The Utah Department of Corrections is teaching inmates a skill that could be critical to their success once they return to the community: how to be better parents by working with life-like baby dolls.
Inmates work in two-parent teams to care for a "baby simulator made by Realityworks during each class session, held once a week for two hours over nine weeks. The dolls are activated by the instructor and engage in a variety of life-like behaviors, including crying, cooing, needing diaper changes, etc. Each baby is capable of making more than 100 different real sounds and noises.
All of the men in the first class are fathers. They've given their dolls names and coach each other on what to do when the baby starts acting fussy. Inmates must figure out what the doll needs, from getting burped to being rocked and fed, and properly provide care — all while the instructor provides the lesson. An internal computer in each doll records data about the parenting response that inmate and instructor are able to review later.
The class covers such subjects as pregnancy, infant development, proper feeding and play, infant safety, CPR and Shaken Baby Syndrome — an especially important topic given that perpetrators are predominately males, usually the child's father, stepfather or the mother's boyfriend.
Other correctional facilities have similar programs and credit the class with bringing out a nurturing site of inmates that few other experiences in prison achieve; the lessons, they believe, translate into improved behavior once the inmates return to their own families.
Correctional Specialist Wendy Miller, who worked for two years to get the class approved, has observed the same reaction from inmates in her class. "The inmates took pride and responsibility for their babies," she said. "One inmate told me he didn't know he was 'capable of having feelings like that.'"
"I believe if we can not only teach the inmates the skills of being a good parent but also give them the desire to be good parents so that they may return to their families and take the responsibility needed to nurture their children and provide for their families," Miller said.
The programming division currently has six regular dolls and one doll with Shaken Baby Syndrome but is buying additional babies to expand the Total Parenting Experience class to the Timpanogos Women's Correctional Facility, other facilities at the Utah State Prison, the Central Utah Correctional Facility and our community correctional centers.
Below are links to stories by local media about the class: