Fathers Behind Bars: The Problem for America’s Children

Statistics tell us that the number of children with an incarceration father in prison has grown 79% since 1991.  In addition, 24 million children—one out of three—live without their dad in the home. (prisonfellowship.org)  Most people would agree that we are locking up too many fathers with little to no help to reconnect and stay connected with their children during prison and after release.  What’s more upsetting is that incarceration often spans generations:

  • Fathers in prison are, overwhelmingly, fatherless themselves.
  • Youths in father-absent households have significantly higher odds of incarceration.
  • More than 650,000 ex-offenders are released from prison every year.
  • Fathers are returning to their families without the skills they need to be involved, responsible, and committed fathers.
  • Two-thirds of released prisoners, or 429,000, are likely to be rearrested within three years.


Metamora Films, Fathers in Prison, InsideOut Dad



Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. As such, early experiences are an important public health issue. Much of the foundational research in this area has been referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).  Currently, there are nine types of ACEs in no particular order:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • mental illness of a household member
  • problematic drinking or alcoholism of a household member
  • illegal street or prescription drug use by a household member
  • divorce or separation of a parent
  • domestic violence towards a parent
  • incarceration of a household member
Child Trends’ analysis of the National Survey of Children's Health.

Child Trends’ analysis of the National Survey of Children’s Health.

A parent in prison is now included in the list of nine types of ACEs.  When a child’s parent is incarcerated, traumatic stress may occur through multiple pathways. First, it involves the loss of an attachment figure, and may be particularly troubling to the child because the loss is not easily explained or understood. Second, whether or not
the child witnesses the parent’s arrest, he or she may have ongoing, if sporadic, contact with law enforcement, judicial, corrections, and child welfare systems, all of which can contribute to further traumatization.  (Journal of Family Theory & Review, 4, 181-219.) On average, children who had ever had a resident parent incarcerated experienced 2.7 other ACEs, out of the eight included in the survey. Children without experience of parent incarceration had, on average, 0.7 ACEs.

Quincy Jones, 11, attends a holiday party at Hope House in Washington, DC on Saturday. Jones's father is incarcerated. Emily Jan

Quincy Jones, 11, attends a holiday party at Hope House in Washington, DC on Saturday. Jones’s father is incarcerated. (Emily Jan)


There are parenting programs for fathers (and mothers) in certain prisons and jails across the United States that help in rebuilding family ties and relationships.  Coming October 11, 2016 to Solitary Nation, a video podcast that I host about the criminal justice system, I talk with Erik Vecere, Vice President at the National Fatherhood Initiative about his program called, InsideOut Dad.  The program has been a huge success for fathers and their children and is currently in 25 state Departments of Corrections facilities and countless Federal of Bureau of Prisons in the United States.  InsideOut Dad is the nation’s only evidence-based fatherhood program developed specifically for incarcerated fathers.


According to the National Fatherhood Initiative website , “InsideOut Dad connects inmate fathers to their families, helping to improve behavior while still incarcerated and to break the cycle of recidivism by developing pro-fathering attitudes, knowledge, and skills, along with strategies to prepare fathers for release. Incarcerated fathers get the tools they need to become more involved, responsible, and committed in the lives of their children — providing increased motivation for them to get out and stay out.”

A handful of prisons are stepping up to the task of assisting fathers in prison including male prisons in Washington State.  The volunteer-led program aims to help incarcerated fathers connect with their children and play meaningful, positive roles in their lives.

I was very impressed by the city jail in Richmond, VA.  They have been innovative by implementing the InsideOut Dad program along with a very emotional father-daughter dance.  Yes, that’s right… a dance inside the prison for fathers and their children.  What an amazing project led by the staff at the jail to help strengthen the bond between families during incarceration!  Clarence Harris, who facilitates the program in the jail for the Richmond Family and Fatherhood Initiative, said he has seen a lot of growth in the men “from the perspective of them thinking they were being adequate as a father by just being financial providers or sometimes just being present. But learning that a father who is progressive and active in a child’s family life needs to do things like attend parent-teacher conferences, plan trips with the child, being engaging to the mother even if they are not with the mother. That was a big thing as well,” Harris said.

Inmate, Aziz Scott wiped away tears when 8-year-old De’Andra Scott approached him and gave him a hug. He said he had not seen her in 13 months. “From now on, I am going to do the right thing,” said Scott, 52. “I’m going to make myself do the right thing. This is our first time spending time together. She has never been around me sober, clean, you know. It’s just a new beginning, being a real father,” said Scott, who said he also has a 3-year-old.

In addition to the InsideOut Dad curriculum, there are additional programs available for not only incarcerated fathers, but mothers as well.  Here is a sample list of programs that I was able to find online that focus on inmates and the families on the ‘outside’:

  1. Parenting Inside Out: The prison parenting program is appropriate for both incarcerated mothers and incarcerated fathers who are parenting from prison.
  2. Aid to Inmate Mothers: AIM helps them become better mothers and transition more successfully back into the community upon release.
  3. Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind:  To advocate for children left behind by incarceration or loss of a parent for any reason and to provide mentoring, services and supports for the children, their caregivers, and incarcerated parents, with the goal of strengthening and empowering the family unit.
  4. Assisting Children of Prison Parents: provide quality social, psychological, developmental and educational services to children of incarcerated parents, as well as restoring communities to environmentally safe status.
  5. Family Matters Course: The course focuses on family as a system with unique history, culture, roles, rules, strengths, and challenges (this course if FREE)

I’ve included the PDF handbook, “Reentering Your Community” courtesy of the Bureau of Prisons.  This is their 1st edition and was published in April of 2016.  Please share with families and former inmates that have been effected by incarceration.

Thanks for reading…

Matt Duhamel, Filmmaker, Solitary Nation Host



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