DURHAM, N.C. - At Missouri's toughest prison, inmates run a 4-H Club program for their children. Imprisoned dads in Florida, some barely literate, send home recordings of themselves reading storybooks.
Though many wardens and legislators remain wary, fatherhood programs run by volunteers and nonprofit groups are teaching parenting skills and family values to more and more of the nearly 700,000 fathers held in state and federal prisons.
Some states avoid such programs; others have one or two modest pilot projects. But Pennsylvania has expanded a program called Long Distance Dads throughout its prison system, and several Southern states are preparing comparable initiatives.
The trend has contributed to an upbeat mood at one of the first major conferences on the topic, the North American Conference on Fathers Behind Bars and on the Streets. The three-day meeting, which ends Friday, has drawn researchers, social workers and corrections officials from across the country.
''Maybe we're coming to the point where the invisible families are starting to become visible to people in policy positions,'' said James Mustin, executive director of the Family and Corrections Network, a co-sponsor of the conference.
Nearly 1.5 million American children have a parent in prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many states already have special programs for mothers behind bars. But 93 percent of the imprisoned parents are men, and their role as fathers has traditionally been neglected by corrections officials.
''Most wardens see their job as, 'Nobody gets out, nobody gets hurt,''' Mustin said. ''If they can do that, they've had a good day.''
Over the past four years, Pennsylvania has worked with fatherhood groups to develop Long Distance Dads and now offers the 12-week program to imprisoned fathers throughout the state. With a curriculum created in part by inmates, and using inmates as group leaders, the program encourages fathers to assume responsibility for their children while in prison and after they get out.
Penn State University is scheduled to complete an evaluation of the program next June, but the impact already has delighted prison staff. They report better behavior by participating inmates, and more father-child interaction in prison visiting rooms.
Among other programs highlighted at the conference:
-The 4-H Club started at Missouri's maximum-security Potosi Correctional Center. The inmates plan monthly meetings, organize family dinners and guide their children in community service activities.
Lynna Lawson, a 4-H Club specialist who assists the club, said the inmates show keen interest even though most are serving long sentences. ''It's an attitude of, 'This is my life. I have to make the best of it,''' he said.
One pitfall: Lawson said inmates can be crushed if a child unexpectedly doesn't show up for a monthly meeting, which means the father can't participate.
''All the fathers in prison express frustration about having no control over their kids,'' she said.
-Florida's Reading Family Ties, which initially was offered to imprisoned mothers and recently was extended to two men's prisons. Participants attend an 80-hour parenting course and can insert personal greetings on the recordings they send home.
''Speaking into a tape recorder may make it possible for fathers, who often have difficulty expressing their feelings in person, to say, 'I love you' to their children,'' said Anne Haw Holt, a consultant to Florida's corrections department. ''Ownership of the tape will enable the child to hear this caring over and over.''
-In New York State, a program called Conscious Parenting, which was started in 1996 by suburbanite volunteers from neighboring Connecticut and has reached more than 250 inmates so far.
In addition to parenting classes, the program features a Children's Day held every few months, in which families are bused to a prison for daylong festivities, including games and a meal organized by the inmates.
Some of the children have never before met their fathers. Volunteer Lucia Scott described one teen-age girl who entered the room where several inmates were waiting and was unsure which one was her father.
Expansion of the program is limited in part by the reluctance of some people to do volunteer work in men's prisons, Scott said.
''A lot of people feel there's no hope for these guys,'' she said. ''There's such a dismissal of their ability to care.''
On the Net:
Family and Corrections Network: http://www.fcnetwork.org
Bureau of Justice Statistics: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs