June 17, 2011
In a cinder-block room plastered with motivational posters, Peter Reno puts an unusual twist on what it means to be a role model.
At 38, Reno doesn’t have a job, status or money.
What he has to offer are his mistakes — and the hope that his four children will learn from them rather than end up like their dad, a recovering drug addict counting the days in his fourth prison term in 15 years.
“I’ll try to use myself as an example of what not to do,” he says, explaining how he will approach his children after his release this summer.
Reno was among a dozen inmates at the medium-security Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in Colorado Springs who spent two months before Father’s Day learning how to live up to the label.
They were the first group to volunteer for the prison’s new InsideOut Dad program, a kind of Fatherhood for Felons 101.
There, counselors address how to foster intimacy through phone calls and letters while explaining missed birthdays and painful absences.
“One of the big things we try to impart is: It’s never too late,” said William J. Palatucci of Community Education Centers, which operates the prison under contract with the Colorado Department of Corrections.
At twice-weekly meetings for two months, the inmates gathered to address potential stumbling blocks in their bid to repair frayed relationships.
Reno’s problem — how to be a moral example for his young children — was high on a list of common refrains.
At a meeting in early May, one inmate said he missed his children but discouraged them from visiting. Seeing their father behind bars would be too difficult, he said.
Others grappled with how to discipline children who might respond: “You break the rules, too, dad.”
During a break from a group discussion, Joe Tillman, 34, fretted that he never saw himself as the kind of man who would skip out on an infant daughter.
Then again, he never counted on robbing pharmacies to get his hands on oxycodone, a cheap substitute for the heroin he craved.
After serving six years of a 14-year sentence, Tillman met a woman, started school and worked as a bill collector in Denver — until a gambling habit led to his probation getting revoked early this year.
While his daughter learns to talk and walk, Tillman is surrounded by men who talk about grown children as if they are strangers.
“That helps me see who I don’t want to be,” he said.
What Tillman wants to be, he said, is a caring father who won’t shy away from his daughter’s questions as she grows old enough to be curious about his past and starts facing her own difficult choices.
Others don’t have the benefit of children too young to remember.
When Felix Reyes is released, he’ll go home to a wife and three children who were left homeless after his fourth drunken driving arrest. Making amends will mean kicking a drinking habit he developed at 11, he said.
“If I don’t get my life together, I’m not only going to lose them. I’m going to lose my life,” he said.
Reno, who struggles with cocaine addition, said that drug convictions kept him out of the picture when his two oldest children were young. They became “pretty good friends” the last time he was released from prison, he said, but he wants to be a father to his youngest children.
He smiled while telling stories about a 14-year-old daughter who volunteers as a peer advocate at her Denver high school.
If she gets in trouble, he’ll try to be understanding, he said. But he won’t let her forget the consequences of the choices that he’s made.
“I let her know that going that route is not something they want to do. It’s a lonely, lonely route that’s not worth anything. You lose out on a lot of life.”
Reno adds: “I try to be the best parent I can over the phone.”
InsideOut Dad provides a curriculum for more than 400 correctional facilities in 20 states, its designers say. It was launched at Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center this spring to complement other programs that focus on how to stay sober, hold down jobs and keep out of trouble.
Contact the writer at 636-0366.