CONCORD, N.H. – Three children attending a New Hampshire summer camp will take a break from horseback riding, swimming and archery to spend some quality time with their fathers — behind bars — at the state prison in Concord.

The program is a first for New Hampshire and one of only a handful nationwide.

The children — who range in age from 11 to 13 — will spend six hours each on Tuesday and Thursday painting, playing games and dining with their dads. They will be at the prison’s Family Connections Center, located deep within the prison, in a suite of rooms that encompasses what used to be death row.

Prison officials say no child has ever set foot in this area.

The three prisoners participating in the program earned the visits by being discipline-free and taking parenting and child development classes. They meet at the center regularly to record audio books for their children and video-conference with them.

“I’ve put a lot of pain into my children with my incarceration,” said Rene Hallee, who began his third stint behind bars in January and whose 11-year-old son will be visiting. “He knows I put a lot of work in this that allowed him to come. I did it to better myself for him and his sister.”

The three prisoners met Thursday to discuss the visits and plan the skit they will put on for their children. One of their daughters had suggested the theme “Barbie Girl,” the 1997 bubblegum pop hit. After grappling with that one for a while, the dads gamely agreed to give it a shot.

The center’s walls are painted in soft tones and feature murals and paintings done by prisoners — Hallee among them.

One of the narrow death row cells has been converted into a makeshift audio studio for recording the books; several others are used for staff and storage space.

The Family Connections Center was created in 1998 at the now-defunct Lakes Region Facility, a co-ed prison. Its goal is to strengthen the connection between incarcerated parents and their children to help reduce recidivism.

The center now runs programs at the women’s prison in Goffstown, Northern Correctional Facility in Berlin and the prison in Concord.

It currently has 140 prisoners enrolled statewide.

“We want them coming out of prison motivated to do better and stay on the right track,” said University of New Hampshire family studies professor Kerry Kazura, a founding member of the center.

The Department of Corrections underwrites half the cost of running the FCC and its programs. The remainder comes from grants and donations.

The children attend Camp Spaulding in Penacook, run by the nonprofit Child and Family Services agency for children from low-income families. Camp director Ed Orlowski said he hopes the FCC program expands.

For all three prison-bound campers, overnight camp is a first-time experience. The dads say their children were very excited to be going to camp for two weeks.

“She’s going to love it,” Kevin Smith, who has been behind bars for seven years, said of his 12-year-old daughter. “I’ll be hearing all kinds of stories about camp.”

FCC program manager Kristina Toth said the program is patterned after one started by Washington, D.C.-based Hope House, a nonprofit that runs camps in prisons in Maryland, North Carolina and California. Hope House founder Carol Fennelly said the New Hampshire camp is unique because it is sponsored in large part by the state.

She called New Hampshire DOC officials “visionaries” for seeing the value of family reunification.

“I’m really excited that a state has picked up on the value of the program,” said Fennelly, who flew to New Hampshire last spring to help FCC staff set up their program. “When you think about re-entry, you think jobs, resumes, but rarely do you think about families as part of re-entry.”

Toth said the campers and their fathers will create a life-sized mural based on the theme “a perfect day with dad” and pillowcases with their and their fathers’ handprints on them that they can take home. A photographer is volunteering her time to take father-child portraits.

She said the last day will end with a party and cake “for all the birthdays that got missed during the years Dad was gone.”