Several challenges to the implementation of marriage and family strengthening programs in prison and upon reentry have been identified, and many recommendations for improving implementation have been made based on descriptive and anecdotal information. Identification of challenges has rarely involved actual surveys of program or correctional staff. Research has not tested the extent to which the identified barriers to implementation impact the effectiveness of programs, nor the extent to which addressing different barriers to program implementation in turn improves the impacts of program participation for incarcerated and reentering fathers and their families.
Experimental manipulation of implementation conditions would be difficult in some situations. However, it would be possible to randomly assign some corrections staff to receive training and technical assistance in connecting family strengthening programs to other initiatives and increasing institutional support for such programs in order to determine whether addressing such issues is associated with increased program efficacy. Alternatively, fathers could be randomly assigned to participate in different programs with varying levels of evidence bases or cultural tailoring. There are many dimensions along which programs and their contexts could be varied in order to conduct more rigorous research on implementation challenges and how they can be overcome.
An additional limitation of research on family strengthening programs with incarcerated fathers is a lack of understanding with regards to the steps involved in making such programs sustainable and encouraging widespread dissemination. Presumably, the implementation challenges identified above, including lack of support of programs by corrections staff, restrictions in the prison setting that limit program flexibility, and lack of coordination between corrections and human services in reentry programming, may also impede the assumption of ownership of programs within correctional facilities and agencies, which would be the most direct way to enhance sustainability. However, it is possible that the development of long-term relationships between corrections agencies and community service providers could facilitate sharing of resources and strategies to obtain further resources to continue program implementation. Challenges to recruitment and retention will also need to be addressed in order to involve enough participants to ensure sustainability. Moreover, once effective programs are identified, research should test whether such programs can be replicated in different settings with varying populations and with lower levels of control over implementation, in an effort to determine which programs can be disseminated to reach larger numbers of incarcerated fathers and their families.
As family strengthening programs in prisons continue to be evaluated, it will be important to learn from the challenges that are faced and the solutions that are found. New approaches to serving incarcerated fathers, their partners, and their children may illuminate ways to successfully reach this population and help to enhance their fragile relationships.