Academic journal article Fathering

"It's Been Hard to Be a Father": A Qualitative Exploration of Incarcerated Fatherhood

Academic journal article Fathering

"It's Been Hard to Be a Father": A Qualitative Exploration of Incarcerated Fatherhood

Article excerpt

This study investigated the experiences of incarcerated fathers, their perceptions of fatherhood, and the nature of their involvement with their children. Fifty-one incarcerated fathers confined at two minimum security correctional facilities were interviewed approximately one month prior to their release from prison. A qualitative content analysis revealed detailed description pertaining to participants' feelings of helplessness and the difficulties of being a "good father" while in prison. Incarceration represented a dormant period for men in terms of fatherhood, and reentry signified an opportunity to "start over" with their children. Finally, father involvement was profoundly constrained during incarceration, and men were entirely dependent on nonincarcerated mothers or caregivers for contact with children. Many fathers perceived mothers' gatekeeping, or efforts to prevent contact, as evidence of their powerlessness. Recommendations for future research and intervention are discussed.

Keywords: fatherhood, incarceration, co-parenting, maternal gatekeeping, father involvement


More than two million persons are held in state or federal prisons (Austin & Irwin, 2001; Harrison & Karberg, 2004). While the federal system accounts for more than 20% of the increase in the inmate population, state prison incarceration rates continue to climb, reflecting the largest increase since 1999 with approximately 1,221,501 prisoners in state custody (Harrison & Karberg, 2004). The resultant trends have given the United States the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rates in the world (Austin & Irwin). The impact of criminal sanction policies--especially punitive drug policies--has fallen disproportionately on low-income communities of color (Arditti & McClintock, 2001; King & Maur, 2002). Due in part to the large percentage of individuals convicted of drug trafficking, incarcerated parents reported lengthy average sentences--more than 12 years in state prison and 10 years in federal prison (Mumola, 2000).

Given unprecedented growth in prison populations, it is remarkable that so little attention has been given in the social science literature to the experiences of families impacted by incarceration. Despite political rhetoric bemoaning "fatherless America," family disruption connected to the incarceration of fathers has received minimal empirical exploration.


Recent data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study research project suggests that incarcerated fathers differ from the general population of fathers and are more likely to be violent, African American, less educated, and prone to drug and alcohol abuse and have poor relationship skills (Carlson & McLanahan, 2002). Incarcerated fathers are more likely to come from underprivileged backgrounds characterized by intergenerational patterns of criminality and often have a history of involvement in the criminal justice system (Arditti, Lambert-Shute, & Joest, 2003; Carlson & McLanahan, 2002). In addition to compromised social and family histories that may impinge on responsible fathering, incarcerated men with children are limited by the institutional constraints imposed by the prison setting. It is difficult for fathers to have meaningful contact with their children while in prison for a number of reasons including geographic distance from family members, transportation and financial barriers, the lack of child-friendly visiting contexts, harsh and disrespectful treatment by correctional officers, and, in general, the demanding nature of visitation for both children and parents (Arditti, 2003; Hairston 1998; Sturges, 1999). Indeed, it is no surprise that 58% of fathers in state prisons report never receiving visits at all from their children (Mumola, 2000).

It is unknown exactly how many children are impacted by their fathers' incarceration since no precise count exists. …

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