Easing Reentry by Supporting Fathers and Families

By Lindquist, Christine; McKay, Tasseli et al. | Corrections Today, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Easing Reentry by Supporting Fathers and Families


Lindquist, Christine, McKay, Tasseli, McDonald, Hope Smiley, Herman-Stahl, Mindy, Bir, Anupa, Corrections Today


More than half of inmates--52 percent of state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates--are parents of minor children. Subsequently, many children are affected by a parent's incarceration, with estimates indicating that 1.7 million minor children, representing 2.3 percent of all minor children in the U.S. resident population, have a parent in prison. (1) Despite the large number of families that are impacted by incarceration, very little programming designed to support and strengthen families during incarceration and reentry has been offered in correctional settings.

Due to the greater awareness of the increasing number of imprisoned parents and the lack of focus on family relationships in existing reentry programs and policies, (2) the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) funded the Marriage and Family Strengthening Grants for Incarcerated Fathers and their Partners (MFS-IP) as a priority area under the "Healthy Marriage Promotion and Responsible Fatherhood" provisions of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-171). A national evaluation was also funded by HHS to document the implementation of MFS-IP programs and assess the impact of the programming on key outcomes such as relationship quality, child well-being, family economic stability and recidivism.

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This article describes programming under way among the MFS-IP grantees to facilitate successful reentry by providing family support services to incarcerated fathers and their families. Based on data gathered from the implementation component of the MFS-IP evaluation, this article highlights approaches to teaching skills, facilitating contact and providing support to families.

Why Are Family Support Services Necessary?

Previous research has documented the extent of family ties among incarcerated fathers. Although less than one-half of incarcerated parents are married (36 percent of federal prisoners and 23 percent of state prisoners who are fathers (3)), larger proportions of men are in intimate relationships. Data from the Multi-site Evaluation of the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, indicate that three-quarters of the incarcerated fathers in the study reported being currently married or in a steady relationship, with most of these men reporting that they lived with their romantic partner prior to incarceration. (4) Many incarcerated fathers were also closely involved in their children's lives prior to incarceration. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, just less than one-half (46.5 percent) of fathers in state prison and just more than one-half (55 percent) of fathers in federal prison lived with their minor children either in the month before arrest or just prior to incarceration. More than one-half, 54 percent of fathers in state prison and 67 percent of fathers in federal prison, reported that they were the primary source of financial support for their children prior to their incarceration. (5)

Most incarcerated fathers report having some contact with their children during incarceration. According to a 2008 BJS special report, 30 percent of fathers incarcerated in state prisons had some form of weekly contact with their children, and another 23 percent had some form of contact at least monthly. (6) However, numerous barriers to maintaining family relationships during incarceration are evident. Often, inmates are housed far away from their families. The cost of visitation and the inhospitable prison environment may further inhibit efforts to maintain contact. Limited visiting hours, lack of privacy, and restrictions on movement and physical contact diminish the efforts families make to stay connected. (7) In addition, children may be prevented from contact with their parents because the custodial parents or other relatives do not want the children to know that one of their parents is incarcerated; do not want to expose them to the prison visitation environment; or cannot afford to maintain contact. …

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