Academic journal article Fathering

Fathering Behind Bars in English Prisons: Imprisoned Fathers' Identity and Contact with Their Children

Academic journal article Fathering

Fathering Behind Bars in English Prisons: Imprisoned Fathers' Identity and Contact with Their Children

Article excerpt

Fathers who live apart from their children have been investigated mainly through the lens of separation, divorce, and repartnering. With the growing prison population in many western countries, fathering from prison is emerging as a further significant context in which to understand the contemporary experience of fathers in families. This paper contributes to the developing research evidence about the meanings and experiences of fathering while in prison by presenting new data from a pilot study of 43 men serving sentences in English prisons. Using an ecological framework, the authors propose that the prison context overwhelms "responsible" or "active" fathering for prisoners and that mothers are central figures in the facilitation of father-child visitation contact.

Keywords: fatherhood, fathers in prison, father-child contact, father identity

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Understanding the experiences of being a father in prison is important for the men and their partners' and children's well-being but also the larger community as a whole. While research evidence indicates that paternal criminality, particularly paternal imprisonment, is a risk factor for children's antisocial behaviour (Farrington & Coid, 2003; Jaffee, Moffitt, Caspi, & Taylor, 2003), other work shows that links with the family can be a protective factor against male reoffending (e.g., Hariston, 2002) and hence reduce adversity for children. In order to understand these complex family processes, scholars have called for more qualitative inquiry into fathers' parenting practices from within the prison environment (Arditti, Acock, & Day, 2005).

Little is known about father involvement among prisoner fathers, although evidence is beginning to accrue (e.g., Boswell & Wedge, 2002). Thus, it is important to examine what constrains and enables fathering in this institutional context. At a very basic level, we need to understand how imprisoned fathers, if they are motivated, can better keep in contact with their children, show them affection, and display commitment. This study of English imprisoned fathers attempts to illuminate and explain how being a father matters or does not matter in this extreme case of nonresidential fatherhood. Fathers who live apart from their children have been investigated mainly through the lens of separation, divorce, and repartnering (Amato & Sobolewski, 2004). However, with the growing prison population in many western countries, fathering from prison is emerging as a further significant context in which to understand the contemporary experience of fathers in families.

This paper contributes to the developing research evidence about the meanings and experiences of fathering while in prison by presenting new data from men serving sentences in English prisons. Being in prison illustrates one extreme of fathers living apart from children, often for an indeterminate period out of their control, unlike other intermittent absences associated with marital or work-related separations. Our purposive sampling has deliberately selected those men who claim an intention "to contact and have some responsibility" for a child post release. As the data show, even within this sampling framework, actual contact and reported quality of relationships between fathers and their children vary quite markedly.

The authors adopt an ecological approach whereby fathering is conceptualized as being highly fluid and shaped by both interpersonal and environmental influences (e.g., Doherty, Kouneski, & Erickson, 1998). Within this approach fathering is multiply determined by individual characteristics of the father, mother, and child; mother-father relationship factors; and larger contextual factors in the environment. In the case of fathering from prison, a key interpersonal relationship is with the mother, who plays a central interface-moderating role, since her presence is needed to accompany children on prison visits and her influence crucial in facilitating letter writing or telephone calls. …

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