Buddy System

Understanding men and their friendships.

Fathers' Days Behind Bars

A group for fathers in prison can help keep them involved

This Op-ed of mine is appearing in the Baltimore Sun on Father's Day.

One photograph shows a beaming father with three children ranging in age from 12 to 16. The next frames a proud dad holding a squirming, diapered baby with a 3-year-old next to him.  A third reveals a father with tears streaming down his face embracing two teen-agers.  These fathers are incarcerated and have been awaiting trial in Baltimore.  They have completed a four-week parenting program, the latest in a series that I have been co-leading for more than two years.

Baltimore’s detention facility has been subject to continuing attention, mostly negative. However, every father in prison does not deserve to be stereotyped by those few in the headlines. Why is it important to know the rest of the fathers better? They need to be judged as innocent and as good fathers until proven otherwise. Of those who continue to be incarcerated, close to 95 percent in the U.S. will return to the community. Upon return, they will need support from their families, the educational system, social services, employers, and their children.

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More than half of the adults in state and federal facilities are parents.  Over 1.5 million children in the U.S. have a father in prison.  About half of the fathers lived with their children in the month prior to incarceration, and many of those not in the home were meaningfully involved in their children’s lives.  Adults over 18 also have parents in prison, adding to the numbers who may not see their dads this Fathers’ Day.

Incarcerated fathers will not be spending the holiday in the embrace of their families and their neighborhoods. The rules permit communication with their children only occasionally by prison telephone, a letter, or in a brief visit during which they will high-five each other with two inches of glass between them. 

Over the past two years, more than 200 fathers have attended these voluntary groups designed to improve parenting. Getting a one-hour contact visit and a photograph with their children as a keepsake are two reasons the group has a wait list. During the sessions, fathers examine their upbringing, their relationships with the mothers of their children, and how they want to maintain contact with their children.

Gang members attend the fathering groups as well as people arrested for a range of serious crimes. When they are in the room, they are fathers and not detainees or serial numbers. Having 10 men talk about their fathering role is a powerful experience. One recalls being a 12-year-old son who had no father; another looks back 10 years when he was a 16-year-old who had impregnated his girlfriend.  A 30-year-old with two young children and a wife describes trying to talk to his 5-year-old son on the phone when the son would rather watch television or play a video game.  A 50-year-old grandfather laments missing his youngest child’s college graduation when he had attended his oldest’s.  

Fathers tend to raise similar issues, reflective of their concerns about their diminished roles:

What do I tell my child about why I am in prison? – Many fathers, particularly of young children, struggle with when and if to tell them about the charges against them, and even that they are in prison.

How do I parent if I am not in the home? – Why should a child listen to a father who may be going away for 10 years?  More challenging yet, the child’s mother may have had only a casual relationship with the father and has a new partner to help with childrearing.

What is my value if I am unable to support the family? – Men are socialized to be breadwinners.  In some communities, this socialization is connected to a culture of crime if too many barriers exist to jobs with decent wages.  While a mother’s value to her children is secure despite financial aspects, a father’s contribution as a nurturer may be marginalized.

These are serious parenting questions that, to some extent, apply to all fathers. All of us have done things, though they may not be illegal, that we would not want to share with our children.  Many fathers have not been home enough to know their families as well as they could.  Self-esteem for men is often related to income.

Everyone has the capacity to be a good parent.  But circumstances, such as geographic distance, substance abuse, being poorly parented, and making bad life decisions can intervene. Fathering is a lifelong gig. I was still learning from my father, even in my 50s, and these fathers’ children will need their attention at all ages. 

These are sons, brothers, fathers, and grandfathers who, regardless of incarceration, should have an opportunity to have a meaningful father’s day every day. In the program, we encourage staying involved with children while detained.  As fathers talk about how they wish their fathers had spent more time with them (and not money on them), we point out this is what their children need from them – attention, interest, and communication – even from behind bars.    

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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