More than 1.1 million African American men are imprisoned in the United States, and about 500,000 are fathers. Many of their fathers also served time in jail or prison, and many of their children will as well.
A new study by researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s College of Social Work and Criminal Justice illustrates how incarceration is a destructive force in the African American community, especially for fathers. The qualitative study mined the feelings, perceptions, and experiences of formerly imprisoned African American men to identify how incarceration has impacted their relationships with their fathers and sons; their definitions of fatherhood; and their perceived roles within families, communities, and society.
“There are many reasons why the criminal justice system continually impacts African American men; however, to fully understand, one must forensically analyze the generational adversity and oppression that African American men have endured,” said Precious Skinner-Osei, Ph.D., senior author and an assistant professor in FAU’s Phyllis and Harvey Sandler School of Social Work.
The results of the study, published in the Journal of Forensic Social Work, identified various themes and subthemes; with stigma being the dominant factor that repeatedly surfaced throughout the interviews. Participants shared that stigma negatively impacted them pre- and post-release, proved detrimental to their rehabilitation, and, for many, had pervaded their lives since childhood, when they themselves were kids with incarcerated fathers.
All 22 of the participants’ fathers had been to jail or prison, and 16 had been to prison more than once. Two participants stated that they had been incarcerated at the same time in the same county jail as their fathers. Six participants said they had been incarcerated at the same time as their sons, and two were in the same county jail but on different floors.
“The fathers in our study expressed that reentry, recidivism, and employment were intimidating, frustrating, and frightening,” said Skinner-Osei. “Considering that 90 percent of all inmates will be released, these findings illustrate why greater emphasis on reentry is required. Furthermore, the data shows that more fathers, sons, and grandfathers are being incarcerated at the same time, and also supports research indicating that children with a parent in jail or prison are five to six times more likely to become offenders.”
When the men were asked about their relationship with their own fathers, kinship, caregiving, and abandonment were prominent themes. Twenty-one expressed that they knew who their fathers were and how to contact them (if they were still living). Eighty percent said that they had been raised by someone else and never lived in the same home as their fathers. They also shared that they had only seen their fathers sparingly, but they would not describe them as absent. This finding coincides with the misconception that living in a single-family home means the other parent is absent.
Results also suggest that incarceration is a barrier for many fathers because the children’s mothers and maternal families decide if the father-son relationship should continue and to what extent, sometimes leaving the fathers powerless. Participants claimed that the mothers used that time to turn their children against them, which further strained the relationship post-release. Notably, none of the participants’ children resided with them at the time of the study.
“Ultimately, fathers want the opportunity to be role models for their children despite past infractions,” said Skinner-Osei. “Likewise, children want fathers who are caring and protective of their well-being. Therefore, promoting interactions between fathers and children is critical pre-and post-release, as well as throughout the prison term, to facilitate emotional bonds despite physical separation.”
The authors stress that the incarceration cycle will continue as long as society continues to hold these fathers in a psychological and physical prison that disrupts caregiving, perpetuates stigma, destroys paternal bonds, and complicates reentry processes.
“Combatting this trend requires more integrative programs that support family and community reunification. These results can be achieved if practitioners use techniques that foster paternal relationships and advocacy for more family, employer, and community memberships,” said Skinner-Osei. “Mentoring opportunities also will allow justice-involved individuals to reduce the stigma by giving them purpose and the chance to be role models despite past infractions.”
The study is co-author by Dhiny Mercedes, a graduate student in FAU’s Phyllis and Harvey Sandler School of Social Work.