Writer: Kevin Robinson-Avila
ALBUQUERQUE - To help break a family cycle of drug trafficking, Josie Lopez is taking a parenting class in prison.
"My mom was in prison three times for trafficking," said Lopez, 44, who is serving a six-year term at the Women's Correctional Facility in Grants for selling cocaine. One of her daughters and two of her brothers have also been in jail for trafficking.
To be a better influence on her grandchildren, Lopez enrolled in a nurturing parenting program offered by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.
"The class is showing me how to change my patterns," Lopez said. "It's teaching me positive things I can do to be a good role model for my grandchildren. I wish my mother had taken this class."
The class is part of NMSU's Strengthening Families Initiative, which teaches parents healthy ways to raise children while encouraging them to take better care of themselves and their kids. Classes are offered free to anyone in a parenting role in many counties, but program facilitators particularly reach out to high-risk parents, such as incarcerated mothers and fathers.
"Incarcerated parents generally need these classes more than most, because there's such a vicious cycle of abuse in their families and prison becomes a revolving door that's passed down from generation to generation," said Charolette Collins, program coordinator for northern New Mexico.
New Mexico has one of the highest rates of repeat offenders who return to prison, Collins said.
"Family issues are a big reason for that," she said. "They just don't know how to transition back into family life, so this program helps a lot in that regard. Most of these parents have never been nurtured themselves, and they don't know how to be nurturing parents."
NMSU staff have taught six classes to medium and low security male prisoners at Southern New Mexico Correction Facility near Las Cruces.
"There was such positive response to those prison classes that we decided to apply the same model at correctional facilities in the north," Collins said.
In Grants, 16 women have been attending class since early April. Classes are also underway at the Santa Fe County Detention Center and the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa.
Participants meet once weekly for two-and-one-half hours. Much of the class focuses on the women's issues, such as handling stress and anger, communication skills, healthy relationships and substance abuse. At the same time, they learn about nurturing children, including information about child development and positive discipline techniques.
Through class, Lopez said she's learned more about her own abuse as a child and how that contributed to her problems as an adult.
"I watched my mom sell drugs, and I saw it was easy money for her," Lopez said. "I figured it would be easy money for me, too. I just followed her into that lifestyle."
Lopez is now trying to be more nurturing with her five grandchildren.
"When they come to see me, I show them I love them and that they come first in my life," she said. "I'm learning to observe their emotions and help them deal with those emotions. I try to communicate with them."
Melissa Florez, 23, said she's learned to manage stress better by spending quiet time alone or talking with someone she trusts.
"That will help with my kids," said Flores, who has three children. "I used to think it's okay to spank your kids, but I'm learning other ways to deal with things."
Program facilitators have encouraged the women to write letters to rebuild relationships with their children.
"That's helping me re-bond with my kids," said Marcella Armijo, 43, incarcerated for drug offenses. "My daughter sent me a Mother's Day card. We're getting close again."
Bernadette Rivera, 45, said her eight children stopped talking to her after she went to jail for drug trafficking. "It was shocking for them," Rivera said. "But I've been writing letters, and they're starting to respond. I think they're starting to forgive me."
The children are benefiting from renewed contact with their mothers, said parent educator Amie Green, who teaches the class. "It means so much for kids to get a letter from their mom, especially the younger children," Green said. "For many of them, it's the first contact since their mothers went to jail."
Linda Fenley, vocational instructor at the prison, said the class is increasing the women's self-esteem. "For some of these women, it's too late," Fenley said. "They'll never regain custody of their children. We need to help more mothers here before that happens to them."
Eric Thompson, program manager at the prison, said there's a waiting list of women to attend the class. "The skills it teaches are probably the most valuable tools we can give them for when they get out."
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