JETTA FRASER Enlarge
JETTA FRASER Enlarge
In a no-frills visiting room inside the Toledo Correctional Institution, eight men in prison blues sit and listen as Ron and Cathy Tijerina stand face to face, talking out a problem.
He wants her to skirt the rules and get extra food into the prison for him. She's uncomfortable with the idea and tells him so. They try to see each other's side, talk about other options, and reach a mutual agreement.
The situation is hypothetical - Ron Tijerina has been on the outside, back with his family since 2006 - but the discussion they're having is not an act.
"Do we really talk like this?" Tijerina says to the men. "Do you think we really talk like this? Yes, we really talk like this. Did we used to talk like this? No."
For 15 of the Tijerinas' 24-year marriage, Ron Tijerina was serving time for a conviction in Defiance County for raping a 14-year-old boy.
It was a situation that would shake - and break - the best of marriages. The Tijerinas didn't let it.
Instead, the Holgate, Ohio, couple, who had 2 and 4-year-old sons, turned their nightmare into what is now a nationally recognized program that strives to strengthen families and marriages even when the father or husband is behind bars.
The 36-week program, dubbed Keeping Families and Inmates Together in Harmony - or Keeping FAITH, for short - focuses on communication skills, character development, relationship stability, and parenting. It's a voluntary program for inmates who are fathers in a committed relationship.
Offered in 12 Ohio prisons, the program was showcased last month at the 14th annual Smart Marriages conference in Orlando, Fla. The Tijerinas were presented with an Impact Award from Smart Marriages, the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education.
"The program they created is so cost-effective and it's so effective. It's like a no-brainer," Diane Sollee, founder and director of Smart Marriages, said. "They should be getting an award at the White House, not at Smart Marriages."
Since 2007, more than 2,000 Ohio inmates have enrolled in Keeping FAITH and 1,090 have completed the program. Of those who went through the program and were released from prison during an 18-month period in 2008 and 2009, just 5 percent returned to prison for a new conviction or parole violation.
Mrs. Tijerina, 43, said the early recidivism rate may be good, but her goal is to break the generational cycle of children following their fathers and grandfathers to prison.
"We really are trying to make a difference for these families that are forgotten, that are floating under the radar, living in the shadows of shame and embarrassment," she said. "So few programs actively seek them out to help them and no other demographic needs help as desperately as they do."
Keeping FAITH is run though the Ridge Project, an organization Mrs. Tijerina started from her home in 2001 while her husband was still incarcerated.
Since 2002, when the Ridge Project landed its first $50,000 grant to run an after-school program for at-risk youth, the Defiance-based nonprofit has been awarded some $9.5 million in federal, state, and private grants to run programs for youth and for prison families.
Keeping FAITH is funded by a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides $412,000 a year to pay for staff, educational materials, and financial assistance for families to visit inmates in the program.
It's a success story for marriage and marriage education that stuns Ms. Sollee.
"I think it's the most impressive story," Ms. Sollee said. "We need to spread this program to every prison in the country."
Prison seems like the last place Ron Tijerina, now 44, would want to go after spending 15 years in seven lock-ups.
Still, within eight months of his Sept. 14, 2006, parole, he was cleared by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to go into the state prisons to present the Keeping FAITH program.
The first time he stepped inside Toledo Correctional, he clutched his wife's hand. It was bittersweet, he recalled. Now, it just feels right.
"I don't have to go back to prison," Tijerina says with a smile. "I get to."
His wife, who struggled for years to feed and take care of her sons while Tijerina was in prison, said they visited him three times a month.
"When people say, 'Why would you go back?' we say, 'How can we not?'•" Mrs. Tijerina said.
"It would be like this: If you were living on the street totally starving and then all of the sudden you had all of the food you could possibly want. What would you do? You would take it to the people that you knew were starving."
The origin of the Ridge Project dates to those early weeks and months after her husband was found guilty and sentenced to 14 to 25 years in prison.
Mrs. Tijerina said she quickly learned how alone she was.
"I'm thinking, 'I know I'm not the only one in this situation because these visiting rooms are packed with kids and families, so surely there's some sort of something where someone could offer me guidance, support, something,'•" she recalled.
She looked and found nothing.
She spent eight years on public assistance before completing a paralegal- correspondence course. She landed a job as an abstinence educator with the former Community Pregnancy Center of Northwest Ohio in Bryan, and there, learned how to write grants.
During this time, the Tijerinas were brainstorming what would become Keeping FAITH. Mrs. Tijerina wanted to work with at-risk youth because she saw where their lives were headed if someone did not intervene.
"People say, 'Oh, you're the hug-a-thug club,'•" she said. "It's like, no, we're the create safe families and safe communities place.
"If we can't stabilize these families, then there's more victims inside the families and inside our communities," Mrs. Tijerina said. "We obviously can't keep doing things the way they've always been done. Until people start waking up and saying we've got to involve the family, we have to start dealing with relationships not just punishment and job skills because that's not enough to transform people."
The year 2002 was a pivotal one for the Tijerinas.
Late in 2001, Ron Tijerina was released from prison on super-shock probation after a judge ruled he had served a sufficient amount of time and was not likely to reoffend. The Tijerinas began settling back into being a family - Mrs. Tijerina became pregnant and, after learning the Ridge Project had received funding for an after-school program, she quit her job to run it.
Tijerina's homecoming was short-lived, though.
In June, 2002, an appeals court overturned his early release from prison. Ron Tijerina had a week to turn himself in - something he did despite the urging of many people to run.
He would meet his newborn daughter, now 7, in a prison-visiting room.
Tijerina said he is pained by the innocence he stole from his children. They shouldn't have to know what prison is, he said. They shouldn't have to live with the stigma of having a father who was in prison, who still must register as a sex offender.
While he maintains he did not commit the crimes for which he was incarcerated, Tijerina said that before he went to prison he was living an unacceptable life - abusing drugs and alcohol, neglecting his wife and children.
"Did prison save my marriage? Yes, it did. Did prison save my family? Yes, it did," he said.
He said he tries to pass that message on to the inmates he meets each week. He wants to help them become the kind of men, husbands, and fathers who won't wind up back in trouble.
"The greatest thing I tell them is you're in the best place you can possibly be and you don't even know it," Tijerina said. "I work with men who need this experience for just a moment of their life so they can wake up. I tell them they need to embrace this experience instead of keep kicking it, keep wanting out."
Toledo attorney Joseph Loeffler, who fought unsuccessfully to get a new trial for Tijerina, calls him "the only truly innocent client" he's ever had. Tijerina's lack of bitterness amazes him.
"I'm so proud of the way he handled it," Mr. Loeffler said. "He really believes that all the suffering he went through was for a purpose."
Ed Coleman, a correctional program specialist at Toledo Correctional, said it's surprising how many inmates want to focus on their families. Keeping FAITH gives them that chance. "I think the guys tend to gravitate more toward Tijerina because he's been here and went through all this with his wife," Mr. Coleman said.
Wives and girlfriends are invited to attend some of the Keeping FAITH sessions at the prison, and once a year participants and their families take part in an all-day family day with food, games, and time to practice what they've been learning.
Sonja Jacobs of Toledo attends the sessions with her boyfriend, Antonio Lockett. A nurse, she said the communication skills they're learning are helping her at work as well as with her boyfriend.
"It's been very beneficial," she said. "We've been able to communicate. We've been able to listen and hear and be attentive to each other."
It's a first step.
Mrs. Tijerina said that during the long years her husband was in prison, she didn't give up on him, in part because she did not believe he was guilty, and because she wasn't willing to throw away their relationship and family.
She told the inmates as much on a recent visit.
"Guys, it's not about where you are today. It's about the potential she sees inside of you," Mrs. Tijerina said. "And potential doesn't mean squat if you don't live up to it. If [Ron] had not lived up to that potential, would we be here today? No. We would not."
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