Inside, Outside: Staying connected with your kids is a big challenge for incarcerated fathers

by John Hoffman

What would be a first thing a child would say when he visited his father in prison for the first time?

Depending on the child it might be any number of things. Here’s what Stan’s * nine-year-old said the first time he saw his dad in prison. “Dad! You look like a super hero.” (*last name withheld to respect children’s privacy)

Stan explains, “He hadn’t seen me for several months, and I had been working out a lot. A lot of people do that in prison because there isn’t much else to do. So I was probably a lot more buff than the last time he’d seen me, a few months before.”

The boy’s comment speaks volumes about in-the-moment clarity of how children see their parents, even in the most unusual and difficult of circumstances. It also reminds us that kids say the darndest (funny) things. For Stan, that innocent and funny comment helped break the ice in a situation where he was a little nervous.

“I didn’t think they’d reject me because I was in prison,” he says. “But I didn’t want them to be afraid to come up there (Beaver Creek Institution, in Gravenhurst, ON).” Stan had asked his (now ex) partner to not bring the children to Millhaven, the institution where he started serving his sentence. “I didn’t want them to see me at Millhaven. It’s maximum security, not a very pleasant looking place.”

When his family arrived for their visit at Beaver Creek, Stan hadn’t seen his kids in several months. But he had written them letters and talked to them on the phone. Before he’d gone to prison, Stan had done some research on how parents on the “inside” can relate to their children on the “outside.” “One idea I got was to write half stories,” he says. “I would write a story, send it to them in a letter and ask them to draw a picture. Or I would draw a picture and ask them to write a story.”

Stan also tried to phone as often as he could. But that was difficult. Inmates got the chance to make a phone call every second day. Five men at a time, would be released into an area where there are showers and only two phones . “You only have about 15 -20 minutes to use the phone and shower.” Stan says. “So you have to rush for the phone. Or, if you want to avoid conflict, you trade a packet of juice or a couple of eggs so you can use the phones earlier.”

When Stan and his kids finally saw each other in person it was fairly emotional. “There were tears at the beginning and then again at the end, when I walked them to the door,” he says. “But it was mostly a positive visit. It went pretty well.

What did they do?

“The room where we met was almost like a cafeteria setting, only with guards. In the back there’s an empty space for small children and we were able to go outside to an area where they had picnic tables. We played catch for awhile. But mostly we just talked.”

Did they talk about Dad being in prison?

“Yes,” says Stan. “They were curious. They asked, ‘Dad, is it dangerous.’ They seemed a little worried or anxiety ridden about it. I didn’t want to tell them it was dangerous, So I said, ‘No, no, it’s sort of like a camp. The guys here are very friendly. They just want to do their time.’  That may not necessarily have been true but that’s what I told them because I didn’t want them to worry.”

That was Stan’s only white lie to his kids about being in prison. “Right from the start I was completely honest with them – where I was going, this is what I did, this is how you can see me and communicate with me. When I was inside, most of my cellmates and others who had children, they would lie to the children.” Stan heard one inmate tell his son he was on a year-long business trip and another said he was working in a factory where it would be dangerous for his son to come and visit.

Even after Stan got out and was living in a halfway house the unusualness of the visits with his kids continued. “I usually saw them on Saturdays or Sundays so I’d take them to the park. The hardest part is you have to call the halfway house, every 90 minutes to say where you are. So if you’re in a park it’s hard to find a pay phone. I remember one time I had to call back to the halfway house, so I had to run from the park to a library nearby and call from the pay phone there. So it shows you that you can’t hide your situation from the kids. The kids had to walk from the park to the pay phone with me and then walk back to the park. If you’re on day parole it doesn’t matter if you have a cellphone or not, you have to call from a landline because they want to track where the call is coming from.”

Stan has been back in the community for several years. Now divorced, he sees his kids every other weekend. “I would see them as much as I possibly could,” he says. “But it’s hard. I served my time and I just want to get on with my life. No one let’s you forget. People think prisons are full of bad people, but in my experience there’s not as many “bad” people as you would imagine. Most offences were drug related or crimes of passion – one offs. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t want those people to be a parent to their children.”

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Thanks Stan, for sharing your story.

Stan’s story barely scratches the surface of what families with incarcerated fathers (or mothers) are dealing with. I’ll come back to this topic in a future blog

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