Incarceration and the Family: A Review of Research and Promising Approaches for Serving Fathers and Families. 7.2.1 Group Classes


Like marriage- and relationship-strengthening programs, parenting programs most often take the form of group classes delivered in prisons (Brenner, 1999; Hughes & Harrison-Thompson, 2002; Jeffries et al., 2001). Such programs cover a variety of content, including

  • child development,
  • communication with children and other family members,
  • discipline techniques,
  • anger management,
  • the importance of fathers’ involvement,
  • co-parenting relationships,
  • rebuilding trust, and
  • values and spirituality.

Facilitator instruction is combined with videos, worksheets, group discussion, activities such as stories and games, and role playing. In addition, a few educational programs invite men to read a children’s book on audiotape and send it to their children along with a personal message (Palm, 2001; LIS, Inc., 2002). Other programs combine structured classes with self-guided study material and special events and projects (Hairston & Lockett, 1987). Occasionally, programs invite the children’s mothers to participate in one or more classes (Jeffries et al., 2001) or have parallel groups in the community for custodial parents (Adalist-Estrin, 1994).

Few studies to date have examined the effectiveness of these types of interventions to improve parenting relationships among incarcerated fathers and their children. Most programs have asked for participants’ feedback at the end of the sessions. Fathers generally state that programs have (1) helped them learn new parenting skills and information about their children, (2) strengthened their relationships with their children and led to increased contact with their children, and (3) taught them the importance of their roles as fathers (Dunn & Arbuckle, 2002; Hairston & Lockett, 1987; LaRosa & Rank, 2001; Palm, 2001; Skarupski et al., 2003).

Some studies employing nonexperimental pre- and post-test designs have suggested the possible effectiveness of prison-based education programs to improve parenting knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors (Cornille et al., 2005; Hairston & Lockett, 1987; LaRosa & Rank, 2001; LIS, Inc., 2002). For example, the DADS Family Project offered face-to-face and videoconference sessions designed to build self-efficacy and develop parenting skills among incarcerated men. Participants in both the videoconference and in-person sessions showed a significant increase in self-efficacy for avoiding harsh parenting; those in the videoconference group also showed statistically significant increases in self-efficacy for permitting self-expression and not using physical punishment (Cornille et al., 2005).

Additionally, a few experimental designs with randomly assigned treatment and control groups and pre- and post-test surveys have been used. Assessing the effects of a ten-week group fatherhood class offered by the Fairfax County Department of Community Corrections, Robbers (2005) found that fathers who received the class experienced increased frequency of child contact, increased fatherhood knowledge and improved attitudes toward fatherhood compared with fathers who did not receive the class. Bayse, Allgood, and Van Wyk’s (1991) evaluation found improved family functioning and decreased self-focus among 54 incarcerated men who participated in a four-session family life education program that involved lectures, discussion, and homework assignments. The evaluation of Oklahoma’s Parental Training for Incarcerated Fathers program assigned 30 male inmates to either a control group or to a treatment group that received a 6-week parenting education and behavior management training intervention. Findings indicated improved parenting-related attitudes among participants in the fathers program but no significant impact on self-esteem or on children’s self-perceptions (Harrison, 1997). An evaluation of a popular prison-based parenting program for fathers found positive effects of the intervention on father-child contact but not on a variety of parenting attitudes and parent-child relationship indices (Skarupski et al., 2003; this example parenting program is described in more detail in the box below).

Example Parenting Education Program in Prisons

Long Distance Dads
(Skarupski et al., 2003)

The Long Distance Dads (LDD) program is a character-based educational and support program developed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections at the State Correctional Institution at Albion. The LDD program is designed to assist incarcerated men in developing skills to become more involved and supportive fathers. Trained inmate peer leaders facilitate the program in 12 weekly group sessions. The sessions are structured in a small group format (8 to 10 inmates per group) with at least one peer leader per group. The focus of the LDD program is on (1) promoting responsible fatherhood and holistic parenting; (2) empowering fathers to assume emotional, moral, spiritual, psychological, and financial responsibility for their children, both during and upon release from incarceration; (3) accentuating the psycho-social development of both father and child; (4) meeting the challenges of being an incarcerated father; and (5) increasing the knowledge base concerning fatherhood. A time series, matched control design was used to measure baseline and post-program changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills, and behaviors among LDD participants. The study had four components: survey of inmates, caregiver telephone interviews, face-to-face inmate interviews, and institutional data collection. At post-test, the men who participated in LDD scored higher/better than men who did not participate in the fatherhood program in two areas: (1) the average number of letters father reported sending home to children and (2) the total contact with child per year on average. This difference, however, was not corroborated by the caregiver interviews. While quantitative analyses indicated that the LDD program may not be reaching its potential, the qualitative results suggest that this fathering program has some promise. The program is quite popular with the inmates as evidenced by an extensive waiting list, and the inmates appear to be satisfied with the program and hold it in high regard. In addition, based on the random sample of inmates interviewed, approximately half gained knowledge and skills from the program and nearly 70% learned about dealing with anger. Thus, there is a solid framework of inmate support for the program. For more information, see Skarupski et al., 2003.

Additionally, more rigorous efforts are underway. For instance, an adapted version of the Strengthening Families Program, an evidence-based program shown to prevent adolescent risk behavior in high-risk families, is being implemented with inmates and their children in Maryland and is being evaluated for possible impacts on parenting skills, substance use, and arrest outcomes (Jeffries et al., 2001). An experimental evaluation of a parent training program, in which one group receives a parent training manual and another group receives the manual plus classroom training, involves interviews at baseline and 12-month follow-up with inmates, their oldest children aged 3 to 10 years, and the children’s primary caregivers (Eddy et al., 2001). Several other parenting programs for incarcerated fathers are also being evaluated, and the results of these efforts will help to improve services in the future.

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