their children. Research in several countries indicates that incarcerated men often feel powerless and worthless. Mental health problems linked to stress and guilt over how their children are dealing with having an imprisoned parent affect men and women.

For men, keeping up a relationship with their children is a key indicator of the quality of the relationship when the father returns to his family. Stronger family relationships have been found to significantly strengthen reintegration outcomes after release. 

Parenting Inside Out

At first glance, prisons in the Moldova and the United States would seem to have little in common. Both have prison populations that are more than 90% male, but the incarceration rate in Moldova, while among the highest in Europe, is three times lower than that of the United States. Those imprisoned in one of Europe’s poorest countries lack access to many facilities common in U.S. jails and penitentiaries. One major statistic, is however, the same: two-thirds of prisoners are parents and many of these prisoners will return to prison at some point, meaning that children of parents who break the law are likely to see their father, or less often their mother, sent to prison two or more times. 

  • About 2,000 incarcerated men and women have completed the Parenting Inside Out program in Washington state.

Even so, parenting programs for inmates are unusual in the United States and, as described above, even more rare in Moldova, despite reams of evidence suggesting a strong link between parents who get into legal trouble and their children’s behavioral problems.

Since its first trial in 2000 in the state of Oregon, Parenting Inside Out has been adopted by jails and prisons in 17 U.S. states and in community programs in 33 states. Prisons in Canada (in 2018) and Australia (2011) have also adopted versions of the program, according to Mindy Clark of the Pathfinder Network, Parenting Inside Out’s Oregon-based parent organization.

Participants in a Parenting Inside Out class at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Washington state. Photo by Tera McElravy, Washington State Department of Corrections.

Bruce Wood, a corrections specialist at the Washington State prison system with more than 30 years’ experience of work in child protection, manages the Parenting Inside Out programs in state penal institutions. 

“No, I’m not here for you. I’m here for your children, and your children need you, and my goal is to prevent your children from coming to this place,” Wood tells inmates just starting the program. 

Over three months, incarcerated parents spend two and a half hours, three times a week, learning “how to be better parents.” Mediators at each prison are responsible for choosing the participants. 

Bradley Courville is one of family services specialist and mediator Gheorghe Turcin’s “students” at Airway Heights Corrections Center near the eastern Washington city of Spokane. Courville, 33, came here when his son, William, was one year old. Today, the boy is nine. Courville is due to be released in 2030.

Like the other five men in his group, at the beginning of the course Courville was given an egg and tasked with caring for it for a week just as he would a baby. Participants are allowed to find other inmates to babysit the egg. After a week the egg is replaced by a teddy bear with a baby carrier. The men are responsible for the care of these stand-in babies until the end of the course. 

Courville had a positive experience with the egg and then with his teddy bear. “We had to pay attention to what language we use, what we look at and what we listen to. It was pretty cool to be with the bear,” he says. Because he and his wife divorced soon after he entered prison, he did not see baby William grow up. “It was almost as if I were going back to that period, to relive it and keep it in my memory,” he admits.

A stuffed bear sits on a chair in the visiting room at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, near Seattle. Photo by Rachel Friederich, Washington State Department of Corrections.

“The guards do not see the detainees only as detainees, but also as parents, when they see them with the ‘child’ attached,” says Clark. “And the conversations have changed. ‘I noticed that your bear sat alone on the bed for a few minutes and I wonder if it’s OK for your bear?’ Bears have humanized prisons.” Both she and Turcin say they have observed a reduction in disciplinary offenses in prisons that offer the Parenting Inside Out course.

The course curriculum covers topics such as regulating emotions, giving encouragement to children, communication and listening skills, and problem-solving methods. Through exercises and role play, parents learn coping mechanisms, the stages of a child’s development, how to manage anger, and more.

The Teddy Bear Challenge

Courville has not seen his son for a long time because of coronavirus restrictions, although they keep in touch by phone and online. “The program helped me understand how to talk to my son. I found out from here that, in fact, you have to go down to his level, so that you can get along with him,” he says.

“I encourage him to do what he likes. I’m trying to give him a positive image of his father. I don’t want it to go the same way I did: drugs, alcohol … My father died when I was nine or 10. So I have to learn from experience. I do it for my son.”

Not all prisons have found it easy to implement the program. In some, security rules made it hard for detainees to carry the bears with them. Guards feared they might be used to carry drugs or forbidden objects. They replaced the teddy bears with cardboard bears.

It was more difficult to persuade some prison administrations to adopt the program. “Raising a child has always been considered easy. It was complicated to change attitudes and show that prison systems are not really interested in families, that the connection with families actually reduces recidivism,” Clark says.

Only a few studies have looked into the parenting skills of inmates or the outcomes of parenting programs in prisons. One study of Parenting Inside Out participants in Oregon was carried out in the mid-2000s in four correctional institutions, three for men and one for women. Funded by a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, the study of 359 incarcerated people found that 60% to 70% had a parent who had been in jail or prison. The inmates had an average of three children each.

Some of the study’s findings suggest that parenting programs can reduce criminality and recidivism. Within the first year after release, study participants were 32% to 41% less likely to have been rearrested, compared to a control group, and 29% less likely to report having been involved in criminal behavior. Participants also “reported more total family contact [and] were more likely to be involved in the lives of their children” than the control group, says a Parenting Inside Out research summary.

According to a 2016 UK-based study, prison parenting programs “provide the opportunity, within a safe environment, for fathers to explore their beliefs and attitudes towards issues such as discipline, affection, and family roles, which can support their reintegration back into the family upon release.”

While acknowledging the scanty nature of existing evidence, the study continues, “It is also possible that promoting healthy parent‐child relationships and responsive parenting may help break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration and improve the health and well‐being of [inmates’] children.”

An important takeaway from Parenting Inside Out, Gheorghe Turcin says, is that the mediator must be able to connect emotionally to the group: “You have to make sure that you have people who can reach other people in a way that they show empathy.”

Turcin, a family services specialist with the Washington prison system, says around 2,000 men and women have completed the Parenting Inside Out program in the state. This means the benefits of the program have reached some 3,000 children of incarcerated parents.

In the U.S. prisons where Parenting Inside Out programs are used, it’s crucial that each step in the process is taken seriously. If a participant refuses, for example, to wear the teddy bear in their sling, the mediator tries to change their mind, no matter how difficult it may be. When faced with a situation like this, Wood says, he asks a simple question: “This exercise is part of your experience as a parent. You have to make a decision: do you want to be a convict or a father?”

Last but not least, Turcin says, another lesson learned from experience is the importance of diversity in the group. This will help participants understand that no matter how different others in the program may seem, they may have the same problems. As Courville’s story shows, he says, they find themselves through the experiences of other fathers and in this way they connect with each other, share insights, and help each other. 

Can It Work in Moldova?

A parenting program similar to this would be a welcome addition to Moldovan prisons, former and current officials of the country’s prison system say. One of those is Ion Unciuc, the retired former head of reintegration programs at the Leova penitentiary where Andrei served his time. 

If something like Parenting Inside Out were tried in Moldova, it would be crucial for inmates and staff to take it seriously. Although prisons do offer a number of reintegration programs, Unciuc says, “some prisoners come and just spend their time” there.

According to him, inmates would be more interested in taking a parenting course if they received a reward, perhaps a day with the family.

For an inmate, keeping close ties with the family is very important, he adds, because a prisoner who is expected by the family at home is much more likely to receive a positive response when they come up for parole. In this situation, “The convict knows where he’s going, he knows he has someone. But a person who has not seen his children for 10 years or more and does not know where he is going after his release would rather receive a negative opinion and not be paroled.”

Elena Madan, the reintegration specialist with the National Penitentiaries Administration, has been working in the field for 18 years and has helped to create policies and programs for the social reintegration of convicts.

“The NPA is open to implementing it,” Madan says about Parenting Inside Out. When that might be is a big unknown. For the time being, with three programs relating to the family already running, there is no capacity to add another, she says, although in the future, the prison authority would consider trying Parenting Inside Out if a need for such a program is identified.

The NPA launched a new family program for inmates last year in collaboration with Positive Initiative. About 100 inmates from nine prisons took part in the first year. They learn about how they relate and communicate with others, family abuse, and positive parenting, Ina Vutcariov says. The program also covers such topics as the principles of educating children, violence against children, and managing aggression. 

“It’s interesting for them to talk about the family, to hear from others what they have to say,” she says. “In our experience, many detainees have had questions such as ‘What should I tell a child when he is shy and doesn’t want to talk on Skype? How should I behave?’”  

Gheorghe Turcin (right) congratulates Bradley Courville on graduating from the parenting course.

Both Madan and Vutciarov pointed out that Parenting Inside Out would need to be adapted to Moldovan conditions.

“In our country, compared to the penitentiaries in the U.S., the situation is a little different and few detainees would risk going around with a teddy bear. That would end up pretty traumatic for everyone. They could be humiliated and beaten,” Vutcariov says.

“Therapeutic exercises work where people feel 100% safe, where they come and understand that no one will laugh at them, that they will have no problems, that they will be free to express themselves,” she adds.

Starting a parenting program in a prison need not be costly. According to Turcin, a pilot program could be run in Moldova with just two mediators and a small outlay for office supplies and toys. 

Vutcariov believes a program like Parenting Inside Out would find eager takers among the imprisoned population, because “They are the people who really understand how important it is to have children, to have a family, to love, to be with them.”

There is every chance such a program could start up in Moldova, she adds. 

“Nobody likes to keep inmates in the penitentiary on taxpayers’ money just so they simply sit all day and twiddle their thumbs… It’s stupid. People can work, they can take responsibility for changing their behavior, they can learn new things. In other words, they can leave prison and not return in half a year.” 

Georgeta Carasiucenco, a journalist at Moldova.org, covers human rights with a special focus on issues affecting vulnerable groups including women and the imprisoned.