Guest Column: When fathers are locked away

Raleigh News & ObserverJune 27, 2013 

Say the word “prison” and fences and bars come to mind: those physical manifestations which separate those who are incarcerated from the rest of the community.

Earlier this month, on Father’s Day, we were reminded of one particular form of separation associated with our prisons: that which separates fathers and children.

Let’s stop and remember two things: many men in prison are fathers, and all men in prison have (or had) fathers. We choose to focus primarily on the former in this column.

For a moment imagine what Father’s Day might have looked like in prison – both for those who are incarcerated and their children.

For those lucky enough to have a “Sunday visit,” it was likely a “typical” couple of hours in a room crowded with other families. These fathers and children were closely monitored, and expected to abide by very specific rules which dictate what may and may not be brought in, what may be exchanged, and how it might be exchanged.

For some fathers and children, these were contact visits. For others, the visit took place through glass. For some, visiting wasn’t an option – maybe she lives too far away, or maybe he lives with a caregiver who doesn’t support the relationship. There might have been a phone call or maybe a child sent a card. Or maybe a child was celebrating with another “father” – stepfather; uncle; grandfather; mentor; or other important, well-deserving male figure.

We wonder what incarcerated men with children wrestle with on a daily basis: Is my child earning good grades and behaving in school? Are my children minding their mother/caregiver? Do my children have people on the outside who love them and care about them? How would my children describe our relationship? How can I show my children how much I love them? What will our relationship look like when I’m released?

We wonder what these fathers worry about, think about, and hope for. How quickly do they hear about report cards, sports performances, and other events – those their children perceive as successes and those they perceive as failures? Do they wonder about asking the “right” questions and giving the “right” advice? Does their identity as “Father” cause them to reflect upon their relationships with their own fathers?

Sadness seems inevitable when fathers can’t be there for their children, when there is little they can do to help ease their child’s pain. Sadness is inevitable when children feel they haven’t lived up to dreams their fathers had for them, or when they feel their fathers haven’t lived up to the super-human expectations their children placed on them.

When men go to prison, their freedom is taken away. What’s not taken is their fatherhood – regardless of the quality of the relationship with their children. Incarceration cannot and should not stop fathers from loving their children. Instead, we hope that incarceration might provide men the perspective and skills needed to be better fathers after release – actions that will affect children and fathers; decisions that will affect entire families.

Dave Nickel is the chaplain with the Alamance/Orange Prison Ministry and works at the Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough.

Melissa Radcliff is the executive director of Our Children’s Place, a nonprofit agency focused on raising awareness about children of incarcerated parents.


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