This Father’s Day, millions of children from coast to coast will make plans to travel, visit, or call their father or the father figure in their lives. Tragically, more than 18 million U.S. children, 1 in 4, are without a biological, step, or adoptive father in their lives.
Fathers are critical to the developmental success of their children. On aggregate, those without a father figure in their lives fall short of their peers who come from two-parent families. Children without a father at home account for over 60% of youth suicides, 90% of homeless and runaway youths, and more than 70% of all high school dropouts. These children experience higher levels of juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, and aggression as compared to their peers.
For many of these children, it may also be the case that their fathers have been or are incarcerated. Among parents who are incarcerated, 92% are fathers. The number has grown fourfold over the last 40 years. The impact on the families left behind is immeasurable and often difficult to repair as family members grieve the temporary or permanent loss of an incarcerated person.
For the betterment of children at home, staying connected is key to limiting the negative effects of an incarcerated parent.
Distance, time, and access to a means of communication all play a role in keeping families connected with their loved ones serving prison sentences. A 2015 Prison Policy Initiative report found that more than 60% of inmates in state prisons are serving out their time more than 100 miles from friends and family. And among those who are less than 50 miles from home, only half receive a monthly visit. It takes time and effort to travel long distances to visit loved ones, and despite the barriers to in-person visits, research clearly shows that family engagement provides positive effects for both children and incarcerated people.
Thankfully, a technological revolution in corrections facilities has occurred today, in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic. Lockdowns of federal and state prisons shut off incarcerated people from family visits and critical social support services, making the need to establish communication with loved ones all the more urgent. While friends and family members used FaceTime or Skype during the pandemic to stay in touch, incarcerated people were left behind without equal access. Now, after the implementation of computerlike tablets within prisons, those people have a wide array of online communication tools to stay in touch with loved ones, pandemic or not.
Family engagement when a loved one is incarcerated serves a dual purpose. Connection allows families and children of incarcerated people to feel the presence of their parents and stay updated on their children’s lives. It also allows incarcerated people to reintegrate into society more easily. A 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections showed a 13% lower risk of recidivism in inmates who received prison visits versus those who did not receive them. The study also found that the risk of re-conviction dropped by 3% with each additional visitor received by the inmate.
Staying in touch with loved ones is key to the success of reintegration. While there is no replacement for in-person visits with loved ones, technology has enabled corrections facilities to travel light-years from where we started. For Father’s Day, let us all remember those without father figures in their lives and encourage those who may have fallen out of touch, for any number of reasons, to connect with their loved ones.
Tony Lowden, former White House executive director of the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry, is vice president of reintegration and community engagement for ViaPath Technologies. He is also the pastor and spiritual adviser to former President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter.