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Fathering behind bars in English prisons: imprisoned fathers' identity and contact with their children.

Fathers who live apart from their children have been investigated mainly through the lens of separation, divorce, and repartnering. With the growing prison population in many western countries, fathering from prison is emerging as a further significant context in which to understand the contemporary experience of fathers in families. This paper contributes to the developing research evidence about the meanings and experiences of fathering while in prison by presenting new data from a pilot study of 43 men serving sentences in English prisons. Using an ecological framework, the authors propose that the prison context overwhelms "responsible" or "active" fathering for prisoners and that mothers are central figures in the facilitation of father-child visitation contact.

Keywords: fatherhood, fathers in prison, father-child contact, father identity


Understanding the experiences of being a father in prison is important for the men and their partners' and children's well-being but also the larger community as a whole. While research evidence indicates that paternal criminality, particularly paternal imprisonment, is a risk factor for children's antisocial behaviour (Farrington & Coid, 2003; Jaffee, Moffitt, Caspi, & Taylor, 2003), other work shows that links with the family can be a protective factor against male reoffending (e.g., Hariston, 2002) and hence reduce adversity for children. In order to understand these complex family processes, scholars have called for more qualitative inquiry into fathers' parenting practices from within the prison environment (Arditti, Acock, & Day, 2005).

Little is known about father involvement among prisoner fathers, although evidence is beginning to accrue (e.g., Boswell & Wedge, 2002). Thus, it is important to examine what constrains and enables fathering in this institutional context. At a very basic level, we need to understand how imprisoned fathers, if they are motivated, can better keep in contact with their children, show them affection, and display commitment. This study of English imprisoned fathers attempts to illuminate and explain how being a father matters or does not matter in this extreme case of nonresidential fatherhood. Fathers who live apart from their children have been investigated mainly through the lens of separation, divorce, and repartnering (Amato & Sobolewski, 2004). However, with the growing prison population in many western countries, fathering from prison is emerging as a further significant context in which to understand the contemporary experience of fathers in families.

This paper contributes to the developing research evidence about the meanings and experiences of fathering while in prison by presenting new data from men serving sentences in English prisons. Being in prison illustrates one extreme of fathers living apart from children, often for an indeterminate period out of their control, unlike other intermittent absences associated with marital or work-related separations. Our purposive sampling has deliberately selected those men who claim an intention "to contact and have some responsibility" for a child post release. As the data show, even within this sampling framework, actual contact and reported quality of relationships between fathers and their children vary quite markedly.

The authors adopt an ecological approach whereby fathering is conceptualized as being highly fluid and shaped by both interpersonal and environmental influences (e.g., Doherty, Kouneski, & Erickson, 1998). Within this approach fathering is multiply determined by individual characteristics of the father, mother, and child; mother-father relationship factors; and larger contextual factors in the environment. In the case of fathering from prison, a key interpersonal relationship is with the mother, who plays a central interface-moderating role, since her presence is needed to accompany children on prison visits and her influence crucial in facilitating letter writing or telephone calls. Fathers themselves also play a pivotal role in keeping connected to their children and developing an active fathering role. When in prison men must create their own fathering script and role since there are no clear social guidelines about how to manage and preserve paternal identity and family relationships in this adverse environment. The characteristics of the prison and of the wider criminal justice system in which it is embedded are further key contextual factors impacting the experience of fathering. An ecological approach suggests that fathering is influenced even more than mothering by contextual factors in the family and community. The usual domains of responsible or active fatherhood (establishing paternity, financial support, active physical and emotional care, as in Coltrane, 1996, and Doherty et al., 1998) are less salient and in most cases impossible to enact.

The authors propose that context overwhelms responsible or active fathering for prisoners because they cannot be present with their children and incarceration undermines the possibility of responsible or active fathering upon reentry to the family or community. Furthermore, the identities of fathers in prison are likely to be highly influenced by the norms and values of that institution. These "hangover identities" will hinder reintegration into families and rebuilding a home-based fathering identity. We will utilize the ecological fatherhood framework to examine men's perceptions of fatherhood behind bars, how the father's family relationships are influenced by imprisonment, and how the characteristics of local prison environments shape fathering from prison, specifically contact with children.


In April 2004 the UK prison population reached its highest-ever recorded figure of 75,324 persons being detained under a custodial sentence (HM Prison Service Strategic Planning Section, 2004). Of this total figure, 4,644 were recorded as females, leaving the majority population, some 92%, as males. However, despite this trend, there is no formal auditing of men's parental status while in prison. Recent survey estimates have indicated that the prevalence of parenthood among prisoners may be quite high: for example, Caddie and Crisp (1997) found that 61% of female prisoners are mothers, and Dennison (2003) found that 25% of young men are fathers or expectant fathers. Other reported estimates suggest more than 32% of the male prison population have dependent children under the age of 18 years (Hansard, 2003).

As numbers have increased, there has been renewed interest from the relevant department in the UK government, the Home Office, in the family lives of prisoners, bolstered by an increased awareness of the protective function of family ties for prisoners (Social Exclusion Unit, 2002). In an attempt to combine the previously split parole/probation and prison services, a new National Offender Management Service (NOMS) was introduced in 2004 to ensure a seamless approach to the management and resettlement of offenders between prison and community.

In terms of family visits, all UK convicted prisoners are entitled to the minimal standard of one visit per fortnight of up to three individuals, although variation in regimes between prisons exists, and the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme can create an enhanced status entitlement to extra visits (Social Exclusion Unit, 2002). In 1991 all-day visits from children became possible, first launched in women's prisons, and since that time these extended-day visits became more widespread, although systematic data on national usage are again not available (Pugh, 2004). The majority of the 138 prison establishments have designated visitors' centers or areas, and about 91 have some play provision for children during visits (Pugh). There is wide variability in the way these centers or areas are set out, some being more child-friendly than others. Also, some visitors' centers, for example, may provide a variety of refreshments, knowing that visitors may have traveled considerable distances to reach a prison (prisoners are held on average 53 miles away from home, according to Social Exclusion Unit, 2002).

These English prison and criminal justice contextual characteristics indicate that a rehabilitation and family preservation ethos is gradually becoming an important part of the English penal system, in contrast to the historically dominant "deep break" tradition prevalent in both America and Britain (Nurse, 2002). The national characteristics provide an important background in positioning the experiences of our sample of imprisoned fathers and their families.


This current study was designed to allow direct comparisons with Day, Acock, Bahr, and Arditti's (this issue) U.S. investigation aimed at exploring men's parenting and couple relationships while in prison and subsequently after release. Both studies have been designed as national pilot projects to assess the methodology of the fieldwork and the data-collection strategies and to explore the substantive issues raised by the prison fathers and their families. The English study was conducted in 2004 across three English prisons selected to represent a range of prison types and prisoner categories. We wished to include a diverse selection of public sector prisons, including an open prison (which contains prisoners due for imminent release, most of whom are either working in the community or are allowed on town or home visits) and closed prisons (which house prisoners who are not allowed access to society at that given time but are not in the high-security category).

Access was initially secured through established and informal professional contacts and meetings with the Prison Psychological Service, prisoner visit coordinators, and prisoner family support groups (Action for Prisoners' Families, a national organization, and the Ormiston Children and Families Trust, a regional Eastern England organization). Developing professional contacts between the research team and the practitioner partners was an essential initial step in brokering access into particular prisons. We found across-the-board enthusiasm for the project. Formal permissions were achieved through a series of procedural activities: permission from each prison governor who has the local leadership accountability role, ethical approval from the ethics committees of the two English universities involved in the research, and finally ethical approval from the Prison Service Headquarters Ethics Panel (Home Office), which is required in the UK when research is conducted in more than one prison. Finally each research interviewer, including our American collaborators, required an individual security-clearance check before the commencement of fieldwork. As Day et al. (this issue) describe, researching in prison contexts is time consuming, and unforeseen events (e.g., security-related withdrawal, prisoner transfer or release) can overtake prearranged fieldwork and interviewing schedules.

Joint U.S./UK funding for the projects enabled training and piloting of the study questionnaire instrument as well as local prison area induction for both the English research assistant interviewers and the American students who helped with data collection and coding (see Day et al., this issue).


The study was conducted across three prison sites in England (one open and two closed prisons). At each site a purposive sample of fathers was targeted using five criteria. The fathers intended to return to their families. That is, they reported an intention to contact and have some responsibility for a dependent child (under 18 years) on a regular basis, even if a divorce or separation had occurred and even if they did not intend to live with that child. They agreed to allow contact with them following release and provide the necessary information to complete follow up interviews. Partners were contacted separately to request consent to participate. They were within six to eight weeks of prison release at first contact. They were assessed by relevant prison staff as emotionally suitable to complete individual and couple instruments. Finally, they were not known sex offenders. In practice, after filtering for exclusions (conducted by each prison's research contact coordinator), the release date became the salient sampling dimension substantially reducing the sampling pool in any one week by about 75% of an eligible population of 200 in one of the prisons.

A short information leaflet explaining the project was given to the relevant prisoners. Volunteers then completed an attached form and returned it to the relevant officer. The information leaflet outlined the background, aims, and objectives of the research. It stated explicitly that the decision to participate or not was totally separate from, and would have no bearing on the conduct or outcome of, their prison sentence. Anonymity and debriefing procedures were outlined.

While UK prisoners are not allowed to receive research financial incentives, it was agreed that spouses/partners would receive a 15 [pounds sterling] Woolworths (general store) or Boots (chemists) voucher at time one and at follow-up (posted to spouse/partner's residence or handed over at the end of the interview).

Implementing the sampling procedure systematically across the three prisons was extremely difficult. Despite support and cooperation from research contacts and local coordinators, we or they were not able to shadow actual recruitment to ensure that all eligible respondents were given project leaflets. We had no reports of refusals or no cases of fraudulent fatherhood claims (cross-checked where possible through spousal/kin telephone) but can be less sure that all potentially eligible prisoners were approached. In Britain there is no routine administrative checking of men's parental status on admission to prison. In all, interviews were conducted with 43 prisoners in July 2004 and with 21 of their partners by telephone during the three months following the original interview. Our purposive sampling has deliberately selected those imprisoned fathers who claim an intention to contact and have some responsibility for a child post release. Within this conceptual framework, the sample is one of volunteers; hence, we cannot be sure that we have not inadvertently excluded eligible men who decided not to participate.

The majority of the sample (n = 26) were from two closed prisons with 17 fathers from one open prison (see Table 1). More than one-third were convicted of drugs-related crimes, followed by burglary, assault, and robbery. In contrast to the national male prisoner population, this sample of fathers contains lower-risk men with less serious offences than found in the UK male prison population in general (Home Office, 2004). Prisoners had on average been inmates for 18 months although the range was considerable. The mean age of the fathers was 32 years (slightly older than the male average), and the majority was of White ethnic origin (n = 33). There were a higher proportion of men of Black or mixed ethnic heritage than found in national male prison admissions and a slightly lower proportion of Asian men (Home Office, 2004). More than eight in 10 British men admitted to prison in 2003 were White (81% compared to 74% for this study, Home Office, 2004). As is nationally the case for imprisoned men, most respondents had a low educational level with a mean age at leaving school of 15, and most had only low grade, if any, qualifications. Just under half had no qualifications, and more than one-third had only one to four GCSEs, which is equivalent to a lower than average U.S. high school attainment level at 16 years.

Sample characteristics of respondents' marital and family formation status are summarized in Table 2. Family relationships link to the nominated target child with whom the prisoner intends to be in contact when leaving prison and the target child's mother. A majority of the children named by the prisoner were under the age of 10 with one fifth 15 years or older. One-third of the men had never lived with the child (n = 14), but one quarter (n = 11) had lived with the child for five years or more.

The men in this study were a heterogeneous group of fathers with a mixed partnership and parenting history. One-quarter of fathers (n = 10) had never lived with the mother, and of those who had, more than half (n = 15) had lived with her for only two years or less. Couple partnership status was diverse with only five of the sample formally married to the target child's mother (see discussion below). Most of the men had one child with the mother of the child they named, and one-third had two or more children with this mother.

The fragility of the couple relationship was further indicated by the finding that one-third of the men had children with other women. The majority of the prisoner fathers in this study were in family relationships which have been shown to have a high risk of loss of contact with children (e.g., Clarke, 1997), since most were in nonmarital unions or not in residential relationships with the mother of their child(ren) before imprisonment.


Individual face-to-face semistructured interviews with fathers in prison, guided by a questionnaire, explored perceptions of the father's role and quality of family relationships; patterns and experiences of visiting and other forms of contact with the target child and target mother; personal well-being; plans for post release to family life, residence, and employment; and sociodemographic profiles. Telephone interviews with the partners/carers of the target child were also conducted, and follow-up interviews after the men had been released from prison for at least six weeks were conducted with both the men and women but are not reported here (Clarke & O'Brien, forthcoming).


Contact. Several questions were asked about contact in prison with spouses/partners and children. "How often has your child's mother contacted you by phone (or visits or letter writing, each asked separately) while you have been in prison" (none at all, 1 or 2 times, less than monthly, about once a month, about once a week)? "How often do you send cards or letters to your spouse/partner" (or child--asked separately, same responses as above)? The quality of the visits was assessed by asking, "Overall, how well would you say the visits go with target mother (or child) when she (or child) comes?" The responses for these questions were scored on a five-point scale ranging from very badly to very well. A chart was then filled out that listed 10 potential problems (transportation, short visits, children don't want to come, waiting room problems, childcare problems, misbehaving children, scheduling conflicts, and disrespectful prison staff). Participants rated each of these 10 potential problems as either frequently a problem, sometimes a problem, rarely a problem, or never a problem.

Couple relationship quality and perceptions of fathering role. Despite the complexity of these constructs (see Day et al., this issue and below), the only approach available for this project was to simply ask these men directly to put a score on how they rated the relationship quality or paternal role. Follow-up probes produced more open-ended reflections, which are used to illustrate responses.

The relationship quality questions were: "Before your imprisonment, how close to target child and (target mother) do you think you were?" These questions included a brief description of what was meant by close ("close can mean that they feel love, affection, and are interested in what happens to their spouse/partner or child"). They were also asked about the amount of free time they spent with their child (1 = none, 2 = less than 2 hours per week, 3 = 3-10 hours per week, 4 = 11-20 hours per week, 5 = 21-30 hours per week, 6 = 31 hours or more per week). They were also asked whether they thought they were a good father (1 = not very. good, 2 = some trouble being a father, 3 = an average father, 4 = a better-than-average father, 5 = a very good father). The same question was then asked to assess how they would rate themselves currently as a father.

Five questions measured the respondents' feelings about their children during incarceration (assessed on a five-point scale ranging from strongly agree [5] to strongly disagree [1]). These included responses to "I feel like my child likes me and wants to be close to me"; "my child rarely does things that make me feel good"; "sometimes I feel like my child doesn't like me"; "when I do things for my child, I get the feeling that my efforts are not appreciated"; and "my child seems to be harder to care for than most."

Also, several demographic constructs were measured to provide further context for understanding the prisoners that were interviewed. These measures included age, race, level of education, type of conviction, and length of time in prison for the current conviction. All interviews were coded on a questionnaire as well as taped, transcribed, and analyzed using SPSS to create coding frameworks and enter data and STATA for tabulations.



The normative context for the conduct of fathering in both England and the U.S. increasingly emphasizes the importance of both emotional and economic commitment to children and partners. Being accessible and nurturing ("hands-on") as well as economically supportive of children is an extension and deepening of expectations found in earlier historical periods (Day, Lewis, O'Brien, & Lamb, 2005). Against this cultural backdrop imprisoned men who are fathers have to create their own personalized fathering role script. It was unsurprising therefore that an unsettled and fragmented identity was apparent in respondents' appraisals of their role as a father; for many of these men, fathering was an activity that took place "out there" and "not inside" prison. When reflecting on their fathering role, a common strand was not being able to "be there."

Obviously because of the fact that I'm not available there have been some difficulties in the role that I would have played if I weren't in prison. So there are difficulties that that has caused. Obviously I'm not able to be there for any crisis, any occasion; sometimes people would like you to be there, and you're not, for a number of reasons.

Men's self-reports show that more felt they were "not very good at being a father" or had "some trouble being a father" when in prison when contrasted to preprison levels (n = 19 vs. n = 11). Also, one quarter of the men reported deterioration in their perception of the closeness with their child while in prison. This troubled experience of fathering was described by one prisoner, a father of two children, as creating a sense of being "outside" his family:

It's made me an outsider of my own family because whenever you came to jail your family's moved on. Say you're in for two years, when you get out you're still two years behind. So that's what it's done to me really.

As well as difficulties in sustaining emotional connection to family members and its associated sense of a nurturing paternal identity, the experience of being unable to make an economic contribution to family welfare ruptured the development of a provisioning paternal identity. The strain of "taking and not giving" and knowing that the family was suffering financially because of imprisonment was difficult to manage for those men who cared. As one informant reflected, "The problems are I've not got a job; my job has now been taken away from me. I don't speak to my kids--that's the ultimate price that I've paid for my stupidity." The economic provisioning model of fatherhood alongside emotional connection was critical to understanding the nature of these imprisoned men's paternal identities.

Not being able to enact central elements of contemporary fatherhood and the associated stigma and loss of status in being a prisoner meant that some fathers would not have their children visit at all ("I don't like kids to see me here, awkward, hard"). Indeed three children were not told their father was in prison but were given fictitious accounts. In two of these cases, this was a decision made by the target mother: one told the target child that his father, who was serving a two-month sentence for drunk driving, was in Spain helping a friend with his business; the other target child was not told, according to the father, because "his roam don't want him coming to these places because then he'll probably go to school and say, 'Oh, my dad's in prison.'" The stigmatisation of imprisonment in the wider community may act to attenuate prisoners' identities as respectable fathers and amplify their criminal identity. As one respondent, a repeat drug offender with a target six-year-old daughter, reported:

From the moment I stepped up in court, or from the moment I committed the crimes, I lost all rights in my child's life. I could only say 1 don't think I'm doing a good job raising X, but my opinion doesn't matter.

The identities of imprisoned men as fathers are likely to be altered by their experience of being in prison, since they will come to reflect the norms and values of that institution, "prisonization" or identity transformation, which results from becoming acculturated into the prison environment, as termed by Arditti et al. (2005). Notwithstanding the impact of criminalization, one-third of the fathers reported that they were a "better than average" or "very good"' father since being in prison. For some men, being in prison had created a positive opportunity to reappraise their criminal life-style including family relationships and resurrect paternal commitment and responsibility aspirations. Prison can offer a time of personal reflection for inmates and in some cases respite from alcohol and drug abuse. The high prevalence of prison programs (predominately anger management, substance abuse awareness, parenting or educational/vocational), taken by most of the men in this sample contributed to the reappraisal process according to some fathers' accounts. In addition to distinct service initiatives, the ethos of rehabilitation is now becoming an integral part of the way all UK prison staff are trained and expected to perform within a wide variety of roles.

It got me off smoking drugs. I was smoking drugs. I wasn't doing things with the lads. I wasn't taking Mary out, shopping or ... going for a drink, taking her somewhere where she wanted to go. I was sitting there ... I've had a long time to think about things in here. Not smoking drugs or being off my head.

In terms of an ecological perspective, it seemed that both the cultural context of fatherhood and the local environmental context of the prison shaped respondents' accounts of fathering and their personal ability to construct a "behind bars" fathering identity. For some the process of being removed from civic society and their family undermined any sense of a responsible father identity, whereas for others prison provided a space to reappraise the meaning of fatherhood in their lives. This range of response from the sample reflects the oft-discussed pattern for men of displaying variability and license in the enactment of parental identity and roles, particularly when they live apart from their children (Doherty et al., 1998).


In the confined environment of a prison, where direct contact and physical accessibility between a father and a child is either impossible or limited, other forms of communication become more significant. We have applied the classic tripartite typology of father involvement developed in the 1980s: engagement (caretaking, shared activities, direct contact); accessibility (presence and availability); and responsibility (planning child welfare and resources) (Lamb et al., 1987) to the specific prison context.

Letters and telephone calls are conceptualized as indicators of direct and indirect contact between fathers and children, and their content and direction of flow (from child to father, father to child) illuminates the quality of routine father-child contact that it is possible to sustain within a prison environment. Similarly, family visits to the prison can illustrate the less routinized, more intermittent forms of father-child contact that can take place. Depending on the particular prison context, family visits can allow more or less direct engagement between father and child (e.g., holding, changing diapers, playing) for extended time periods. Paternal responsibility (in the specific terminology of Lamb et al., 1987, rather than Doherty et al.'s 1998 more global construct sense), such as being involved in planning and decision-making in relation to the child's education or welfare, are arguably less location dependent, and it may be that fathers can still continue to show commitment and interest, if motivated or enabled, in these areas of family life while in prison.

Table 3 shows the frequency of letter, telephone, and visitation contact between father and child for the total sample of imprisoned fathers from both closed and open prisons. In general, phone contact from the target child (reported by 28 of fathers) and writing letters or cards to the target child (reported by 24 of fathers) were the most common regular (more than monthly) forms of father-child contact. Receiving letters or cards from the target child or having face-to-face regular monthly visits were less frequent (reported by 21 and 16 of fathers, respectively). By contrast, there are a significant group of fathers who never received letters, telephone calls, or visits.

Letters and telephones calls. Writing letters and making telephone conversation are attempts to normalize family interaction in an abnormal environment. The dialogue and writing cover the whole range of everyday family preoccupations and expressions: friends, pets, accounts of daily activities, gossip, planning for the future, coming home, school, child's progress/achievements, and sporting events. Men describe how hearing the sound of their child could be significant in "getting me through the day ": for instance, one girlfriend ensured that a respondent was able to regularly "listen to baby mumbling." Sometimes phone calls substituted for letters. For example, a married father reported, "1 don't have any letters off (mother). That's why I phone every night; then I don't have to write. You know what I mean? It saves on stamps." He sends letters and cards to his child(ren) less than monthly and receives them with the same frequency. "I send mother's day cards, or birthday cards, things like that." In return, the child sends "usually greetings--wishing me Happy Birthday, Easter, Christmas, things like that." In letters and calls fathers describe monitoring and giving guidance to their children, for instance warning them about reducing antisocial behaviour. Exhortations to "keep out of trouble," "be good," not to smoke, or not to drink were conspicuous by their presence in accounts. Phone talk and letter writing operated to sustain emotional connections between fathers and their children and partners through expressions of love and feelings of loneliness ("missing you"). The extent of letter writing and telephoning can give an indication of paternal commitment to a child and taking responsibility for children's welfare at a distance. Of course it can also reflect the fathers' needs for emotional support from those close to him and attempts to justify or make amends for his criminal convictions.

However, attempts to normalise family routines were inevitably disrupted by the realities and physical restrictions of a prison life.

I don't know--you can't do very much out there because I am stuck in here. There's nothing I can do really--I speak to her on the phone when she's upset; I speak to her on the phone when she's been naughty. I speak to her on the phone. There's nothing I can really do when she comes here.

There are obvious constraints and negative factors relating to telephone and letter contact with families in the prison environment apart from familial factors, which are considered below. The difficulties with telephone contact mentioned by the men were cost and availability, for example that contacting family abroad was too expensive, or that reaching the mothers or children was inhibited by timing problems. For instance, the costs associated with some prison phone systems were prohibitive ("1.79 [pounds sterling] a minute for a call to Birmingham"), and the times men were allowed to use the phone were limited, which might not fit with their family's availability. These constraints are similar to those found in the U.S. study (Day et al., this issue), where inmates have to call their families using a reverse-the-charges approach (the cost being about $1.50 per minute), and therefore they only call out at selected opportunities. Crossnational comparison of phone contact is problematic, however, because the generally easier access to telephones for English prisoners tends to facilitate greater father-child contact than can be the case in the American context (Day et al., this issue).

Visits. The two closed prisons had visitors' centres where visitors could leave valuables and wait before entering the prison. In one, the meetings took place in a large room with tables surrounded by four chairs with the one for the prisoner being a different colour, which he could not leave during the visit. The other closed prison offered a more family-friendly visitation facility with a special dedicated family centre with facilities for prisoners to move around and play together with their children. Toys and play material were provided by dedicated support visitation workers (governmentally funded with an office outside of the prison complex to support visitors prior to prison entry).

The open prison was less restrictive of prisoner mobility than the closed prisons and men were allowed to go outside with their families into the pleasant gardens to enjoy active games with children or allowed to go on town visits, which meant visits to a nearby town or home visits of one or two days. These outside prison visits were also available in one of the closed prisons when men were near release date. Spending time outside the prison, or even being able to move around with the family outside a visiting room, allows more or less direct engagement between father and child for extended time periods (e.g., holding and hugging each other), including routine family tasks, interchanges and activities (e.g., changing nappies, playing).

Visits by the family were mainly viewed extremely positively by the fathers. Visits were an important time for direct emotional support and communication. The fathers often mentioned physical demonstration of feelings: "hold the babies and let them play," "I hold her, look at her and make her smile," "always has a smile--getting to hold him," "kiss her and hug her and share chocolate with her," "she comes with her mum and I'm pleased to see her--we're all very close." Visits were also a means of keeping in touch with what the family was doing and how they were changing: "talk to children about what they do during visits--college, work, boyfriends," "football, how he's doing at school, how he's getting along with his swimming lessons, football training," "how she is taking care of herself," "about pets--rabbits, play games, make drawings," and "getting to know her."

However, the challenges of making family time work during visits meant that some fathers mentioned that the visits were too long:

They're too long for me. I get bored. Even though I'm seeing my people, I get bored.

Personally, I find the visits adequately long enough because, by the time you're sitting in a prison environment across a table, after a couple of hours you've exhausted most of the things you need to say. The environment is false; it's a pressure just trying to engineer a conversation because of the circumstances--the pressure that it brings to bear.

In these situations where visits lasted two or more hours (for example, from 1:15 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.) prisoner fathers and their families experienced intensive condensed family interaction, for most quite unlike their pre-prison family routine. The unusual and hostile environment on some occasions made visits awkward. For example, fathers mentioned the "prison atmosphere," not being able to move about and touch each other, and the lack of natural contact, activities, and conversation. Where there was a lack of toys for children or constraints on direct family interact this could cause difficulties for the father and his family:

He plays a lot, doesn't talk much. When he does come in, I feel uncomfortable if he's naughty. I don't feel I have the right to tell him off because I'm not there for him. I am just in here.

Clearly the usefulness of prison visits for facilitating the maintenance of family relationships is critical. However, the fathers' perceptions of the quality of the visits varied according to the prison regime, which in the closed prisons mainly related to the regulations surrounding the visits (for example, undergoing searches for drugs by dogs and guards, security cameras and being kept waiting for long periods), the contrived contact-across-a-table environment in some visiting rooms, and the lack of activities allowed or provided for children.

Some men perceived their prison environment as being inherently hostile to children. In particular there was anxiety about exposing children to other inmates with a history of unpleasant crimes. In the open prison, which had a significant proportion of sexual offenders coming to the end of their prison term, respondents said they discouraged visits because they did not want to expose children to prisoners convicted for paedophilia. These findings attest to the importance of taking a broad ecological perspective, exploring particular features of the local prison environment as well as individual and familial factors, in gaining a fuller understanding of fathering in prisons. In some instances responsible fathering may mean ensuring children are kept away from what may be a hostile and risky environment.

Complaints about the distance families had to travel, the cost of travel, and the inaccessibility of prisons were also voiced. The families were often on low incomes and all three prisons were not easily accessible by public transport. Just under half of the fathers had partners and children who lived more than 100 miles from the prison.

As this section has shown, patterns of contact between fathers and children varied across the communication domain. Mailing and telephone contact were much more common than face-to-face visits. For men who were motivated, these modes of father-to-child contact enabled routinized and regular interaction to occur. It is notable that more than half of the fathers usually wrote letters or cards to their children at monthly or more regular intervals. Although visits were viewed very positively by those fathers who had them, both institutional and familial tensions often tainted the experiences.


The vital mediation role mothers play in facilitating men's parenting is beginning to be well documented for families in the general population (e.g., Allen & Hawkins, 1999; Cummings et al., 2004). There is less research on the particular interplay of mothers and fathers' parenting and couple roles within the prison population (Day et al., this issue). In this section we consider the associations between couple relationship status, couple quality, and father-child visitation contact patterns. There was a significant positive relationship between receiving visits and telephone calls that was not as clear-cut for letter writing. While each family history was unique and indeed for many structurally complex, couple status and reported quality appeared to be important correlates of visitation contact, either supporting or prohibiting contact.

Couple relationship status. Respondents were asked about the status and quality of their couple relationship before and during imprisonment. As the pre-imprisonment family structure data show (Table 2), a majority of these men had structurally fragile couple relationships: the proportion of the men who were married or cohabiting was low, even by general English standards. Half of the fathers in this study classified themselves as divorced or separated from the mother of the child before entering prison, and more than three-quarters of the men were not living with both the mother and their child on entry to prison (n = 33). As in the companion American study (Day et al., this issue), most men in the English prison sample had never been married to the mother of their child. Marital status and residential patterns could sometimes be anomalous. For example, three of the fathers were living in the same house as the mother and child but classified themselves as separated from the mother, another man was living in the same house although they were divorced and the mother had another partner with whom she had children, and a further man was living with his child and his own mother. The general structural complexity of respondents' couple relationship status is portrayed in Table 2.

Couple relationship quality. Not surprisingly, therefore, one-fifth of the fathers reported a "poor" or "very poor" relationship with the child's mother before entering prison (n = 9), but more than half of the men rated their pre-prison relationship with the mother as "good" or "excellent" (n = 24). Perceptions of couple quality had a complex association with family structure and were not necessarily linked to prior coresidence or marital status. The fathers who said they were separated were more likely to rate their pre- and post-prison couple relationship on the lower end of the scale (very poor, poor, or fair) than other men, but more than half of all men rated the relationship as "good" or "'excellent." For example, one prisoner who was in a closed prison with a two-year sentence for his first offence--death by dangerous driving--had been cohabiting with the mother of the target child (a six-year-old girl) for over five years. The couple had separated one year before he had been admitted into prison, but he rated their pre-prison (and indeed in-prison) relationship as "good"--"I like her, but I don't love her." He had two children with the target mother and another, older, 14-year-old child through a previous cohabiting relationship. However, despite an unsettled couple status and partnership history, this respondent had regular contact (by visits, telephone).

Father-child visitation contact patterns and couple relationship quality and status. We found a significant association between fathers' perceived in-prison couple relationship quality and frequency of visitation between fathers and their children. More than 80% (14/16) fathers who have at least monthly contact with their target child also report a "good" or "excellent" current couple relationship. By contrast, 70% (14/20) who never see their target child report a "very poor/poor" or "fair" current couple relationship. Of course, the direction of influence between visitation arrangements and relationship quality cannot be disentangled from this set of cross-sectional data; however, the qualitative interview accounts can illuminate potential couple processes mediating father involvement.

Moreover, the men's rating of their relationship with the child was not related to whether the child visited or not, so it may be that the nature of the couple relationship is more critical to promoting continuing prisoner father-child contact. In the prison context, the mother is a key physical as well as a significant psychological facilitator of father-child contact, at least for dependent children who need to be accompanied into the prison for a visit to actually take place.

The contingent nature of father involvement was recognized by one respondent (who had both regular contact with his children and a self-reported good couple relationship), who put it: "[she's a] very good mother to the children and very good to me about bringing them up all the time--she's under no obligation to do so." The degree of empathy some fathers showed toward their partners' predicament of increased responsibility appeared to be important in facilitating father-child contact.

So far it's been stressful. I would like to be home--she has a hard time with the baby, so I could take him for a walk; now she has to do it alone.

A divorced prisoner described how his child's mother was sympathetic and supportive of his special needs as a father.

She's been very supportive since I've been in prison ... she used to bring the children to me, no problem at all. When my town visits started from the last prison I was at, she would come and pick me up and bring me back. We've never had a bad relationship as such where we've argued; it's all been very good, very good friends.

While in prison, fathers are inevitably restricted in how they can take responsibility for children and be part of the decision-making process about the direction of children's lives or well-being. Other prisoners recognized that the mother of their child took responsibility and made decisions about the child on her own but felt that they were disenfranchised from exercising such decisions by being in prison.

She had to look after the family, do everything, and look after my business as well. She could feel a bit of animosity towards me because it was the wrong thing I had done, and I had put her in a bad situation, so I understood if she felt a bit nasty towards me.

The association between poor couple relationships and low child visitation often had its roots in pre-prison family life. In one case, the father was imprisoned for assaulting the target mother and had had no contact whatsoever with his children since then. He explained that he had tried to contact them from prison:

I've sent them a letter just to state that, if they want to see me, they know where I live, they know my number, they can contact me. And then that was it, I didn't do anything else, I didn't say anything about their mum, I didn't say anything about her boyfriend. And I left it at that.

Some men had "very poor/poor" relationships with the mothers before they came to prison, but for others the imprisonment had aggravated or provoked a deterioration of the relationship. It should be remembered that the data we report on here provide only one perspective on family process. It is significant that the reasons men mentioned for not receiving visits sometimes differed from the mothers' accounts (Clarke & O'Brien, forthcoming); for example, some mothers told of the fathers' histories of violence or drugs, which were not elicited in the interviews with men.

In essence a good relationship with the child's mother, as perceived by the father, was usually critical for maintaining access to children. Father involvement cannot be separated from the network of family relationships within which it is embedded, and the findings from this study provide further evidence for the salience of the couple relationship in setting the scene against which parents negotiate and balance their family roles and responsibilities. The findings from this prison sample of fathers add to previous research with resident fathers, which suggests that high paternal involvement is grounded in harmonious couple relationships (Cummings et al., 2004).

The association between father-child visitation contact patterns and couple status is difficult to examine because of the complexity and informality of couple relationship status both before and after imprisonment. However, we found that the quality of the couple relationship was associated with the type of family in which the men were living before prison. The men who were in stable couple families (defined as either married or cohabiting with the mother and target child) were more likely than the other men to rate their pre-prison relationship as excellent (6/10 compared with 4/33). About equal numbers of men rated their relationship as good (3/10 compared with 11/33). After entering prison more men in the unstable couple family group rated their relationship as very poor (7/33) than before. Only one man from a stable family before prison rated his relationship in prison as very poor. Having a secure relational base before entry into prison may provide a platform for sustaining familial relationships while in prison. Further longitudinal research is required to examine the interaction of couple relationship status and quality over the prisoner-father's life course.


The findings from this study of father-child contact in prisons contribute to the growing number of investigations of "missing fathers." Complex family transitions and wide social changes in men's roles have created the conditions for both greater marginality and more inclusiveness of fathers in family life (Lamb, 2004). Fathers are not a homogeneous group. As this study has shown, even with a sample of imprisoned men who report a strong motivation to contact and take some responsibility for their child after release, there is great variability both in attitudes and behaviour.

The broad ecological perspective adopted by this study also recognizes that the father's family system is embedded in a sociocultural network that stigmatizes individuals in the criminal justice system (Arditti et al., 2005). The framework of responsible or active fathering, which has guided much recent father involvement research, has not yet been refined for such marginal families. As Arditti et al. (2005) suggest, it is unclear how the notion of responsible fathering applies to the difficult situation of father identity construction and father involvement for incarcerated fathers.

Our data show an unsettled and fragmented paternal identity underlying respondents' appraisals of their role as a father in prison. The men's self-reports indicate that more felt they were "not very good at being a father" or had "some trouble being a father" when in prison than before (44% vs. 26%). We argue that the difficulties they face in sustaining emotional connection to family members and in making an economic contribution to family welfare operate to undermine paternal nurturing and provisioning, both central dimensions of contemporary paternal identity. The regulated and restricted nature of prison life made it impossible to conduct any previous style of usual parenting, either in terms of the amount of time devoted to being with the target child or any usual father-child activities. For some the punishment and shame of being in prison were also reasons to keep a distance from their children.

The majority of the fathers in prison expressed strong feelings of closeness to a designated target child, and a significant group received letters, telephone calls, or visits from that child. Through these types of contact, attempts were made to sustain familial relationships under adverse conditions. However, men's accounts also showed the tensions of attempting to condense family interaction into intense, spatially constrained visits and telephone time slots. It was not surprising that one-quarter of respondents reported a deterioration in the perception of the closeness with their child while in prison.

What this group of fathers had in common was a history of complex couple relationships: the majority of the men in this sample had never been married to the mother of their child. Divorced, separated, cohabitating, and casual dating relationships were the norm. The study has shown that father-child visitation is related to pre- and in-prison partnership quality but that imprisonment also imposes an additional strain on these relationships. Some men had poor relationships with the mother before they came to prison, but for some the imprisonment aggravated or provoked a deterioration of the relationship. Both pre-prison couple status and the relationship quality before and since imprisonment were associated with whether the father was visited by the child or not. In essence a good relationship with the child's mother is usually critical for maintaining access to children.

In terms of research implications, it is clear from this study that the captive site of prison offers access to the experience of more marginalized nonresident fathers, for example those with patterns of serial parenting or fathers with low resources in education or employability, which are often hard to reach and consequently left out of mainstream fatherhood scholarship (Costigan & Cox, 2001).

An important policy implication of our study is that the recent initiatives to encourage greater integration of resettlement post-prison, community support with in-prison treatment, need to be father and couple sensitive. The prison establishments and practitioners need to begin to track the prisoner's relationship with the mother of his target children at a much earlier phase in the resettlement process. As a first stage in enhancing the family sensitivity of resettlement work, it is of utmost importance that parental status be routinely recorded during sentencing and prison admission. This administrative improvement by prison establishments will encourage greater attention to the maintenance of family relationships and support in rehabilitation and resettlement. These developments would support governmental attempts to strengthen prison-home family links and reduce, or at least address, any family hostility.

These initiatives are part of an evolving philosophy that recognizes the protective capacity of the parenting role and family against recidivism (Hariston, 2002). Parenting is but one dimension of a couple relationship, but research evidence is emerging that the extent to which parents can "acknowledge, respect and value the parenting roles and tasks of the partner"--"the parenting alliance"--is crucial for family well-being (McBride & Rane, 2001, p. 230). The findings from this study indicate that further policy and practitioner initiatives to strengthen prison-home family links should give greater attention to male prisoners' partnership and parental characteristics.

The authors would like to thank the generous funding from the Nuffield Foundation, UK, and the School of Family Life, College of Family, Home and Social Science, Brigham Young University (Mentoring Environment Grant program).


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Correspondence should be addressed to Lynda Clarke, Centre for Population Studies, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London WCI 3DP, UK. Electronic mail:

Maragert O'Brien

University of East Anglia

Hugo Godwin

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Joanne Hemmings

London School of Hygiene

and Tropical Medicine

Randal D. Day

Brigham Young University

Jo Connolly

University of East Anglia

Terri Van Leeson

Her Majesty's Prison Wayland

Norfolk, UK
Table 1
Characteristics of Prison and Convicted Offences for Imprisoned Fathers

Type of prison n
 Closed 26
 Open 17
Time in Prison 18 months (Mean), 1-78 months (Range)
Offence n
 Robbery 3
 Assault 10
 Burglary 7
 Larceny theft 2
 Drugs related 15
 Other (a) 6

(a) Those categorised as "other" in the above table included
financial crime (n = 1), explosives (n = 1), drunk-driving (n = 1),
firearms (n = 1), attempted murder (n = 1) and death by dangerous
driving (n = 1)

Table 2
Sociodemographic Characteristics of Fathers in Study

Men and children Mean

Age of fathers 32
 Age left school 15
 Target child's age 8
 Number of children with target mother (a)

Ethnicity of men Number
 White 33
 Black/Black British 7
 Mixed--White/Black 2
 Asian/Asian British 1

Relationship with mother, n When entered prison
 Married 5
 Divorced 3
 Separated 18
 Cohabiting 9
 Going out 5
 Friend/other 3
 Other --

Quality of relationship with mother at interview n
 Very poor 8
 Poor 5
 Fair 7
 Good 5
 Excellent 16
 Other 2

Ever lived with mother
 No 10
 Yes 33

Ever lived with child
 No 14
 Under 12 months 10
 1-4 years 8
 5 years or more 11

Children with other mother(s)
 No 29
 Yes 14

Men and children Range

Age of fathers (23-48)
 Age left school (12-20)
 Target child's age (0-19)
 Number of children with target mother (a) (1-4)

Ethnicity of men
 Black/Black British
 Asian/Asian British

Relationship with mother, n At time of interview
 Married 5
 Divorced 3
 Separated 10
 Cohabiting --
 Going out 9
 Friend/other 12
 Other 4

Quality of relationship with mother at interview
 Very poor

Ever lived with mother

Ever lived with child
 Under 12 months
 1-4 years
 5 years or more

Children with other mother(s)

(a) Two men had pregnant partners.

Table 3
Frequency of Contact between Imprisoned Father and Child

 Never Less than

Sending letters to child 12% 33%
 5 14

Receiving letters from child 30% 21%
 13 9

Phone contact from child 21% 14%
 9 6

Visits from child 47% 16%
 20 7

 Monthly Number
 or more

Sending letters to child 56% 100%
 24 43

Receiving letters from child 49% 100%
 21 43

Phone contact from child 65% 100%
 28 43

Visits from child 37% 100%
 16 43

Note. Some men had babies who could not talk or young children
who could not write.
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Date:Sep 22, 2005
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