Florida Learning to be a dad -- in jail Sheriff funds program after study finds inmates absorb parenting class's material

By Loren Elliott

The Tampa Bay Times

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Before police caught him stuffing a bag of ecstasy into his sock, before someone signed him up for a jailhouse parenting class, Keith G. Spike thought of himself as a great dad.

His 6-year-old daughter had a bed to sleep in, toys to play with and no reason to question the source of her next meal. So when the instructor of his substance abuse class put Spike's name down for a four-week parenting course, he thought about opting out.

Too curious to quit, he showed up for the first class.

By Dec. 16, the fourth class, his ego was in tatters.

"It's my first time missing Christmas with my daughter - that's unexplainable," he said, as a dozen of his classmates, fellow orange-suited inmates, looked on. His gold teeth flashed with each word.

"I don't consider myself a great dad no more," he said. "I consider myself just a father."

Spike, 32, is one of 13 incarcerated men in counselor Jesse White's parenting class at the Falkenburg Road Jail in Tampa. Some had little choice - a judge had ordered them to be there. Others signed up in hopes of impressing the judges refereeing their ongoing custody battles. Spike is one of the willing - the handful who thought it might pass the time, perhaps teach them something.

Started in 2001, the biweekly class is a version of the 13-week course taught in Florida prisons, condensed for men with shorter sentences.

Initially supported by federal money, the parenting class might have been cut years ago if not for a study that found graduates had absorbed much of the material. Between that, and the realization that in Hillsborough, seven out of 10 inmates have at least one child under 18, the sheriff decided to pay for the classes out of his budget when federal funds dried up, according to former programs manager Jan Bates.

White, the teacher, is a former basketball player at Florida Southern College. He counsels inmates against substance abuse and shows felons how to support a baby's head. Lessons cover everything from potty training to what a parent's incarceration does to a teenager's psyche.

In class, White tells his students that daughters forgive a father's absence easier than sons. Spike hopes that's true.

Spike was 9 years old when he was first arrested. His parents had split four years earlier and his father, a Tampa cab driver, did little more than pay child support. Left on her own, Spike's mother drove a school bus and struggled to raise him and his two brothers.

"There's certain things right now that I wish I would have told my dad when I was young, that I still haven't told him to this day," Spike said.

Since his first encounter with the law, he has been arrested more than 20 times, often for selling cocaine.

Spike says the lessons learned in parenting class are what will keep him from falling back into his old ways. Asked if he wishes his father had taken a parenting class, Spike replied, "I wish he woulda took it two times."

It's class number six. The day's reading from the photocopied text begins, "Neglect is when a parent fails at one of their five roles: protecting, providing, teaching, guiding and nurturing. Neglect can lead to serious consequences."

"We are neglecting our children," a classmate says aloud, in agreement, repeating a core mantra of the course. Behind bars, these fathers fail at all five parental roles by default. Most admit they failed at these tasks before incarceration, too.

Spike's mind goes straight to his daughter. "She cries at night, and I can't hold her. That hurts." He calls her his pride and joy. "It's not too late - because my daughter, she's still young - I still got a chance to make up."

It is too late for Spike's son however. "I didn't even get the chance to just see him face to face except at the funeral," Spike said.

He was serving a yearlong sentence in county jail when his son was born and when his son died six months later.

"I don't want to lose another child," he said.

It's graduation day. CONGRATULATIONS is scrawled across the white board in all caps, trailed by three exclamation points.

Spike has only 15 days until release. He says he has an apartment to move into with his wife. He says he has a job lined up, working in a warehouse for a concrete accessories manufacturer.

His driver's license has been revoked, but his wife has a car and a license and plans to drive him to work on her way to a telemarketing job. There are no excuses for falling short on his promises like he has so many times before.

"It's not about me no more," Spike says. "It's about my child. It's about my wife. I got nothing out of being selfish. In 32 years, I haven't gotten nothing out of it but incarceration."

Published: Mon, Jan 18, 2016

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