Parents Behind Bars

Sixteen-year-old Nykia Hamilton tries to spend as much time with her dad as possible, reports CBS News Correspondent Maggie Cooper.

"I was coming here since he got locked up," she says, "and I was real little and I was a baby so it s always been normal for me."

Her father, Samuel Hamilton, is serving 25 years to life for murder.

"Just because you're in prison doesn't mean you can't be a dad," says Hamilton. "You know, you can still parent from prison and be effective doing that."

With the largest prison population ever in the U.S., nearly two-million children have a parent or other close relative behind bars. Some experts say that significantly increases their chances of following in their parents footsteps.

Statistics show kids with parents in prison often idolize them and imitate their criminal behavior. The children's center at Sing Sing prison in New York was created to help facilitate a more positive parenting experience.

Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of Osborne Associates, says "It's really a two-generation program. It prevents crimes in terms of the inmate coming out, because we know that strengthening family ties helps inmates, and we think it prevents behavior in the next generation."

Inmates who've participated in a 16-week parenting program are allowed to spend time with their kids in a more welcome setting. The goal: to create better fathers and more stable families.

But critics say turning hardened criminals into fathers-of-the-year is unrealistic at best.

James Fotis, executive director of the Law Enforcement Alliance, says "Once they get out and are back on the street, I think that most of that training is going to fall apart. It's just like recidivism, within two years most felons are back in jail."

Nykia Hamilton hears the message about her father loud and clear.

"By my coming up here, it's made me not want to get arrested for anything like that or to be in prison," she says.

And from behind prison walls, Samuel Hamilton pays his deby not only to society, but also to his child.