Fathers Rights advocates understand that a man who is incarcerated does not bear the weight of his punishment alone. His family—especially those most dependent and vulnerable, his children—also suffer. Kids of imprisoned fathers face well documented adverse effects. Having a dad in jail or prison puts his kids at higher risk to experience poverty, suffer from addiction, or end up behind bars themselves. These children often live with trauma, shame, social stigmatization, guilt, and financial hardship. As if the picture is not bleak enough, incarceration leads to generational institutionalization. Growing up fatherless is the number one predictor of criminal behavior in a child’s future. In fact, most dads in prison are fatherless. It’s a tragic cycle.

This is not just a family problem. With 1.5 million kids in this country separated from their fathers as a result of state or federal incarceration, it is a societal issue. Add inmates imprisoned in jails, and the number jumps to 1 out of 28 U.S. children. And the problem is growing. The number of children with a father in prison has skyrocketed by 79% since 1991. To help these children, we all have a stake in helping these fathers. In fact, dads who have a relationship with their kids are less likely to re-offend. That’s a huge benefit to these children, who are our country’s future, and to society as a whole, since two-thirds of prisoners end up committing crimes which land them back in prison within three years of their release. 

Barriers to Parenthood in Prison

As an incarcerated father, you face unique parenting challenges. It can be difficult to see your children if you are imprisoned. There may be no one willing to bring your children to visit you. If you lack the means to pay support, it can affect your kids and your custody rights once you get out, and simple communication via phone and mail can be unaffordable while inside. Private phone companies are making a killing exploiting those who have the least money to pay, holding their relationships with their loved-ones hostage for up to $24.95 for a fifteen minute, in-state phone conversation.

Free, in-person visits are the newest area targeted by private companies for profit. There is a trend to replace in-person connection with video visitation technology that charges up to $1.50 a minute for low quality, offsite video conferencing.

Distance presents another hurdle for fathers behind bars. Proximity to family members is not always taken into account in determining where a prisoner will be sent to serve his time. Fathers rights take a back seat to considerations of overcrowding and other issues. As the distance loved ones must traverse to visit incarcerated family members increases, the likelihood of getting a visit, and the number of visits, decreases.

What are Fathers Rights in Prison?

From the inside, it can be difficult to find information on fathers’ rights or to access legal resources. The feeling of powerlessness and the struggle to stay in touch add to the strain of prison life for dads that are serving time. It may not be easy, but it is vital to stay in touch with your children, for their benefit as well as for yours. Children who have a relationship with their father have a better shot at a brighter future, and inmates who maintain healthy relationships with their loved ones are less likely to return to prison.

Tips for Protecting Fathers Rights While Incarcerated

1. Maintain Visitation

If your children are unable to visit because of financial hardship, distance, or other reasons, then keep in touch by phone. Lack of interest can be used as grounds to terminate a fathers’ rights and clear the path for adoption by your ex’s new husband, by your child’s caregivers, or the foster parents.

The onus is on you, as a father, to research and know the laws of your state. Seek legal counsel if necessary. Time is one resource that is abundant in prison; invest it wisely into nurturing meaningful contact with your kids and educating yourself on how your state’s laws function.

2. Document your Progress

Make a record of the positive steps you have taken while in prison to be a good father and to prepare yourself for success once you get out. Upon your release, you will have to prove to the judge that you can safely care for your kids. These records will show your efforts to visit and contact your children, as well as classes and certifications you have earned from rehabilitation programs. Be detailed; write down the time and date of everything you do for your child. A documented list of your interactions with your kids and others involved in their care will go a long way in convincing a judge you are serious about being a good parent. 

How to make a record:

  • Use a notebook or piece of paper to keep track of all visits and calls with your child and anyone connected to your case. Be sure to write down the date and time. Add any additional notes you feel were important to remember about the call or meeting.
  • Include calls and visits from your child, your child’s caregiver, your lawyer and the social worker.
  • Write down dates of letters or pictures you send your child and keep a copy.
  • Attend programs and meetings offered by your institution. Keep a record of these and any copies of certificates of completion. Some detention facilities offer classes on parenting, be sure to attend these if offered. Do not only take classes or participate in programs that are mandatory; take the initiative by taking advantage of resources that are voluntary.
  • Ask the teachers and counselors of any programs you complete if they can write a letter about your performance.

Tips to stay actively involved in your child’s life:

  • Ask about their education. Ask to see report cards, inquire about their favorite classes and any challenges they may be having.
  • Be supportive and understanding of their daily achievements and struggles.
  • Stay focused on your kids and their needs. Try not to add to their burden by placing your problems or issues on them. Keep visits positive, so your children leave with a good feeling.
  • Be patient and let the relationship grow slowly and steadily. Trying to force things will likely have the opposite effect of making your child more closed off and resistant. Nurturing a relationship takes time.

3. Stay on Top of Child Support

Father’s rights, when incarcerated with a Child Support Order, vary by state, but whichever jurisdiction your judgment falls under, you must be informed to avoid the risk of leaving prison with a mountain of debt. On average, an incarcerated parent with a Child Support Order can potentially leave prison with nearly $20,000 in child support debt, having entered detention with around half that amount owed.

Laws regarding Child Support and incarceration:

Whether incarcerated or not, a material and substantial change in circumstances is required to modify child support orders in most states. Two situations that may be treated as a material and substantial change in circumstances are incarceration and unemployment. State policies regarding modification of child support during incarceration vary and depend on a number of factors.

A significant reduction in income due to a job loss or job change is generally considered a material and substantial change for modifying child support if the job loss or reduction in earnings was involuntary (usually meaning you were fired or laid off). If a parent tries to avoid child support payments by voluntarily losing their job (such as quitting work or refusing to work), it is not considered a material and substantial change of circumstances and would not qualify for modifying child support.  

Currently, there is a federal rule in place that makes it illegal for state child support programs to treat incarceration as voluntary unemployment, which means you can request a modification of your child support to take into account that you are no longer able to work in the same capacity you did on the outside.

Be aware: most states require you to be proactive in making that request. You must familiarize yourself with the process to file a modification and to do so within the mandated time limit. In a couple of states, the responsibility is not on the incarcerated father to file, but these are the rare exceptions. Recent California law requires the Child Support Order to be automatically suspended in the cases of incarceration or involuntarily institutionalized. Vermont and Wisconsin allow the child support agency to file a motion to modify the Child Support Orders on behalf of those fathers that are incarcerated. The key is to seek legal counsel or do your research, so you are informed. The burden of filing falls on the father.

The consequences of falling behind on child support are not merely added debt. Non-payment can be used against you in custody judgments and can result in revocation of privileges once you are released, such as an industry licenses, business licenses or your driver’s license.

To find out the laws that apply to your case, check the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement State-by-State-How to Change a Child Support Order page and the Modification Laws and Policies for Incarcerated Noncustodial Parents facts sheet.

4. Access Free Resources

Here are a few online resources for information, support and more.

The Prison Fellowship offers resources that tackle everything from how to avoid “visiting room sabotage” to offering interactive activities for visiting day.

The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated is “the oldest and largest organization in the U.S. focused on children and families of the incarcerated and programs that serve them.”

For fathers of young children, Sesame Street offers a wonderful Incarceration Toolkit that uses the characters in the show to introduce the idea of a father’s incarceration to young kids in an entertaining way that they can understand.

When fathers rights are used to promote a healthy, ongoing relationship with their children, we all profit as a society. Benefits include a reduction in recidivism for incarcerated dads, a more promising future for their children, a decrease in taxpayer-funded detention facilities, and healthier communities for us all. All that is needed to break the cycle of the damaging effects of fatherlessness is for fathers to assert their legal rights to pursue positive father-child involvement.


(c) Can Stock Photo / fuzzbones

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