Buddy System

Understanding men and their friendships.

Fathers In Prison and the Holidays

Incarcerated dads have a hard time during the holidays.

This is the second Holiday Season I will be co-leading a fathering group at a federal holding facility.  The men in the group that started this week are awaiting trial on federal charges or have just been found guilty and are awaiting placement to a federal prison, often in a different state.  Gang members, in particular, tend to be sent away from their neighborhood.  At the conclusion of each four week group (we have run 17 groups so far), the men are allowed a one hour physical contact visit with their children. Normally they only get to see their children through a glass partition with no touching. Given the architecture of what was once a maximum security prison, contact visits for prisoners are not possible at this time. 

These one time contact visits take on mythical proportions in the minds of the fathers.  This may be their only chance for years to hold a new born they have never met, to play checkers with a young son or daughter, or to hug a teenage son or daughter.  They may be sent thousands of miles away, making family visits expensive and hard to schedule.  We try and prepare the fathers for the one hour visit by asking them to set realistic expectations for themselves and their children.  For example, a one-year-old may cry all the time, be asleep or need to be fed or changed.  A three-year-old may be scared and unwilling to be alone with the father (the mothers are not allowed in the room at the same time).  A nine-year-old may want to know why the father is in prison and a 13-year-old may be angry because he is in prison.  Teenage dauaghters may be emotionally explosive and teenage sons unresponsive and sullen.  The father also may have expectations for how he will be behave or what he will say — yet given the short time period and the emotions present the words never come out the way they want.

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The holiday season is a family time so these meetings are more emotional than usual.  TV shows and commercials show far flung family members returning from overseas, family dinners with bountiful spreads, and Christmas trees twinkling in picture perfect homes.  This is far from the reality of many people's lives, whether they are in prison or not, but for these men the pain is more palpable as the options for family reunions are often fewer.

How do my co-leader and I help the fathers during this month? We talk about it and give them the option to talk about it. We tell them that even though they are absent physically, they do not have to be absent from their families emotionally.  We suggest they send something they have made in prison, bought at the prison store, or arranged to have bought for them sent to their children so the children will know their dad is thinking of them.  Withdrawal from the family is not the answer for fathers who feel unsure how to give.  Rather, we hope to convey that staying in the family stew and understanding that sometimes holidays with the family, while different, can still be celebrated. It might just take a bit more creativity than usual.  In this way we try to provide one path to hope in what is a difficult situation.

Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., is a Professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.

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