I feel like a failure. Because I haven’t been able to break the cycle for my kids, which I intended to.

C.’s second child was born when he was already behind bars. He struggled to find legal representation, and his case faced setbacks and delays. In the years he has waited for his case to come to court, he has never held his child.

Image from thinkprogress.org

C. is a young African Nova Scotian man. He tries hard to maintain a relationship with his children. At first, their mother would bring them to visit, but as time went on, the strain of visiting, money problems, and of parenting children with an incarcerated father made things difficult. Eventually, the parents’ relationship broke down and ended, and when it ended, so did C.’s visits with the children.

C. didn’t hear from his children for months when their mother moved, a lack of contact that plunged him into deep depression and feelings of guilt. He tells me that one thing he is grateful for this Father’s Day is that at least he will be able to talk to his children and tell them he loves them.

C. makes an effort to talk to his children on the phone. When he was in the local jail, this was easier, but during construction he was transferred to a facility across the province, where phone calls are over $7.

Photo: Halifax Examiner

C. is unable to work in the jail to earn money to support his family. When he is able to, he takes a job cleaning the range, but that job only pays a few dollars every two weeks. He tells me that he feels guilty depending on family and friends for money. “We come in here and we’re just sitting around all day,” he tells me. “If they truly want to rehabilitate us, we should be working. We should be learning how to manage money and get skills to support our family.” He says one of the worst things about being in jail is feeling so worthless and like he’s a drain on the people he loves.

C. grew up without a father. With his own children, he planned to be present, but going to jail has made that impossible.

Correctional Service of Canada admits that there is little research or demographic data in Canada on incarcerated fathers. Two-thirds of state and three-quarters of federal prisoners in the United States are fathers.

Most of the research in the area of incarceration and family relationships focuses on mothers and the problems they confront as parents in prison. Further, studies that do look at incarcerated men typically focus on the offender’s relationship with his family as a unit and how that association is linked with institutional adjustment or eventual rehabilitation. Fatherhood, in and of itself is rarely examined specifically.

There is even less research about fathers in provincial institutions. Emma Halpern, the Executive Director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, suggests that while Corrections have indicated that contact visits are “on their radar,” there is currently little policy supporting parenting of either mothers or fathers.

From the perspective of women, but I know it’s the same [for fathers], getting access to contact visits is extremely difficult in provincial [jails]. For men and women. You can go for months without having any contact visits with your children. 

I asked Halpern if she knew of any men receiving contact visits while in provincial jail, as I have never heard of it happening. Halpern points out:

It’s on a case-by-case basis, so in theory, they could apply. But there’s no legislated right to contact visits in provincial, no matter how long you’re in there.

Halpern also acknowledges that there’s not a lot of research or resources for fathers in provincial jail.

K. feels that institutions can and should do more to support fathers. In federal prison, visits are face-to-face, and families can apply for personal visits, but in provincial institutions, K. says:

You can have visits, but you’re not allowed to touch. You just sit on the other side, on a phone, through glass. They don’t care that much.

Image from texasobserver.org

Many families feel that set-up is too traumatic for children and do not bring them to visit. Halpern tells me:

What I hear, and I’m sure it’s the same for fathers, is that sometimes it’s so much more painful even, and that mothers certainly worry about the trauma it causes and the effects on their kids of seeing that. 

Nova Scotia has the highest rate of remand in the country, and remand rates have jumped 192 per cent in the last decade. This means that the majority of people in our provincial jails are innocent. Our courts are also struggling to bring cases to trial within the timelines — 18 months for provincial, and 30 months for Supreme Court. Even with these new deadlines, parents can be waiting over two years to go to court (and more with delays such as changing lawyers), and in that time they are not granted any physical contact with their children.

Wrongful conviction lawyers point out that the majority of wrongful convictions aren’t for serious crimes like murder, but rather come from innocent people taking pleas. For parents separated from their children, the option of taking a plea to return home is often better than waiting in jail for a trial.

K. feels that the only thing he can do as a father right now is be an example of bad choices.

It’s hard when you can’t really touch your son or hug him or anything like that. It’s hard. I can’t really be a parent from in here, except for showing what not to do.

Like C., K. feels that prisoners could be provided with the tools they need while inside to better support their families. He feels that the current visiting set-up discourages visits, and discourages fathers from taking an active role in their children’s lives.

Over and over, prisoners talk about “just sitting around doing nothing,” and argue that jail doesn’t help them, but rather promotes them not taking any responsibility. Not being able to help their families makes them feel useless, and in turn affects how they feel about themselves as fathers. Some incarcerated fathers say they feel ashamed, like a burden, and believe that their families are better off without them in their lives.

M. says he struggles with exposing his son to the prison environment, and worries that he might think prison is cool if he visits. But now that his son is old enough to Google him, he feels he needs to sit his son down and explain his circumstances to him so he doesn’t learn about his criminal past online or learn from gossip in the community.

According to FEAT (Fostering, Empowering, and Advocating Together for Children of Incarcerated Parents), “Every year in Canada, over 150,000 adults are remanded into custody which results in approximately 350,000 innocent children who suffer from the traumatic effects of being separated from a parent in prison.”

Following parental imprisonment, innocent children are faced with a myriad of challenges including; family instability, economic insecurity and compromised self-esteem, trust, and sense of security in their familial relationships. Due to the stigma associated with parental incarceration, the majority of children suffer in silence and remain hidden in our classrooms, sports teams and communities.

In Nova Scotia, Black people make up approximately two per cent of the population, but are 12 per cent of the remand population in provincial jails, and 14 per cent of the adult jail population. Indigenous people, at four per cent of the population, are 10 per cent of the remand population and five per cent of those sentenced in custody. Federally, the numbers are even worse.

Indigenous and Black children, who have committed no crimes, end up disproportionately the victims of the poverty, oppression, and neglect that incarcerate their parents. Having a parent in prison is linked to depression, alienation, self-harm, and lower educational performance in children, which in turn make those children more vulnerable to incarceration themselves.

Image from mental help.com

Indigenous people have referred to prisons as the “new residential schools,” continuing the inter-generational trauma, family separation, and institutionalization of Indigenous people by the state. Anthony Morgan calls incarceration of Black people “slavery’s afterlife.” In slavery, families were forcibly broken. Now, as the populations most over-incarcerated, African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq fathers in jail struggle to not continue the same cycles of fatherlessness and pain they experienced as children.

Recent news about the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from parents in immigration detention has disturbed and outraged many. While these violent images of crying children ripped from their parents and housed in tents or crowded facilities are extreme, mothers and fathers in prison also face long separations and loss of contact with their children. Not infrequently, children end up in child protection. In Canada, there are few resources and little policy to support keeping families together when a parent is incarcerated. Very little attention is paid to how incarceration damages families.

Image from psmag.com

T. is African Nova Scotian and Indigenous. His father was incarcerated for long stretches of his childhood. As a teenager, his mother sent him to live with uncles believing that he needed a male influence. Instead, his uncles introduced him to the drug trade. T. has now spent most of his adult life in prison.

“Father’s Day reminds you of the things you did wrong,” he tells me.

Like, not being there and not stepping up. But, in hindsight too, when you know that your child is doing well, being brought up in an environment that’s different than yours, and you still have contact with that child, and the child loves you unconditionally, then there’s no better feeling.

T. wasn’t in contact with his daughter for years. Like many fathers doing serious time, he worried contact would be damaging to her. Eventually he was able to build a relationship with her, with the support of her grandparents who are raising her:

At first [building the relationship went] very slowly. I knew that she was going to be taken to a different place. I knew she was going to be raised by two people who really loved her. And knowing my situation, I took solace in that. I was happy with that, and I basically told myself, if she wants to know me, she’ll know me.

And I was fortunate that at a certain age, after asking her grandmother about me, her grandmother wrote me and said, listen, she wants to know her dad. [Her grandmother] let me know some guidelines…so with those guidelines and with all those years of not talking to my daughter, that was fair, and I took the occasion. 

So I talked to her. Every time I talked to her it was a little bit more. I knew that I wanted to be a better father than I had, and I knew that I didn’t want to overload her, or rush her, or push her. And slowly and slowly we became…she loves her dad. She knows all about my situation. She’s not oblivious to what’s going on, she knows I’m fighting to be a part of her life. 

I always let her know that I’m always proud of her and her accomplishments. She’s different, you know, she ain’t hood. She’s not street at all.

The end of the story the whole thing is, when it comes to a child, you have to be patient. You have to take your time. If you ain’t going to be real, there’s no sense in even trying. 

Like most incarcerated fathers, T. was dependent upon family members to ensure contact was being supported. For mothers on the outside, the stress of parenting children while their father is incarcerated understandably makes contact difficult. There are little to no resources or supports for mothers of children with an incarcerated father. For mothers with little income or living on assistance, travelling across the province to see a father incarcerated hours away is impossible, especially without a car. Even taking transit within the city with young children is a challenge, as the bus to Burnside comes once an hour on weekends.

Mothers also have to weigh the trauma of visiting and explaining incarceration to their child with the benefits of contact. One mother told me that she told her young children that Daddy is away at work, as she didn’t want them to deal with the stigma of a parent in prison. She feels visiting him is too confusing for the children, and that seeing him in orange through glass would traumatize them.

Incarceration places incredible stress and pressures on families. Few relationships last through long periods of incarceration. The circumstances that often result in incarceration — mental health struggles, addiction, and trauma — also make relationships challenging. The burden of parenting, paying bills, facilitating contact, and the daily challenge of raising children in adversity falls almost entirely onto women.

Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post

Mothers of children have to make choices about moving on, and creating better circumstances and environments for their children. These painful decisions can result in mothers ending contact.

The stigma of incarceration, the lack of supports for families, and the devastating financial impact of incarceration on women all make maintaining contact difficult.

For parents who fight to maintain custody of their children while incarcerated, they may face more difficulties than non-custodial parents. Emma Halpern argues:

Tragically, if your children are in the care of child protective services, you sometimes can have more rights to have access to your children because at least there’s a court order requiring it. 

Actually, there’s almost an incentive to have child protection involved in your child’s life, because it can give you rights to have access to your child. Whereas without that, let’s say your children are with their mom, or with their grandma, and there’s no actual court order, then your access is tremendously limited. 

Halpern is familiar with the tremendous difficulties mothers face in parenting their children in prisons, and worries that circumstances for men may be worse.

There’s a mother-child program. I think we can confidently say there’s no father-child program. So, even in the limited ways where women would have access to potentially even have their child with them, fathers would have even less access. And particularly in cases where fathers have been the primary care-giver, it’s extremely challenging. 

When I asked T. what Father’s Day means to him as a dad in prison, he said:

I’m just happy she’s happy. I’m just content every Father’s Day that, I know that though I can’t be there she knows I love her.

I’m grateful that I had love from women in my life, my mom and my sister, and when my daughter was ready to know me, that love kind of was there in me, even through the hate and the anger, and it spilled over for her.

El Jones

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Thanks for your work as an understanding and generous support for so many people, and for making the extra effort to write about it so the public can begin to get it. Knowing you are appreciated by many may not make the work any easier, but I hope it gives you some good feelings and the confidence to carry on.

  2. Continued thanks to El for these pieces. They are consistently powerful and illuminating.

    There’s a beautiful piece of work looking at the “read to me” program for incarcerated mothers, including interviews with the mothers. I’ve had the good fortune to see the author present on the subject; the written version is also quite good, though not as gripping.
    http://hdl.handle.net/10222/73176

    She also spoke about how difficult it can be to do research within the prison system, especially on academic timelines. Students delay graduation, grants run out, etc. The result is there’s not enough of this.