For Incarcerated Fathers, Parenting From a Distance Makes a Tough Job Tougher

Due to mass incarceration, Black fathers are put in prison at disproportionately higher rates, where they often learn to parent through programs requiring them to face the reality of the adverse childhood experiences of the kids they leave behind.

Illustration of incarcerated man reading a letter
Photo: Kailey Whitman

Being a parent in prison is not an uncommon occurrence in America. The U.S. locks away so many of our citizens, most of them men and many of them fathers. That translates to almost two million men lying in steel bunks. And sometimes the image is just one man, hopeless, helpless and crying in his weekly parenting group. Plus, a racially biased justice system sends Black men to prison more frequently and for more years than other men.

Child Trends, which describes itself as "the nation's leading research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives of children and youth, especially those who are most vulnerable," reports that more than five million children have lost a parent to incarceration at some point in their life and the effect on Black children, in particular, is more pronounced. One in nine Black children under the age of 12 have a parent in prison. That's two times more than their white peers. The ratio increases to 1 in 7 for children ages 12 to 17.

Mass incarceration impacts our community in many ways, but the impact it has on children is most often overlooked.

Parent-Child Relationships as Adverse Childhood Experiences

Dr. Maryam M. Jernigan-Noesi, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, who specializes in child, adolescent and family therapy, says nearly half of incarcerated men over 24 years old are fathers. The figure for mothers is even higher, and the consequences of this are often felt in unanticipated ways.

"First, there is the experience of the loss. At any age, a significant loss can be challenging," says Dr. Jernigan-Noesi, noting roughly half of children with an incarcerated parent are younger than 10. "Youth, however, rely on their caretakers as a source of support and to facilitate their development."

This has consequences for their emotional well-being and can cause stress for children and their families or caretaking networks. It also impacts parent-child relationships. Though the type of impact varies based on whether or not, and how, other caregivers explain the circumstances to children, navigating the process of explaining where the parent is and why they're missing can be stressful.

"When a child has an incarcerated parent, they lose the ability to engage, talk with them, and bond on a daily basis and under the ideal circumstances," she says. Dr. Jernigan-Noesi says these children can feel especially isolated during holidays, school, and community events that involve family. Having an incarcerated parent can also impact the ability to develop attachments long-term. Dr. Jernigan-Noesi says healthy attachment is facilitated through spending time and physical contact, which is limited when a parent is incarcerated.

"Youth have reported feeling anxious, depressed, less engaged with school, which impacts academic outcomes. They report sadness directly related to the loss, but also children are very aware of the emotions of those around them. Depending on how the incarceration is presented, a child can feel a sense of isolation or stigma," she says.

Since Black, brown, and indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by incarceration, Black children face additional concerns when navigating this experience. Dr. Jernigan-Noesi says knowing someone in your household who has been incarcerated is an area of inquiry for determining designated adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and notes our tendency to think of incarceration in individualized terms overshadows the impact on the community. Adverse childhood experiences, such as having an incarcerated parent, are associated with risk for poor health outcomes across a lifespan, mental health issues, substance use, and risk for future violence victimization or perpetration.

"As we think about the potential consequences for Black children, we tend to think about the individualized experience. Disparate rates of incarceration of Blacks impact the overall Black community," says Dr. Jernigan-Noesi. "We lose access to family members, neighbors—in essence, human beings and related resources that are a part of society and communities. For Black children, the systems around them that influence their development (e.g., spiritual communities, neighborhoods, after-school programs) are all impacted by the loss of adults who are incarcerated."

The results of a 2017 study by the Education Policy Institute revealed that, in addition to experiencing more ACEs, for Black children, mass incarceration contributes greatly to racial gaps in academic achievement resulting in falling grade point averages and higher drop-out rates, increasing the likelihood of being funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline. Children are also more likely to be homeless or receive a foster care placement due to the loss of what is, at times, their family's main income provider. When children are left behind, and alone, these issues begin to take root and grow like weeds in their blossoming lives.

Learning to Parent From Prison

Once incarcerated, fathers become reduced to ghostly spirits. If they want to mend their wounded parent-child relationships and combat the damaging effects of their absences, they must seek out ways to better themselves. Participating in prison-provided parenting programs is how many of these men acquire the tools to fix what they have broken.

These parenting classes are where fathers learn about and openly share, albeit reluctantly, their failures at fatherhood. They learn to critically examine themselves, and familial and societal factors like America's War on Drugs. It poisoned their communities, crushed lives, and assisted many of them in making terrible, selfish, and dangerous decisions that their children now pay the ultimate price for. In these therapy-like sessions, fathers take introspective looks at themselves and what they see is often not handsome at all.

At Allenwood L.S.C.I. at the Federal Corrections Complex in White Deer, Pennsylvania fathers confront the hard fact that they had never been taught, or learned on their own, to consider the emotions of their children, the effects of their imprisonment, or the magnitude of their parental responsibility.

Dennis Hicks, 48, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was initially surprised when he realized how deeply his absence affected his son. "One time, during a visit, I asked my son if he was mad at me. He surprised me and said yes. All I could say to him was that I would be home soon and that I loved him," says Hicks.

Hicks, who was in prison for the third time, was speechless.

"I didn't know anything else to say," he says. "By the time I learned some techniques to help with my son's anger, our relationship had already been severely damaged—almost beyond repair."

In parenting class, dads learn that being honest and upfront about what they did to be sent to prison is the best starting point to bridge the gap. But mostly they talk about what their child is "going through." Those words are a sign of trauma and the ACEs Dr. Jernigan-Noesi talked about. Dads in parenting class learn how to recognize the signs of trauma by being attentive to their children and, often, that things like classroom disturbances and in-school suspensions are evidence of behavioral issues that stem from their own absence.

They learn to use their imprisonment as the ultimate teaching tool. They also learn to use positive reinforcement to highlight the good things their children do, in and out of school, like scoring a good grade on a test or completing chores in order to boost self-esteem and self-worth.

Leslie Musgrove, Martinsburg, West Virginia

It's no way a few years can fade away in a few hours. The real work is to be done when I get out.

— Leslie Musgrove, Martinsburg, West Virginia

Most of all, dads learn to look at their children as precious beings who need their love and attention, even if it comes in monitored 15-minute phone calls. They learn that their children are fragile and their mental and emotional health has to be nurtured and protected. They learn that simply showing a little interest in their children's day-to-day lives works wonders and helps lessen the effects of the harm they created.

But sometimes it takes fathers many years in prison before this realization arrives and, by that time, the distance between miles and moments are already immeasurable.

Tramell Watson, 39, from Chicago, Illinois, went to prison at 23 years old for 10 years, initially leaving two daughters behind. He focused on providing for his daughters materially and believed that would be enough. "I messed up bad," says Watson. "I was young, dumb and selfish and thought that buying designer baby clothes and giving lots of cash to my baby mama was parenting,"

When he returned to prison again, he was leaving two more children behind. This time he was determined to make a change for his sons. As I got older, and, finally, more mature, I was able to comprehend what the parenting classes were trying to teach me over a decade ago," he says."My kids need my physical presence more than anything and nothing is worth taking that from them."

Starting To Repair Broken Bonds

Utilizing the only tools at their disposal, many fathers stand in long lines for phone time to verbally express love. They mail glitter-covered cards, letters, portraits, poems, and pictures. Some make ceramic keepsakes and knit hats, gloves and teddy bears to send home as tangible reminders for their children. They want them to know that they matter, they are not forgotten about and they occupy a special space in their dad's life.

But by and large, in-person visits with children are the best weapon to combat the effects of prison oppression. With the assistance of their village, fathers can arrange visitation. In these sacred sessions, dads become real again. They are no longer ghostly spirits. A hug can help reduce depression and anxiety long after the visit ends. Smiles and laughter over tabletop games strengthen and create bonds.

Some fathers say they went as long as five years without a visit. Some left toddlers behind and had first-time visits with teens. But as Leslie Musgrove, 44, from Martinsburg, West Virginia, says. "It's no way a few years can fade away in a few hours. The real work is to be done when I get out."

Black children are paying a high cost for the sins of their fathers. But millions of these fathers are waking up from daydreams, rising from those steel bunks and working hard to rescue their children from the nightmares they created. Our village can do a lot to help but it can only do so much. Only the future will tell if fathers will be able to decrease the distance and give their children the parents they truly deserve.

This story has been told with reporting from Ambreia Meadows-Fernandez.

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