Parenting from Prison: Innovative Programs to Support Incarcerated and Reentering Fathers. From Classroom to Contact: Facilitating Father-Child Visitation


In addition to classroom-based parenting education, many MFS-IP programs supported parents direct involvement with their children. Separation is a central challenge for children of incarcerated fathers, who are typically away from the confined parent much longer than children of incarcerated mothers (Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2003). Researchers have proposed that quality and frequency of parent-child contact during the incarceration might moderate negative child outcomes (Arditti, 2005; Johnson, 2006; Poehlmann, 2005). Initial findings suggest greater compliance with child support post-release, lower parenting stress, and more adaptive child behavior after visitation between a child and an incarcerated father (Landreth & Lobaugh, 1998).

Still, incarcerated fathers appear less likely than incarcerated mothers to maintain contact with their children (Hairston, Rollin, & Jo, 2004). An analysis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 30% of fathers incarcerated in state prisons had some form of contact with their children every week (most often by mail), whereas 22% had never had any contact with their children during their incarceration. Fifty-nine percent of fathers in state prisons reported that they had never had a personal visit with their children during their incarceration (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Likewise, Day, Acock, Bahr, and Arditti (2005) estimated that two-thirds of fathers never participated in a personal visit with their children while incarcerated.

Fathers in the MFS-IP longitudinal impact study report various types and degrees of contact with their children. Exhibit 2 describes preliminary frequencies of personal visits, telephone calls, and mail communication. These statistics are based on baseline data from 548 incarcerated fathers and their 548 spouses or committed partners, representing 35.2% of the total couples whom researchers plan to recruit during 3 years of baseline enrollment. The majority of fathers did report contact with their children through mail and telephone, although most did not receive visitation. Frequency of current contact varied widely by study site, particularly for personal visits: for example, 20% of incarcerated fathers in Minnesota reported receiving personal visits from their children, compared with 71% of fathers in New York. Research documents numerous barriers to parent-child contact during incarceration, including transportation issues and distance to the prison, caregiver work schedules, the high cost of telephone calls, and unfriendly visitation practices at correctional facilities (Hairston, 2001). In our study, the top barriers to contact reported by fathers were that the distance to the prison (or other transportation issues) made it difficult for the childrens caregivers to bring them for visits, and telephone calls were too expensive or telephone access was lacking.

Exhibit 2.
Frequency of Father-Child Contact
Among Participants in the MFS Impact Study
Father Report Co-parent Report
Ever talks on the phone with child 75% 74%
Ever sends mail to child 84% 81%
Ever receives mail from child 67% 70%
Ever receives photos of child 93% 88%
Ever receives personal visits from child 62% 64%

As discussed below, MFS-IP staff helped participants to navigate successful visitation with their children by providing logistical support, offering enhanced visitation venues for families, and guiding parents in structured parent-child activities. Such program components were intended to facilitate visitation and to improve the atmosphere in which fathers and children interacted.

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