Providing Services in a Correctional Environment
“Providing services to incarcerated men is challenging and demanding because providers have to balance facility safety and security priorities while meeting the human service needs of this population.”
Approaches to work in correctional settings bear some similarities to community-based fatherhood programming. For instance, the general approach of helping men reflect on their past experiences in order to identify barriers and develop goal-oriented solutions certainly applies to prison-based work.However, incarcerated fathers are likely to come to fatherhood programs with higher levels of guilt or shame concerning their past behavior and consequently are likely to need more help to address issues of low self-esteem and negative thinking about themselves.
Experienced practitioners have noted that inmates frequently fantasize about what life will be like on the outside and may be unwilling to face their real problems. Many develop an unrealistic view of what home life will be like when they return and are often unaware, or even unwilling to admit, just how much prison life has affected them. The impact of “institutionalization” can be significant and may make the transition to home life very difficult.
In prison-based fatherhood programming, helping fathers set realistic goals to improve their parenting and relationship skills may lead to other post-prison goals, including finding employment and becoming self-sufficient.
Practitioners recommend the following actions to help design and deliver effective programming for incarcerated fathers:
- Select appropriate curricula or modify curricula to be relevant to the target population. The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse’s Compendium of Curricula Used by Fatherhood Programs features several curricula designed for work in prison settings.
- Base role-playing activities on hypothetical, rather than real, situations.
- Include male and female facilitators of different races.
- Utilize video visits and other visitation supports.
- Help dads develop relationship and co-parenting skills to better work with the mothers of their children, and include co-parenting as a subject in relationship education classes.
- Provide community support services for mothers and children before and following the father’s release.
- If possible, provide links to community services upon release and develop relationships with local employers to help reentry dads with employment opportunities.
Whether a prison-based fatherhood program is operated directly by a department of corrections or in partnership with a community-based fatherhood program, there are some common themes in the provision of services for incarcerated fathers:
- Helping fathers who have been in regular contact with their children maintain that contact and gain new skills to deepen their understanding of child development, strengthen father-child bonding, and prepare for reunification.
- Guiding men through a process of self-reflection that focuses on acknowledging their past experiences and developing motivations that lead to cognitive readjustment.
- Guiding men who have not been in regular contact with their children through a process of self-growth that helps them consider ways to be more involved.
- Exploring definitions of masculinity and ways of relating to women and children.
- Helping fathers understand the impact of their previous behavior and current incarceration on their children.
- Helping fathers develop and enhance their parenting and relationship skills.
- Providing opportunities to practice skills through activities, such as role-plays, that allow fathers to fully understand their own feelings and those of their children.
- Preparing fathers for community reentry and family reunification.
Special skills are needed to deliver an effective program for incarcerated dads. Practitioners recommend hiring staff members who are:
- Unflappable and firm, yet approachable.
- Patient—practitioners will undergo detailed background checks before starting a program, plus searches whenever they visit a prison.
- Adaptable—a planned 90-minute workshop may suddenly need to be squeezed into half the time, with no advance notice, or you may not be allowed to bring typical workshop materials like paper and markers into a prison setting.
- Empathetic—staff need to relate to participants, earn their trust, and guide them through a process of self-reflection and learning.
Until recently, 25 states treated incarceration as “voluntary unemployment” and, while some states had developed procedures to notify new inmates of the need to modify their support orders, many incarcerated fathers continued to accrue child support debt because they did not know how to modify their order upon imprisonment. Although the federal Office of Child Enforcement ruled on December 20, 2016 that states may no longer “exclude incarceration from consideration as a substantial change in circumstances,” states still have significant flexibility in setting orders for incarcerated parents and are only required to inform parents of the right to request a review “after learning that a parent who owes support will be incarcerated for more than 180 calendar days.”
It is therefore important, as with community-based fatherhood work, that fatherhood programs become familiar with relevant local and state policies; help incarcerated and reentry fathers understand these policies; and contact local child support offices to discuss procedures to assist fathers with establishing or maintaining parental rights, reducing support order amounts or arrears, and restoring driver’s licenses upon release.
For example, staff of the New Hampshire Division of Child Support Services visit prisons throughout the state to help incarcerated parents with order modifications and, in Indiana, state agencies and fatherhood advocates have partnered to help newly incarcerated fathers request a modification of their support orders while in prison. The goal of the Indiana project is to reduce the support burden and give fathers more time to get on their feet after their release. “They would get so far behind on child support while incarcerated that they would hide out upon release,” one official said. The project required extensive dialogue between the state Department of Corrections and Department of Child Support, which helped break down barriers between the agencies. Both agencies signed a memorandum of understanding recognizing that incarcerated parents can play an important role in family reunification.
In some localities, child support offices may be able to help low-income noncustodial parents manage or reduce their child support debt. For examples, see New York City’s Human Resources Administration’s brochure Manage Your Child Support, which provides information on their policy, and the NRFC webinar series, which has featured three webinars (2013-16) on this topic.
For more information on child support policies see the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) publication Realistic Child Support Orders for Incarcerated Parents and a companion chart “Voluntary Unemployment,” Imputed Income, and Modification: Laws and Policies for Incarcerated Noncustodial Parents, which reviews practices, laws, and policies in different jurisdictions. To contact state child support agencies for more information on specific state policies, see OCSE’s Contact information for state child support programs.
“Employment programs that emphasize ‘soft skills’ appear to be of limited utility in helping released and paroled offenders become employed. More promising approaches include job training opportunities.”
Incarcerated fathers often need job training to plan their futures and support their children upon release. Occupational training, apprenticeship, and General Educational Development (GED) classes to earn credit toward a high school diploma are among the most useful options for dads. Some fatherhood programs also offer mentoring components, with trained mentors visiting incarcerated fathers as they prepare for release.
The RIDGE Project provides educational and employment services for incarcerated fathers in Ohio state prisons. Each father who completes the Keeping FAITH program is eligible to participate in the organization’s workforce ethics training, followed by job placement assistance services upon release. The organization has also developed a unique training opportunity whereby fathers can participate in a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) program, which is provided behind prison walls for participants who would like to become truck drivers upon their release. PI&I Motor Express provides the tractor trailer truck used for instruction on prison grounds.
For other program examples, see the Spotlight on… Programs Working with Incarcerated and Reentry Fathers, and for a state-by-state list of relevant state- and federally-funded programs, see NRFC State Profiles.
Practitioners agree that supporting in-person or phone visitation with children is important, but it can be hard to arrange. Not only is the physical distance between the prison and the children’s home often a challenge, but also gaining entrance to the prison and feeling comfortable interacting with an incarcerated father can be difficult. “It hurts to think they know me as a criminal,” one father said at a listening session in 2011. “How can I tell them to do differently than me, without feeling like a hypocrite?”
Some fathers do not want their children to see the prison setting; others either do not have access to a phone or find the cost of receiving or making calls too high. Some children may resist contact with an incarcerated dad. In other cases, a father may have multiple children with multiple partners. In such instances, it is often best to start with a focus on one child and one mother, then gradually broaden the effort to more children.
Strategies that have worked for some programs include providing child-friendly visitation centers, helping mothers with visitation expenses and logistics, and using parent-child visitation as an opportunity to actively support participants in cultivating new parenting skills. Another strategy is to encourage dads to write letters to their children on a regular basis. Some practitioners advise dads to keep a copy of each letter in case the mother does not deliver the letter to the children. Other approaches include facilitating art projects where dads create books or handkerchief art for their children or opportunities for dads to read to their child or sing and play a musical instrument over the phone or via audio or video recording.
Some programs include celebrations at the end of a fatherhood class when children and mothers are invited in for a session that includes food and interactive skill-building activities. In facilities that will permit such events, Halloween, Christmas, and other holidays are also occasions to invite children and families for a party; a Father’s Day cookout is another option. A caregivers’ appreciation event can help dads honor mothers and other family members who are helping to raise their children.
For program examples, see the Spotlight on…