Incarceration, Fatherhood, and Artmaking

Carol Fennelly and Ayo Ngozi on artmaking with fathers and children in federal and state prisons.

By Ayo Ngozi and Carol Fennelly 

"Part of what we do is go in and help people find their way back to their families."

"There was a warden there who some people thought was the hardest man in the federal system. At the beginning he was too busy to meet with me and didn’t want to talk."

"We had a moment when we finally just had to stop: 'Look, to us you’re just dads' … The room went dead silent, and then somebody in the back of the room quietly said 'thank you.' "

Ayo Ngozi is an artist, art educator, and alternative health practitioner. Trained as a journalist, she began working as a cultural activist and arts administrator 20 years ago, and as a self-taught artist began exhibiting and performing her own works in 1998. She is currently an intern in clinical herbal medicine at Tai Sophia Institute in Laurel, Maryland.

Carol Fennelly, a lifetime activist and community organizer, is the founder and executive director of the Community for Creative Nonviolence, she also has been a political commentator for WAMU and director of communications for Sojourners magazine.


In 1997, the Washington, DC, Department of Corrections closed the Lorton Correctional Complex—the equivalent of a state prison—handing over nearly 10,000 DC inmates to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. These men were relocated from nearby Lorton, Virginia, to federal correctional facilities across the country, with a devastating impact on thousands of DC-area families. With many families living in or near poverty, visits and even long-distance phone calls became nearly impossible. Spouses drifted apart; most fathers became deprived of any contact with their children.

In 1998, longtime faith-based activist and journalist Carol Fennelly started the nonprofit Hope House to address the needs of the families affected by Lorton’s closing. Starting with one prison in 1998, the organization’s programs have since expanded to serve thousands of fathers and children in 16 state and federal facilities across the country. Hope House has received nationwide attention for its arts-based summer camp program, in which children and fathers are able to spend sustained time together within minimum, medium, and maximum-security institutions. Through a program of workshops and projects, the Father to Child Summer Camp facilitates relationship building between fathers and their children, building stronger families and, by extension, stronger communities. The following is a conversation between Carol Fennelly and Ayo Ngozi, Hope House’s artist-in-residence, who facilitates art making with fathers and children in federal and state prisons.

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AYO NGOZI: Carol, I came to the work that Hope House does as an artist, after receiving a random call from you, introducing your work and the opportunity to facilitate art making with incarcerated fathers and their children. I remember you sent me a slide show that I showed to my son, who told me, “Mom, this is so important, you have to do it.” He was right. After working for several years as an art educator and administrator and then as a visual and performing artist doing gallery and museum work, there was a lot of work that I was not doing involving healing, and it was very important personally that I do that. I semi-retired to become a clinical herbalist. So that’s what I was doing as I began working with Hope House; I was in kind of a Bridge Conversation with myself, trying to further the possibility of bringing art making to the healing work, and looking instead at how I can be of service as an artist.

You are a different kind of healer, with a long history as an activist and as a cultural worker. You were one of the visionaries of the Community for Creative Nonviolence—along with your partner, Mitch Snyder, and others—that brought the issue of homelessness to the national forefront throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. And then you made a transition to doing this work with incarcerated men and their children and families through the creation of Hope House. Where is the bridge for you, the connecting thread in those works?

CAROL FENNELLY: When I left CCNV I wrote for public radio, and was doing a lot of research and writing about the inmates that were being transferred out of the DC area (from Lorton prison, which moved its last prisoner out in 2001) and what was happening to them and their families as a result of transfers to prisons far from here. The journey was not that far for me; I run into a lot of the same guys in the work—the same issues that take people to homeless shelters take people to prison too. The journey is often the same. So part of what we do is go in and help people find their way back to their families.

A lot of the same socioeconomic and racial dynamics are at work in both shelters and prisons. We work with primarily African American men who have fallen off our communities’ radars as important people in our lives, people who are no longer involved in our community. I feel like through this work we’re able to really help these men find their place in community again, as fathers, as members of their families, and as valued people.

NGOZI: It seems than in order to facilitate this larger reconnection to community that you talk about, a lot of smaller-scale connections need to be made. On the one hand, there’s the connection that has to happen between the fathers themselves, inside prison. Everyone involved in this program has to work together to make the programs successful; fathers have to agree to work together in order to agree on how things will go with them and with their children. Then there are the connections between the inmates and the prison guards, and the warden and the line staff, and with the families at home, making sure things don’t fall through the cracks so children can participate.

FENNELLY: I think it’s also about transformation, about fathers and children transforming their relationships. Maybe they didn’t have a relationship before the dad was incarcerated, maybe it was tenuous, or maybe it was good. Whichever way, it is transformed by spending five intensive days having experiences together.

The Father to Child Summer Camp also transforms the prison. North Branch Correctional Institution is one of the highest-security facilities in the country; it was our first time bringing a camp there, and we were coming into a resistant space. Only the warden welcomed our program. In our first meetings, the senior staff was there saying, “Oh no, we can’t let the children and fathers hug each other.” And the warden was right there saying, “Yes, we can.” But that didn’t get to the line staff, the guys who deal with inmates on a day-to-day basis. That facility is very rough, and the relationships between the inmates and the staff are not good. So the staff would do things like sabotage meetings scheduled with the fathers by locking them down so they couldn’t attend. We had these sour-faced guards who would stand at the doorway, and I’d invite them to come in and look at the murals, and they’d say no and just stand there. But by the end of the week, after looking at the art and after seeing the kids and dads together, I know we made some changes there.

Another example is from Cumberland Federal Corrections Institution. There was a warden there who some people thought was the hardest man in the federal system. At the beginning he was too busy to meet with me and didn’t want to talk; had he been the warden when we first started programs there, we wouldn’t have gotten in the door. By the end of his tenure at that facility he was one of our biggest supporters, and when he left for a new facility he brought us in to start a program there. He eventually described the camp to the Bureau of Prisons as one of the most successful programs he’d seen in his 20 years at the Bureau.

NGOZI: When I look from the perspective of a clinician at the work that Hope House does, I can see a different version of a well-known medical truth: it is so important for us to be with each other, to be in community, in order to heal. Study after study shows how people do better when they’re not in isolation. And we can think of that in terms of physical disease or ailments, and also in terms of the dynamics that are at work in the lives of our families. The children in Hope House programs are—as far as they’re concerned—the only ones dealing with having a father in prison, and they don’t talk with other children about this experience.

The children that we work with learn to connect with each other in a way that helps them do the ‘inside work’ that we can’t come in and do for them. I come to the work as an artist and a mother, but not as a therapist or healer. I am not there to ‘fix’ the fathers’ relationships with their children, or anything else. The work that you’ve created through Hope House is not unlike my bridged work as an artist and herbalist: we are here to open up the possibility of a new story, out of which we can make new choices for our own healing.

FENNELLY: That’s exactly right. Fathers in prison are not given the opportunity to be dads; we come in and give them that opportunity. That’s the only thing we do. The fathers take it and make the best of it, or they don’t.

NGOZI: It is like working with someone who is ill—that person, to paraphrase Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, has to want to be well and willing to make changes. That’s also key to the whole process of involving incarcerated fathers in the work that you do.

FENNELLY: It all starts with the dad; he has to make the effort to become part of the program. We are just there to provide the opportunity, the fathers do the rest. And they really live up to being great dads, and they encourage each other as well. At Cumberland especially, when a father joins our program he is embraced into this strong community of fathers.

At North Branch, it was a different case. We had all these disparate elements and had to pull them together; that was critical to the success of the first program there. Not only did we have opposition from the guards to the program, there was opposition of some of the dads to one another. We had four competing gangs represented among the fathers there, some of them from the deadliest prison gangs in the country. The first day when I met with these guys, everybody was closed and hard-looking, and I just couldn’t see how it was going to work. These guys were rough. Normally before camp, I meet with the dads three times, but for this camp we met every week for a couple of months, just trying to get a cohesive group and not knowing that this gang issue was at play until camp actually started. But that kind of thing exists in every prison to some extent.

NGOZI: What did you envision as the role art would play in creating a cohesive group in this situation?

FENNELLY: Here’s an example: one of the things we do at all the camps is have the fathers create a performance for their kids. They have to agree on what to do, and figure out for themselves the songs or whatever will be in the show. In some prisons when I’ve explained this, I get this ‘look’, because they are so unused to working as a group.

So I put together a sort of ‘greatest hits’ compilation of moments from past camp shows, so they could get a feel for it. Working together was still a challenge because of the gang issue, but they worked on it, they became a group.

NGOZI: On our way to North Branch in July, I remember that we had to keep calling—when we left DC, when we stopped for lunch, when we reached the playground. It was not about the prison, but about the fathers’ sense of disbelief that their children were actually coming to them. Once we were inside, I learned that as a facilitator, once we started a process with a family, we had to complete that process—meaning that if I’ve promised Jamal I’ll get him some light blue paint and I’ll be right back, I really have to do exactly that. There’s a different level of accountability that is required here, because in these environments there’s so little follow-through. Without that, it’s hard for the fathers and the kids to make these transformations because there’s no sense of stability.

FENNELLY: Once I brought in a longtime staffer to do an acting workshop with the fathers in preparation for the performance. We had a moment when we finally just had to stop and let them know: “Look, to us you’re just dads.” And there was this shift. The room went dead silent, and then somebody in the back of the room quietly said “thank you.”

NGOZI: That’s critical to setting the stage for the transformation that happens through this work. Because we’re coming in allowing people the possibility to change their story—not to change their past, or even their personalities—new opportunities are opened up for these families. It’s about allowing the space to meet the fathers where they are, as men, and not as murderers or bank robbers or whatever. I personally didn’t know why any of the fathers I worked with were incarcerated. This allows me as an artist and a healer to come in with a clean slate and let the relationships and art open up as they will, in the space this program has provided.

Original Arts & Democracy publication: May 2011