Working with Incarcerated and Reentry Fathers

Work With Dads

Working with Incarcerated and Reentry Fathers

“To be successful, family strengthening services for prisoners require coordination between criminal justice and human service agencies, which often have divergent goals and contrasting perspectives.”[1]

 “Our job is not to fix the people we serve; our job is to equip the people we serve.”[2]

Statistics and Impact of Incarceration for Fathers and Families

The number of fathers in U.S. jails and prisons has increased four-fold since 1980.[3] Among the more than 800,000 incarcerated parents in federal and state prisons, 92 percent are fathers.[4] Each year, hundreds of thousands of prisoners are released from state and federal facilities, and many more are cycled through local jail facilities.[5] Ninety percent of all inmates will be released and 70 percent are likely to come back to the community where they were arrested.[6]

Many of these men grew up without the presence of a responsible father and often have complex family structures, employment problems, mental health issues, and substance use histories that impact their reentry prospects.[7] They face challenges in various areas, including establishing and maintaining healthy relationships, acquiring relevant job skills, obtaining employment, locating housing, managing child support obligations, and understanding their voting and general citizenship rights.

Given these challenges, it is perhaps not surprising that many former inmates return to prison. A recent recidivism study indicated that 49 percent of federal prisoners released in 2005 were rearrested for a new crime or rearrested for a violation of probation supervision conditions; 32 percent were reconvicted; and 25 percent returned to prison.[8] Similarly, although rates vary by state, nearly 25 percent of former state prisoners are reincarcerated in state correctional facilities within the first year of release.[9]

However, it is encouraging to note that prisoners who participate in employment, education, or substance abuse treatment programs are more likely to obtain employment and less likely to return to prison.[10] Similarly, although family strengthening programs are scarce (parenting skills classes, the most common service available, are received by only an estimated 11 percent of fathers in state prisons[11]), studies indicate that such programs have improved attitudes about the importance of fatherhood, increased parenting skills, and led to more frequent contact between fathers and their children.[12] There are also indications that relationship enhancement interventions can improve communication skills and that people who are able to maintain family ties during incarceration fare better when released than those without such ties.[13]

When a father is incarcerated, there are repercussions not only for himself, but also for his spouse or partner and his children.[14] Children of incarcerated parents tend to suffer from stress, trauma, and stigmatization and often exhibit a broad variety of behavioral, emotional, health, and educational problems that are compounded by the pain of separation.[15] Families and caregivers are also subject to emotional, financial, and physical stress and often struggle with conflicting expectations when the parent returns.[16] On any given day, an estimated 2.7 million children have a parent who is in prison or jail (that is 1 in 28 of all children),[17] over 50 percent of them are age 9 or younger,[18] and, although estimates vary, somewhere between 5 and 10 million children in the United States are affected by current or past parental involvement with the criminal justice system.[19]

Minority children are disproportionately affected by father imprisonment: in federal prisons, 49 percent of fathers are African American and 28 percent are Latino; African-American children are six and one-half times more likely to have a parent in prison than are white children.[20]

By helping fathers build on existing father-child relationships or create new bonds with their children and families, prison-based fatherhood programs can have an impact on child and father well-being, strengthen family and community connections, and reduce the chance of recidivism.

This section of the toolkit provides examples and tips for ways in which fatherhood programs can work with correctional facilities to help incarcerated fathers prepare for successful reentry; provide direct supportive services in the community for returning fathers and their families; and work with community partners to help coordinate support for families while the father is incarcerated.