Fathers in prison

By dr. Rineé Pretorius.

Disclaimer: The views presented by interviewees in this article and accompanying video is not necessarily that of ActionSociety. .

According to the Department of Correctional Services (2021) South Africa, in 2019, had 162 875 inmates, of which nearly 97% were male, in 237 facilities. Which means that thousands of families, and children have to face life without their fathers as part of their everyday lives.

In our previous article we mentioned that we want to ensure that we study the phenomenon of absent and/or uninvolved fathers from various angles, as there are many reasons at the root of this phenomenon.

In this article (video) we want to look at one aspect, namely ‘fathers in prisons’. Fathers who are incarcerated have limited control over the extent to which they are present and involved in the lives of their children.

The potential impact of paternal incarceration on the family and also the father himself, is extensive. Fully understanding the cause-and-effect relationship in terms of incarceration is difficult, since there are many varying factors to take into consideration; since children respond differently and also since the type and strength of the father-child relationship prior to incarceration plays a significant role. However, it definitely is clear that parental incarceration can be a very hard challenge for many children.  Not only are the children at an increased risk of economic and residential insecurity (Grief, 2014:69), but incarcerated fathers’ sons in particular face a significantly higher risk of exhibiting ‘hyper masculine’, including aggressive, behavior (Holborn & Eddy, 2011:4).

Of great concern is one statistic which showed that, on average, children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to be incarcerated themselves (Cox, as cited by Martin, 2017).

This forms a vicious circle, difficult to break and leaves one wondering if this is a totally hopeless situation which can and will only get worse.

Yet. There is always hope.

In our attempt to find answers to the above, we interviewed prof. Fazel Freeks, a lecturer at the North West university with a strong focus on community engagement and who has first-hand experience in working with incarcerated men.

Although a specific record of parental status is not kept, it is estimated that around a third of male inmates are 18 to 25-year-old young fathers (Freeks, 2020:2).

In our interview, which is added to the end of this video, Prof Fazel shed light on the current situation in South African prisons by providing information on the specific prison where hê is involved at (Potchefstroom Remand Detention Facility) and where, in his own estimation, at least half of the prisoners he works with, grew up in a fatherless home.

Prof. Fazel started running a program called the Fatherhood training and Equipping Programme at the above mentioned facility in 2015. This program supports the purpose of the White Paper on Corrections in South Africa, which, in a nutshell, wants to create an environment in which offenders are encouraged to discard negative and destructive values and replace them with constructive values. It therefore highlights the urgency to focus correctional activities on the rehabilitation of inmates. The aim of Fazel’s program is to address father absenteeism, fatherlessness, uninvolvement, neglect of children and family dilemmas. It is a Christian orientated programme and wants to offer guidelines and possible solutions to restore the crucial role of a father within a family context and to build better relationships in families. Therefore, incarcerated fathers are encouraged to become more involved in the lives of their family members, especially the children.

Prof. Fazel’s Fatherhood training and Equipping Programme covers seven main themes which are worked through during training session with the inmate-fathers. The themes that are covered are:

  • the concept of fathering;
  • the importance of self-mage for fathers;
  • the approach of character versus career;
  • how to overcome labelling;
  • how to handle disappointments;
  • the father as developer; and
  • how to become fully you.

This programme is a great initiative and prof. Fazel is hoping that will be extended to other prisons. We all know how big of a motivating factor support, encouragement and guidance can be in our lives. Therefore we applaud prof. Fazel for this initiative of his and we are excited to see it develop and duplicated at more prison centers in South Africa. Programs like this, aimed at equipping fathers could go a long way in promoting paternal involvement, even while they are incarcerated, and also positive presence in their children’s lives once they are released, since many incarcerated fathers want to improve their parenting abilities, but might not receive extended services on how to do so from prison (Greif, 2014:69). This creates opportunities worthy of future exploration.

In terms of the child. Generally, although the risk for increased antisocial behavior is higher in children of incarcerated parents, the child’s resilience appears to depend on their social support network. As mentioned above, the strength of the parent-child relationship is the biggest predictor of resilience. Thus, if the bond was strong before incarceration, the child receives support for the duration of the incarceration and gets to maintain contact with their parent, the long term negative effects can be mitigated. Obviously easy access to and visitation with the parent in a child-friendly environment provided by the correctional facilities, can go a long way to support this parent-child relationship (Martin, 2017).

In conclusion, the effect of father absence, regardless of the reason, poses an enormous risk for children. We at Action Society feel that from a very young age, children, especially boys, need to be in a position where they can sit on their father’s knee and learn about what it means to be a man and what the role is that men play in this world, if not, it leaves an enormous vacuum where his father’s shadow is supposed to fall and this vacuum is then sometimes filled with something else, something maybe much darker which could leave him without a sense of direction.

As I listened to prof. Fazel talk about the themes covered in this programme at prisons, it made me think of the possible wider application of this programme. Although this programme was designed for a specific target group, it seems many of the themes covered in the programme are themes that most of the men in our society today could also benefit from, were they exposed to it. If all men in our society understood the concept of fathering, they might come to understand their role and responsibility in society; if more men were encouraged to develop a healthy self-image as a father, they would be able to pass it on to their own children; if more men acquired the skills of overcoming challenges and handling disappointments, they would be in a position to navigate through life’s storms better; and if they were to comprehend the extent to which they can impact the development their children, they might consider the consequences of their absence or uninvolvement in a serious light and be motivated to play a more positive role. Lastly, if they are guided to personal development and healing, they would be in the position to change the trajectory of not just their own, but also their childrens’ futures.

We do not have all the answers, but we do need to talk about this issue more. We need to realize just how incredibly important the role of a father is and what a privilege it is for young trees (boys) to take shape in the shade of their older trees (fathers) and under their protective branches.

We at Action Society commend fathers who take up their responsibility. Fathers who are present and involved and who are the brave captains of their ships, navigating their families, to the best of their abilities, through the storms of life.

Sources: Department of correctional services, 2021. Website: http://www.dcs.gov.za/?page_id=4601. Date of access: 21 October 2021. Freeks, F.E., 2020. A life beyond iron bars: Creating a space of dignity and hope for the displaced father in prison. In: Brunsdon, A.R. (ed). The human dilemma of displacement: Towards a practical theology and ecclesiology of home, pp. 151-169, chapter 7, AOSIS, Cape Town. Greif, G.L., 2014.   The Voices of Fathers in Prison: Implications for Family Practice. In Journal of Family Social Work, 17:68-90. Holborn, L. & Eddy, G. 2011. A research paper by the South African Institute of Race Relations sponsored by the Donaldson Trust. p19. Martin, E., 2017.  Website: https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/hidden-consequences-impact-incarceration-dependent-children#noteReference12 Date of access: 25 October 2021.

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