Incarceration and the Family: A Review of Research and Promising Approaches for Serving Fathers and Families. 4.2.1 Parental Separation


Separation is a significant challenge for children of incarcerated fathers, who are typically away from their parent much longer than children of incarcerated mothers (Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2003). An average sentence for fathers in state prison is 12.5 years, approximately 5 years longer than the average sentence for mothers (Mumola, 2000).

One-third to one-half of incarcerated fathers never see their children during their imprisonment.

Poehlmann’s (2005) qualitative study of 94 incarcerated mothers indicated that more frequent contact during incarceration was associated with more positive parent-child relationships, particularly with older children. Contact, however, is limited when a parent is in prison. A recent study indicates that two-thirds of fathers had never received a visit from their child (Day et al., 2005). Lanier’s (1991) random sample of 302 men incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in New York found that 30% of fathers participated in family reunion visits (24-hour “trailer visits”) with their children, 43% participated in family picnic days with their children, and 67% received conventional visits from their children. Of those who received visits from their children, 37% reported that such visits occurred less than once a month. A majority of fathers reported regular “distal” interactions with their children: 64% reported phoning their children at least once a month, including 45% who phoned their children at least once a week; 73% reported sending mail to their children at least once a month; and 56% reported receiving mail from their children at least once a month. Both proximal and distal father-child interactions during incarceration were positively correlated with a father’s residence with his children prior to incarceration and his expectations of residing with them after release (Lanier, 1991).

Based on national data from the 2004 Survey of Inmates, Glaze and Maruschak (2008) reported that 30% of fathers incarcerated in state prisons had some form of weekly contact with their children, and another 23% had some form of contact at least monthly. Seventeen percent of fathers reported contact less than once a month, and 22% had no contact with their children during the current incarceration. Mail was the most common form of contact fathers experienced, with 69% reporting any mail contact with a child during their incarceration. Fifty-three percent reported having any phone contact with a child during their incarceration, and 41% reported having any personal visit with a child (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Hairston, Rollin, and Jo’s analysis of the 1997 Survey of Inmates data found that incarcerated fathers were less likely than incarcerated mothers to maintain contact with their children while in prison (2004). African American parents were somewhat more likely than white or Hispanic parents to report visitation or phone contact with their children during incarceration (Hairston, 2008).

Children may be prevented from contact with their parents because the custodial parents or other relatives do not want the children to know that one of their parents is incarcerated, do not want to expose them to the prison visitation environment, or cannot afford to maintain contact (Hairston, 2001). The distance between a prisoner’s home and the facility at which he is incarcerated is a strong predictor of any in-person contact (Hairston, 2008). In addition, the quality of relationships between incarcerated parents and their children’s caregivers appears to play a central role in determining frequency of parent-child contact (Poehlmann, 2005). For fathers who perpetrated domestic violence prior to incarceration, partners and caregivers may view the incarceration as a welcome reprieve for children who formerly witnessed or experienced violence in the home (Hairston and Oliver, 2006); in such cases, they are not likely to encourage maintenance of father-child contact during the incarceration.

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