ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio (AP) — If it weren't for the barbed-wire fences and ID badges, it could have been a summer afternoon anywhere. But for the men at Belmont Correctional Institution in eastern Ohio, it was a brief respite from their time in prison.
One dad juggled his daughter, who was just shy of her first birthday, while coaching his son on how to putt a golf ball. Other dads joined their kids in decorating flowerpots with glitter and stringing together vibrant beads for necklaces.
Twice a year, the medium-security facility holds an event where incarcerated dads can reunite with their children for an afternoon of fun. These "Fathers Matter" days are a change from normal visits, which typically are 2 1/2 hours and spent playing cards or shooting the breeze over a table.
These kinds of events are held in prisons around the state to keep families connected during incarceration; that has been shown to correlate with a lower recidivism rate among inmates.
Ohio's corrections system puts a heavy emphasis on rehabilitation, said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
"People in prison are human beings; they have families and responsibilities," Mohr said. "The event at Belmont was the type of thing we're trying to do to give them the best chance and to create less crime victims when they come out."
The state's recidivism rate is 22.6 percentage points lower than the national figure. Mohr credits that to Fathers Matter and other rehabilitation programs that help prisoners adjust to civilian life before release.
To attend the Fathers Matter programs, inmates must apply and be "ticket free" — meaning they haven't violated a rule for a year. Only about 50 of more than 2,750 inmates at Belmont were able to attend the latest one there.
The money for the event — budgeted at $3,000 — comes from the inmate entertainment fund, which is made up of commissary profits. State tax money isn't used to fund any of these types of programs, Mohr said.
For Brandon Ball, who is nearly a year into his six-year sentence, it was the first major family event he has attended. His family lives an hour and 45 minutes from the St. Clairsville facility, so it can be hard for them to visit. "It makes a big difference . the visits are cool, but you just sit there and can't move or interact like that," said Ball, 24. He is serving time for burglary, breaking and entering and receiving stolen property in Medina and Summit counties.
By the time Ball is released, he will have spent a big part of the lives of his kids — 1-year-old Skyra and 5-year-old Alton — in prison.
"It's scary to think about how old they'll be when I get out, the time I will have missed. But the visits help," he said.
Ball hopes his kids will see what has happened to him and that it will keep them on the straight and narrow.
An estimated 56,000 Ohio children have a parent behind bars. Studies have found that parental incarceration can lead to separation anxiety, detachment, aggression, violence, truancy and stunted academic achievement. Children with parents who have served time are also six times more likely than their peers to be an offender.
Mike Brickner, senior policy director with American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said staying in contact with family members "is one of the best things a person or (facility) can do to ensure" that inmate won't be incarcerated again.
"If you have a support system, you are less likely to fall back into the cycle of crime," he said.
Elizabeth Martinez, vice president of programs with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio, said children often deal with a lot of shame because of a parent's incarceration, making it more difficult for them to connect with peers and more inclined to display antisocial behavior.
"They face the unintended consequences of their parent's behavior," she said.
But after a parent is released, things don't necessarily get better: Re-establishing relationships can be difficult. The rigid structure of a typical visitation doesn't give families the types of bonding experiences that others enjoy.
The Belmont event is one that gave inmates such as Brandon Jackson, 30, and his family the flexibility to come together in a less-fixed environment. Jackson, who is 14 months into his 18-year sentence, said seeing his children lifts his spirits, and he loves being a father.
"I made a couple bad choices, but I love my kids. I'd never give them up," he said.
Jackson said he often tells his 10-year-old son — also named Brandon — about the importance of staying in school, working hard and respecting his mother. "So far, so good. He got honor roll," Jackson said.
Jackson, who is serving time for possession of drugs, felonious assault, transportation of firearms and intimidation in Mahoning County, said he hopes his kids don't go down the path that he did.
Although men make up the majority of Ohio's prison population — 86.4 percent in 2013, according to state data — similar programs are available for women. The Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville held a "Mom and Kids Day" this summer and expects to hold more.
Although children of inmates seem to have the odds stacked against them, fathers such as Ball have hope.
"My son talks about it all the time; he's at that age where he understands I'm in trouble . he understands the consequences," Ball said. "I hope he doesn't take the path I (have) taken.
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com