One error that is prevalent in our culture is the characterization of all ex-offenders as wholly unfit for the challenges of parenthood. We are led to believe that male inmates are incapable of learning the ways for effective fatherhood. We seem to feel they have neither the interest nor the moral character to uphold the responsibility of a “decent father.” The media and entertainment industry actively support this stigma to the point where even the word “inmate” raises thoughts of danger, mean-spiritedness, abnormality, abuse and violence.
Fathers who have their freedom are unable to understand the loneliness, sorrow and emptiness experienced by inmate fathers, as a result of being isolated from their children over long periods of time. They are unquestionably at a disadvantage as fathers, no longer being physically with their children, missing the daily joys of fathering. Being characterized so negatively, they appear to grieve continually.
It is true that there are men in our society that are unworthy of fatherhood because of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse they inflict upon children. In spite of the fact that some fathers have turned their backs on their children, I have observed evidence that inmate fathers persevere in their desire and capacity for fatherhood.
As a parenting teacher for inmates, under contract with a prison facility in the State of Hawaii over the past three years, I have become increasingly aware of the depth and strength of character of many of the men I have served. I am an educator with high expectations, requiring much from my students, academically and morally. In my thinking, overall, the inmate fathers have risen to the challenge, expressing competencies in character, intention and motivation.
The major responsibilities of parenting are addressed in my program. This includes the more difficult issues such as changing a child’s negative behaviors, using effective discipline, caring for the emotional health of the child, helping the child adopt effective habits relative to nutrition and physical fitness, and helping a child succeed in school. In addition to the classroom presentations and lectures, my students cover extensive independent reading and participate in group projects and challenging classroom discussions. They complete a number of written assignments, including personal journals, short topical papers, and an overarching final examination.
The men who participate in my class are slated to return to their families and communities within the next two to three years. Before release, they must successfully complete a number of mandated programs, including cognitive skills training, adult basic education, various therapies and transition preparation programs, and parenting. These mandated correctional programs are understood to be directly related to the success of inmates in their transition back to the community, although extensive hard evidence of this relationship is yet to be gathered through research.
To support my assertion that incarcerated men demonstrate the character necessary to do well as fathers, I have selected the following evidence from their written work. The statements are presented with permission from the inmates and the institution.
Words of wisdom from inmate fathers
“My parents’ way of bringing me up was a way that no child should go through. I got hit all of the time. I learned all that I know on my own…self-taught…I learned the hard way…on my own. To be a good father, I must remember where I came from and what I went through…because I don’t want my children to go through what I went through.”
“Being there for my daughter is one of the main things I promised I would do, and not being there for her now…really hurts.”
“Controlling your temper, as a father, is one of the most difficult and important tasks you face in being an effective parent.”
“Anger and rage makes your child scared of you…they don’t feel close to you…they get pushed away emotionally…so they find other alternatives…like running way, getting involved with alcohol and drugs, sex and foul music. Keep your kids close…build an unconditional love relationship with your kids.”
“Give your child guidance, love and affection.”
“Practice patience…because it takes a lot of patience to raise a child.”
“Children remember the positive statements we parents say to them...and they play them back over and over again in their minds.”
“It’s important not to criticize and ridicule.”
“Be humble, keep your head on the right track and be positive.”
“Pay attention when your children talk to you. Get down to their level and really listen. Be clear when you are talking to them…stop what you are doing…try to be understanding.”
“If you listen, they may open up to you, and you will get a better understanding of what they are feeling.”
“The foundation of all discipline is love.”
“Don’t put down your child…too much negative can have lifelong effects.”
“I plan to put more loving, caring, and positive thinking into my daughter.”
“Laughing with my children will help them build laughter within themselves.”
“Discuss with your child how you’d like him to behave…then ask how you can help …with the reward being everyone’s happiness.”
“For better or for worse, my children learn from my example.”
“Hold as your motto…I love you, no matter what!”
“Give respect by showing respect.”
“Praise them more…for the good things they have done.”
“Give them words of encouragement and be generous with praise.”
“Don’t miss their childhood, really be there for your children.”
“Let your child know you are there for them no matter what...make them feel safe…and keep the line of communication open for them.”
“I send each of my children a card telling them in different words that Daddy loves them and always thinks of them and that everything is going to be okay.”
“I will always allow my daughter to dream…dreams do come true.”
“Let them know that helping others is a good practice…with rewards in the long run.”
“I hope to show them that I was wrong for what I did…and that I rightly paid for my wrong decisions.”
“Show them that they are loved.”
“Let them know your heart.”
“Work hard to build a positive emotional bond with your children.”
“Keep your promises and stick to your words.”
“Let them see and feel your love.”
“Tell them about God’s plan for their lives.”
“Teach them love…pray with your children…teach them the Bible diligently, study with them, teach them charity and self-discipline.”
I was not able, in the space of this article, to include all of the statements of value I received from my students. Those provided above are a good representation of the successful outcome measures from my class. I am proud of their openness to learn new ways of thinking and behaving and I am impressed by their willingness to investigate a more effective approach to parenting.
However, my inmate students were not just taking me at my word, passively sitting; I could not permit that. They were genuinely inspecting and challenging the new ideas, reflecting upon their own philosophies of life and reconstructing the meaning of fatherhood as a group. I was so very much impressed by the quality of the character revealed within the class, but more so by their strength as a group. Imagine my delight, as they moved from being just a gathering of male inmates …to being a true gathering of fathers.
Douglass Capogrossi, Ph.D. is a part time correctional educator under contract with the State of Hawaii Department of Public Safety. His experience includes development and instruction of parenting and transition programs, and adult basic education programs. Dr. Capogrossi serves as the President of Akamai University, a distance learning institution, favoring mentorship as the model of education and dedicated to the betterment of the human condition. Akamai has established a Men’s Studies and Fatherhood Program designed to serve the needs of professionals that work with fathers and the needs and rights of men worldwide. http://www.akamaiuniversity.us