How Incarceration Is Passed Down From Father To Son

Mass incarceration of African American men has led to 1.1 million being imprisoned in the U.S. — 500,000 of them are fathers.

Originally Published: 
African male holding his baby boy in his arms, baby boy is looking at the camera.
AfricaImages/E+/Getty Images

In the United States, Black Americans are incarcerated at almost five times the rate as white Americans, according to a report by The Sentencing Project. Black men, who make up less than 6% of the nation’s population, make up nearly 39% of the male prison population. About half of those men are dads — and that’s a defining factor of their children’s lives with major effects on their development. “Not having a connection to a male figure has young boys acting out,” says Precious Skinner-Osei, Ph.D., a professor at the Phyllis and Harvey Sandler School of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University and author of a recent study on the topic. “I call this collateral damage of incarceration.” Children with a parent in jail or prison are five to six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves.

A major contributor to this issue is the prison system’s refusal to recognize incarcerated men’s fatherhood, Skinner-Osei says. “When you look at any research on incarcerated women, that relationship is acknowledged from day one,” she says. “But many fathers have expressed that their bond with their children is not considered authentic.”

For the past six years, Skinner-Osei has been interviewing men about what it’s like to be a father while incarcerated and Black in in America — and what the effects are on their children. Here’s what she’s learned.

What are your goals here?

I remember the first time seeing that we have 1.1 million African American men in prison —500,000 identify as fathers, and more than 700,000 children have been impacted. I was blown away. But those numbers don't tell you the story. That’s when we have to start asking questions: Why do we have this many? What crimes are people committing? Why are they committing these types of crimes?

We can only move forward if we hear from these men about why this is happening. And a lot of times, what they shared with me was totally the opposite of what I would hypothesize before.

There’s a lot of talk about African American fathers being absent from their children’s lives, but much of the dialogue doesn’t address why this is happening. And despite how little the justice system takes into account the importance of fatherhood, many of these men still play an active role in their children's lives and try hard to be good fathers.

Even if you're labeled a criminal or a bad parent, children are very forgiving.

We have sons in this research that hadn't seen their fathers before or had only had contact with their fathers through emails or letters, due to prison. And when asked, “Do you consider your father to be absent?” they said, “Absolutely not.” That was surprising to me, because, again, we had identified what fatherhood should look like for these men, instead of asking them.

How does stigma from being incarcerated affect how a man fathers his children?

Imagine if you were judged for the rest of your life because of one thing that you've done wrong. That one thing means you have to carry that load with you for the rest of your life. When we say “Oh, this person was in prison, this person is a convict, or this person is a criminal,” that affects how these men see themselves, their perception of who they are. Then it’s passed down. That's how the children also see them. They interpret it as “my dad is a criminal, which means my dad is a bad person.”

Incarceration also brings on a significant feeling of guilt for fathers, right?

One of the things I realized with children of incarcerated men is that, no matter the stigma, children are forgiving. So even if you're labeled a criminal or a bad parent — not just by the community or society, but children hear this a lot in their homes, they hear a lot of negativity around that from their loved ones — children are very forgiving. It’s the fathers who aren't as forgiving to themselves. They feel like “I let my children down. I left my children out in this world. I wasn't there to protect them.” They feel like they have put their children in unhealthy or dangerous situations that increase their chances of also being incarcerated.

Many children inherit their father's incarceration. So the cycle just repeats itself.

Fathers also feel guilty because of what they miss out on. I had a participant in my study whose son plays college football, and his team happened to win two national championships. This dad had to watch from prison. That was considered to be a sentence in itself. You miss the best part of your son's life.

How are incarcerated fathers affected by the process of being released from prison and re-entering society?

Re-entry is a significant component of incarceration. The majority of people in prison in the United States are released one day, approximately 95%, which is an estimated 600,000 people yearly. There are tons of re-entry programs and efforts that focus on post-release. But my research has shown that the issue is these programs don't focus on how re-entry starts the first day that you're sentenced to jail or prison. The work is hard. If you wait until somebody is released to say “let me help you get your life together,” instead of when they enter jail or prison, that’s not enough.

Immediately when somebody is being released, we focus on how they need a job, which is true, and how they need housing. Very rarely do you see that the research is focused on what I like to call “the internal components,” like the unaddressed chronic trauma that these men are dealing with. For example, many of my research participants discussed unaddressed childhood trauma that led them to abuse substances and commit crimes. If you don't address what's on the inside, it’s hard for them to keep housing even if they get it, to keep that job if they get employment.

We're only approaching reentry through one lens, but we need to look at the individual as a whole and use an approach that encompasses external and internal barriers.

The number of Black men who return to offend is high — is this because of a lack of support during the re-entry process too?

Neglecting to address psychological barriers during re-entry is significant in the high recidivism rates. But for a lot of people, we see high recidivism numbers because they go back into the same communities. They’re approached by the same people, they encounter the same factors. Living in environments that are unstable or unpredictable creates circumstances that favor behaviors to quickly capitalize on opportunities, because these opportunities may disappear as quickly as they appeared. In this way, opportunities to earn fast money through illegal means often appear more desirable than going through long processes, like education.

We’ve had acts pass within the last five years working towards the issue of incarceration and fatherhood...but we still have a long ways to go.

Then there's a lack of resources. If we don't do anything to equip you to thrive in that community, we're going to see this cycle continue. It almost feels like there's no way out. I've had several men tell me they feel like they're stuck. We must create stable environments that allow justice-involved individuals to feel confident that any efforts toward future success are not in vain.

So are all of these elements — the stigma, the difficulties in caregiving, the challenges in re-entry, and the environment in which these dynamics happen — also reasons why fathers and sons are often incarcerated at the same time?

Children with incarcerated parents often experience more adversity, and they suffer from psychological strain, antisocial behavior, and economic hardship such as extreme poverty, residential instability, and homelessness. Plus, if you have a father in jail, a child has a one out of six chance of being involved with the justice system. Many children inherit their father's incarceration. So the cycle just repeats itself.

In 2018, more than 48,000 youth were in correctional-style facilities. One of the reasons this happens is that the expectation is ingrained in these children through how they’re seen by their families, teachers, and the media. Many children say they’ve been told they will end up in jail like their fathers.

As people are getting longer sentences, you're also more likely to be in there with a family member who may not necessarily be in the same facility, but incarcerated at the same time. Research shows that, in 2018 in Pennsylvania, more than 240 fathers were imprisoned with their sons. Some were cellmates. There were seven families in which a father, son, and grandson were in the same institution.

From the conversations you’re having with incarcerated fathers, what changes would you like to see change regarding the prison system?

We need a huge overhaul of legislation. We’ve had acts pass within the last five years working towards the issue of incarceration and fatherhood — like the Second Chance Act and, more recently, the First Step Act — but we still have a long ways to go. For example, The First Step Act only applies to those incarcerated in federal prisons, although most people are incarcerated in state prisons. [Editor’s Note: Both acts aim to reduce rates of recidivism, increase reentry programs, decrease unnecessarily long and harsh sentences, and allow incarcerated people to earn days off their sentence for good behavior.]

From a practice approach, I would like to see an update on how people who work in the field are managing or working with people who have been released. A lot of community work is the same as things that we were doing 10, 15, and 20 years ago. We need to be brought up to date.

We definitely need more qualitative research. Quantitative research is great; it shows us the numbers, and we get to see how big of an issue this is. But we need to hear these people's stories more so we'll know how to address the issues adequately.

This article was originally published on