Fatherhood work in correctional settings can be similar to community-based fatherhood programming. The general approach of fatherhood programs in both correctional and community-based settings is helping men reflect on their past experiences in order to identify barriers and develop goal-oriented solutions. Incarcerated fathers are likely to come to fatherhood programs with higher levels of guilt or shame concerning their past history and consequently are likely to need more motivation and support 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.
Tips & Best Practices
- Special skills are needed to deliver effective programs for incarcerated dads. Practitioners recommend hiring staff members who are:
- Not easily upset and firm, yet approachable.
- Patient—they 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 they may not be allowed to bring typical workshop materials like paper and markers into a prison setting.
- Empathetic and motivational staff must easily relate to participants, earn trust, and guide them through a process of self-reflection and learning.
- Make sure child support orders are addressed for incarcerated fathers. 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. States 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 are familiar with relevant local and state policies; help 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.
- Include job training in services for incarcerated fathers. 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.
- Make sure to help fathers stay in contact with their children. Supporting in-person or phone visitation with children is important, but it can be hard to arrange. 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 regular letters to their children and keep copies in case they do not get delivered for a variety of reasons. Other approaches include facilitating art projects where dads create books or art for their children or providing opportunities for dads to read to their child or sing and play a musical instrument over the phone or via audio or video recording.
The New Hampshire Department of Corrections’ Family Connections Centers provide parenting education and healthy relationship classes for incarcerated parents, a summer camp program for their children, and opportunities for healthy contact between the parents and their children through internet video visits and Family Fun Days.
Why is providing services to incarcerated men so challenging?
Providing services to incarcerated men is challenging and demanding because providers have to balance facility safety and security priorities while meeting the unique needs of this population.
Is there an appropriate curriculum recommended for working with incarcerated fathers?
The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse’s Compendium of Curricula Used by Fatherhood Programs features several curricula designed for work in prison settings.
Where can we find more information on child support policies for incarcerated fathers?
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, 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.