Irvin Hines, a father of three who is incarcerated at the Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland, stands in the visitation area where kids see their parents. The area is about to get a makeover under a new initiative. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

For Irvin Hines, visits from his kids can be stressful.

The father of three kids ages 5, 14 and 21, Hines is currently in custody at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland. He described the thin mat he and his young son had to sit on in a corner of the facility’s cafeteria and how the hard edges of the tables seemed designed for high-energy kids to bang their heads into.

He said that mothers aren’t eager to take their children to see a parent behind bars and are often agitated by regulations over what they can wear during visits. Hines said that the uninviting environment makes it more difficult for parents to maintain a connection with their children while incarcerated.

He said there were times he almost wished his young son didn’t come. But he said that playing a role in his kid’s life is important to him.

“I want to spend some time teaching him some lessons maybe I didn’t get taught,” he said.

A new initiative unveiled last week seeks to help parents like Hines overcome barriers to staying connected with their kids.

In recent years, the Department of Corrections has sought to humanize and rehabilitate the over 14,400 adults incarcerated in state prisons. An estimated 80% of incarcerated women and 65% of incarcerated men have children. Research shows that having an incarcerated parent has a negative effect on a child’s wellbeing. 

The initiative, called “Know Me Now,” was launched by Portland-based nonprofit The Contingent, formerly the Portland Leadership Foundation, along with the Oregon Department of Corrections at an event at the Columbia River Correctional Institution.

The initiative, which will roll out in 2020, will have a focus on kids in foster care and will start out with helping with transportation to visits to seven prisons within a 60-mile radius of Portland.

Hosheman Brown, the program’s director, said that Know Me Now will seek to renovate prisons, at no cost to taxpayers, to improve the “connection, dignity and safety” of children and their incarcerated parents. The program will begin with the Columbia River Correctional Institution and will expand to others.

Brooke Gray, executive director of mobilizing community for The Contingent, said

that the renovations could include things like new paint and furniture, as well as activities and toys. She said that the new visitation rooms will be built with input and help from community groups and businesses.

Speaking after the event, Gray said that often visitation rooms are often austere settings with just a thin mat on the floor and a box of aging toys. As part of the initiative volunteers will put together boxes for kids visiting a parent in prison that’ll include toys, books, snacks and activities. She believes the program will also generate more community support for incarcerated parents after they’re released.

She said prisoners are usually given a black bag full of their items after being released. The initiative will recruit volunteers to put together duffel bags for released prisoners that’ll include gift cards, ID applications, resource guides and other items.

Felicia Tripp-Folsom, executive director of multicultural leadership at The Contingent, said that the initiative will also seek volunteers that will help formerly incarcerated individuals navigate life once released.

“What we found is that, yes, having a job and housing and all those things are wonderful,” she said. But she added that having a community network is just as critical.

Ben Sand, CEO of The Contingent, said that Santiam Correctional Institute in Salem will be one of the first to have its visitation spaces renovated. The initiative will also include mentoring services for kids with incarcerated parents to that will begin in Portland-area and be expanded to the rest of the state. One of the goals will be ensuring that kids with incarcerated parents have regular visits.

Over 90% of Oregon’s individuals in custody will be released at some point. Hines said it makes sense to try to “get a better product that goes back into the community.” Hines said he’s been in and out of prison for involvement in drugs and gangs and wants to stay out after he’s released later this year. He said his young son gives him a reason.

“Every day that I wake up, I try to do something different than yesterday, because of him,” he said. “That motivates me.”

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.