How Mass Incarceration Creates Absentee Fathers and Troubled Children

Most fathers — especially those who have served their terms — deserve to have their children in their lives, if at all possible.

by Andrew Yarrow
Originally Published: 
A father standing behind a fence in jail, holding a photo of his daughter

The American family has radically changed during the last half century — with the sharp increases in divorce, single parents, unmarried parents, and the ranks of those who have never married. Adding to this demographic transformation are declining birth rates, assortative mating, and the collapse of marriage among poor and working-class Americans, millions of young adults living with parents, interracial and inter-ethnic couples, gay parents, and intergenerational households. Indeed, a time traveler from the days of “Father Knows Best” would find today’s familial landscape incomprehensible.

Issues like divorce, single parents, and unmarried, or “fragile,” families, and their effects on children (and adults) have been extensively studied and commented on, and it’s widely known that millions of children live without their fathers (more than one-fourth).

However, despite awareness of the problems of mass incarceration, relatively little attention has been paid to the two-and-a-half million minor children whose fathers are in prison or jail or the nearly 10 million kids whose dads have been incarcerated at some point during their childhood. A staggering one in nine African American children has a parent in prison.

Likewise, discussions of “absent” fathers rarely note that more than ten percent of fathers who don’t live with their children are incarcerated. In fact, more than half of the two million American men behind bars have children. About 120,000 mothers are also incarcerated. Half of the 2.7 million children with mothers as well as fathers in prison are under 10 years old and another one-third are between the ages of 10 and 14.

I recently visited a meeting of 30 to 40 men in Baltimore’s Responsible Fatherhood Project, and many of the fathers had been in prison and spoke of how terribly they felt about not being in their children’s lives and being good dads. These men, who had lived tough lives, became soft as pussycats, crying when talking about how they missed years with their children.

Although some felons deserve harsh sentences, the practice of locking up so many fathers for so long is one of the worst consequences of mass incarceration and is arguably the worst way in which fathers can be out of their children’s lives. (I refer to incarcerated fathers because they account for nearly nine out of 10 incarcerated parents, but issues are similar for incarcerated mothers.)

Most incarcerated fathers and their children have little contact with each other. Only two out of five fathers in prison have any personal visits from any of their children. Few prisons are accessible by public transportation. Although jails house inmates with sentences of less than a year, it can be even harder to children and families to have visits. Most fathers are in facilities more than 100 miles from where they had lived. Even if children do visit, these visits are generally rare, awkward, and perfunctory.

The shattering of the father-child bond is made worse when children are present when their dads are arrested. One study estimated that two-thirds were handcuffed in front of their kids and more than one-fourth saw guns being drawn. These children were considerably more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress.

Young children with fathers in prison are more likely to have behavior problems and suffer from depression, and middle-class children may especially feel the pain, according to Kristin Turney, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine. “These families are likely to experience the biggest loss, to suffer the greatest changes in family routines, to be unprepared for the resultant hardship, and to be unable to mobilize social support networks,” she wrote. By contrast, for disadvantaged children, “parental incarceration occurs among a saturation of disadvantages.”

Needless to say, children usually feel shame. Unlike divorce or the death of a parent, imprisonment carries a stigma. Children may be taunted by peers, treated differently by teachers, and understandably feel like they need to lie about their lives.

To make matters worse, tens of thousands of fathers and mothers who have been incarcerated for as little as 15 months have been stripped of their parental rights regardless of the seriousness of the offense, with their children put up for adoption. Although the issue is controversial, permanently taking children from their parents is a draconian measure that generally should not be used.

In many cases, when fathers (and/or mothers) are in prison, grandparents step up to the plate to care for their children. Sixty-three-year-old Olivia Chase told me that she has raised her grandson since he was three months old, when her son and his wife were arrested for a robbery “gone bad.”

“I was in shock when it first happened,” she said. “But then I thought, ‘I better put this baby in bed with me.’ I never again thought anything but ‘I got to take care of this boy.’”

When they are released, men who have served long prison terms tend to be essentially locked out of their families. The vast majority are — and will remain — estranged from their children. The mothers of their children generally have moved on and try to keep their kids away from their fathers. Ex-felons are barred from public housing, even if their children are living in government-subsidized apartments. As the Department of Justice reported, with all the bloodless understatement of a government agency: “Returning to the community from jail or prison is a complex transition for most offenders, as well as for their families.”

Even modestly happy endings for these fathers are rare. One New York man who had been incarcerated for most of his life between 20 and 50, who I interviewed for my book, Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life, said: “When I contacted the mother of my children, who are now in their 30s, I was expecting animosity, but she offered forgiveness. I do things with my daughter and she’s very understanding, even though I went to prison when they were babies.”

For most children and fathers, there are no happy outcomes.

Despite the devastating, monumental nature of this problem, some things can help. In 2003, the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership developed a “Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights.” This is worth citing in its entirety:

  1. I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent’s arrest.
  2. I have the right to be heard when decisions are made about me.
  3. I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent.
  4. I have the right to be well cared for in my parent’s absence.
  5. I have the right to speak with, see, and touch my parent.
  6. I have the right to support as I face my parent’s incarceration.
  7. I have the right not to be judged, blamed or labeled because my parent is incarcerated.
  8. I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent.

Research has found that when children and incarcerated fathers can spend time in the same room, physically interacting, it can help sustain parent-child bonds. Clearly, addressing the “saturation of disadvantages” — from poverty and dangerous neighborhoods to poor schools and access to health care — is critical for these children.

Police guidelines to avoid making arrests in front of young children would reduce some of the trauma. Provisions in the Adoption and Safe Families Act that automatically terminate parental rights should be repealed.

Re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated men (and women) not only need to be vastly expanded, providing employment, housing, and other social services. There should also be structured ways, including good therapeutic settings, to at least try to re-connect fathers with their children.

Men and women deserve punishment for serious crimes, but in the vast majority of cases, children do not deserve to have their parental bonds sundered. And, most fathers — especially those who have served their terms — deserve to have their children in their lives, if at all possible.

Andrew L. Yarrow is a former New York Times reporter and U.S. history professor who has been affiliated with several Washington think tanks. He addresses issues facing fathers and other men who are struggling in his recent book, Man Out: Men on the Sidelines of American Life.

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