Fathers in Prison

Will June 21st be their Father's Day?

Posted Jun 16, 2015

It is estimated that more than 1.5 million children 18-years-old and younger have a father who is incarcerated.  Add to this number adults of all ages that have a father in prison and the number is much larger.  This Father's Day may be especially poignant for many of these men and their children as the day is a national reminder of the role fathers can play in our lives.

I co-lead, with Branden McLeod and Ezechi Anonye, fathering groups for men at the Chespeake Detention Center, a federal holding facility in Baltimore city.  These detainees are awaiting trial on a range of charges, from racketerering, to armed robbery, to drug dealing.  They usually spend up to a year at this facility which was originally designed as a maximum security prison.  Because of its design, it has no communal space for contact visits.  Visits occur with a glass wall between visitor and detainee.  There are four small rooms for lawyer-client meetings.  It is here that, if a father completes a four-week fathering program, he can have a contact visit with his children for one hour. This may be the only time they can hold their children for years, especially if they are found guilty and send to a federal facility across the country and the family cannot afford to visit. Because of this, the fathering program is a highly sought after experience.

In this morning's group, the second meeting for these 12 men, the topic was how the fathers were raised and how their upbringing influences their parenting.  The fathers are asked to describe their family situation when young and to tell the group what was positive from that situation that they want to pass on to their children.

The group ranges in age from the early 20s to the mid-40s.  As we went around the room, we heard tales of men who never knew their father, men who knew their father but he lived outside of the home and contact was sporadic, men whose parents were married for a number of years before breaking up, and men who were raised by both parents and lived in the home their whole childhood.  The greatest pain is expressed by men who grew up without a father.  These men often went to the streets for their male role modeling.  They could find a mentor on the corner who often led them into a world of drug dealing. They profess to not having a clue about how to parent their own children.  But not all these tales are linear - having a father does not guarantee an untroubled path.

One father in the group had no father, a drug addicted mother, and a lucrative drug selling business when he was in his teens.  His mother went to rehab and has been straight for 20+ years.  At the beginning of her stint in rehab, as she was doing his laundry one day,she found drugs in his pants pocket.  She told him to either stop dealing or get out of the house.  It was too big a temptation for her to have drugs around.  He didn't believe she would actually throw a 14-year-old out of the house, but she did and he went into foster care.  He told the group he wants to give his mother's sense of determination to his children.

Another father talked about his grand-father raising him. He said his grandfather was too old to watch after him so he got into trouble. A third said that his anger problems came from being abandoned by his father. A fourth said he had two loving parents in the home yet got into trouble for which he only had himself to blame.  He was never a good student in school but wants his children to become good students.

No one family configuration leads ineluctably to crime. Life is too complex.  But the stories of father absence among this population repeat from one group to the next with only the names of the speakers changing: abandonment by a father (and a mother sometimes); finding a father figure somewhere else who is a bad influence; having children while getting into trouble; and getting incarcerated. The self-promises then follow that the father in the group will be there for his children in a way that his father was not there for him.  He will protect his children in a way that his own father was not protecting him.  By promising this, he is also protecting himself.

I am reminded of the Robert Frost poem, Stopping by woods on a snowy evening - "But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep."

As we near Father's Day, I hope these men keep the promises to themselves and their children.  They have a long way to go and much bad weather to trek through to get back home and into the lives of their children.  In the group, we encourage the fathers to stay involved in their children's lives no matter how far away they are and how long they are incarcerated. Fatherhood is for life. It does not get locked up for a few years.