Father’s Day Behind Bars

Post Date: June 15, 2014

(Kevin Ring in the Washington Post) — I love the job of fatherhood. I love teaching my girls new things, watching them play and listening when they share their problems, confusion and frustrations – because adversity is where character reveals itself.

This Father’s Day will bring an additional dose of adversity, for me and for my daughters, who are 8 and 11. For the first time ever, I won’t be at home to open their card and handmade gifts. Instead, we’ll be spending Father’s Day at FCI Cumberland, a federal prison camp in Maryland where I’m serving a 20-month sentence for my role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. (My case dragged on for years.)

It’s one thing to miss an important event in your child’s life because you’re sick or traveling for work. But in prison, you miss everything — your daughter’s first communion, piano recitals, soccer games, opening day at the community pool. One man I met here at Cumberland missed his daughter’s high school graduation. He just cried and cried. When you do hear about their lives, it’s through a prison payphone. Amidst the annihilating boredom of incarceration, it’s nearly impossible to prevent your mind from wandering to even your children’s smallest doings. Around the time they walk in the front door from school, you’re sitting in prison. When they need someone to quiz them on their spelling words, you’re not there.

Fatherhood should not be a “get out of jail free” card, of course. All of us at Cumberland earned our tickets of entry. Nor would knowing that a convicted rapist or murderer was also a good Little League coach or Boy Scout leader move me if I were tasked with sentencing him. But in most cases, especially those involving the nonviolent offenders with whom I’m serving, I would want to know about the defendant as a parent, and about his family. For as much as it hurts us fathers, a growing body of research says it hurts our kids, too. Multiple studies conducted over the past decade have found that kids who have fathers in prison are more likely to grow up in poverty and experience financial insecurity. As of 2007, there were three-quarters of a million fathers behind bars. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly half of those dads were living at home with their children at the time they were incarcerated.

It doesn’t have to be this way. During the Reagan administration, social conservatives stole a page from the environmentalists’ playbook and proposed that all federal agencies develop and issue “family impact statements” before adopting new regulations. I would love to see that idea applied to sentencing laws and prison policies. Preserving families can’t replace public safety as the criminal justice system’s top priority, but it might demand that policymakers consider all options for alternative punishments before removing a father from his children. It would confront the long-term damage of loosening that irreplaceable bond and acknowledge the harmful impact it has for children’s emotional and economic welfare.

What practical policy changes would this approach entail? At their most ambitious, they would include shorter prison terms for some nonviolent offenders, especially those for whom other sanctions would allow them to adequately repay their debts to society. Think community and home confinement, public service and restitution. More modest changes would include ensuring that fathers are not physically incarcerated so far away from their children. I have met some loving fathers here at Cumberland whose families must drive from New Hampshire and Connecticut if they want to visit. The burden is so great that visits become rare. 

Trust me, society will get its pound of flesh. Many if not most of us have lost our occupations, livelihoods and professional licenses. Our reputations are sullied, our right to vote revoked, and our ability to get loans compromised. The list of things many of us have lost as a consequence of our wrongdoings goes on and on. But we shouldn’t have to lose our children for a single day longer than is absolutely necessary to protect public safety. Children need their fathers and fathers need their children. They make us better, and that is in everyone’s interest. Read more