How the Prison System Creates ‘Absentee Dads’—and Hurts the Kids They Leave Behind

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father and son

Photo by Tom Karola via Flickr

For every incarcerated man, there is often a child — or children — dealing with the effects of being separated from their father.

Sometimes for months. In many cases, years. In America, one out of five young adults have had a parent spend time behind bars.

Having an incarcerated parent puts children at a physical, behavioral and educational disadvantage. But the harmful impact on children whose fathers are behind bars is largely ignored by the criminal justice system.

The barriers to maintaining a connection are built into the policies of many correctional institutions:  exorbitantly priced phone calls, locking up people in prisons miles from family, and outdated re-entry measures.

Such policies run counter to what we know about parenting success.

Many incarcerated and re-entering fathers were very involved with their families before incarceration. A study we conducted found that 91 percent of fathers made a meaningful parenting contribution before incarceration. The same study found that 78 percent of the men expected to live with their children after their release.

It’s past time to reform the criminal justice system in a way that values men’s roles as fathers.

Megan Comfort

Megan Comfort

Research shows that contact during incarceration helps fathers stay involved with their children and resume their roles more successfully post-incarceration.

Mothers and other caregivers, who are often strapped and struggling themselves, are unfairly saddled with keeping father-child relationships alive under impossible circumstances. According to a survey conducted by NPR and the Brennan Center for Justice, most people do not have a source of income when they are incarcerated.

This means their partner left behind is responsible for the fines, fees and other costs to keep the family afloat, not to mention for keeping intact the relationship of their kids with the incarcerated parent.

One immediate fix is to establish stronger safeguards against high correctional calling rates. Despite the Federal Communications Commission’s caps, the calling rates from correctional facilities are still considerably higher than regular calls.

Shrink the Distance

We must also take action to close the huge geographic distances between many incarcerated fathers and their families. Studies have shown that 63 percent of people in state prisons are locked up more than 100 miles from their families. Distance from home affects the frequency of visits.

Outdated re-entry measures are equally problematic. Employment, reduced recidivism and reduced substance use have been the standard measures of success for those re-entering society after incarceration.  But these goals are undermined when we neglect to measure and acknowledge the value of incarcerated fathers staying connected with their children.

In effect, the current system renders invisible or unimportant their key roles as parents.

These outdated measures not only put barriers in front of fathers who are attempting to reunite with their children, but also chip away at the progress made by women and men toward parenting parity. Focusing only on employment and income obscures the stay-at-home parenting that many men with criminal records take on so their partners can provide economically for the family.


Tasseli McKay

Numerous studies show that children with involved fathers have better language skills and fewer behavioral problems. Dads are much more involved in child care than they were 50 years ago, but our prison system seems to still be operating under the assumption that fathers’ contributions do not matter and parenting is a woman’s job.

Families already suffer from the impact of a criminal justice system that emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation. But it makes little sense to allow irreparable damage to father-child relationships, and then criticize men for not being part of their children’s lives.

We need to consider the multi-faceted roles of incarcerated men as fathers, partners and employees when we lock up a child’s father, and measure what constitutes a successful return home from prison.

Tasseli McKay and Megan Comfort are social science researchers at the nonprofit research institute RTI International. They have more than a decade of experience studying families affected by incarceration and are among the co-authors of the book Holding On: Family and Fatherhood during Incarceration and Reentry. Readers’ comments welcome.

One thought on “How the Prison System Creates ‘Absentee Dads’—and Hurts the Kids They Leave Behind

  1. As an advocate for people whose lives have collided with the criminal justice system, directly and collaterally, I applaud you for this important article. The incarceration crisis – is – and – has been – a problem whose existence has lingered for much too long without adequate support. Reading this brings hope that many more hands, feet and voices will lend their power to address the challenges of children and families impacted by incarceration. It is hoped that articles like these as well as other forms of advocacy will begin to move many more to action.
    For over 22 years, I managed a parenting, life and relationship skills program inside a correctional facility. The program allowed for full contact visits between child(ren) and their incarcerated parent in a child friendly setting. It was designed to help strengthen the relationship, ease the reunification process and improve outcomes for all involved.

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