Over 60 percent of the 2.2 million prisoners in this country have minor children. Of those, 93 percent are fathers and over half are black.
There are 3.2 million children with a parent in prison. That’s well over 2 percent of the nation’s children, and 60 percent are under 10 years old. They are truly the forgotten victims.
Too many of today’s prisoners are fathers who had little or no fathering, or cold, distant fathering that often was violent or abusive. For the black community, this is a far cry from the slave fathers separated from their families by slave-masters who, after the Civil War, clogged the South’s dusty roads, searching for their children, walking sometimes for years — an army of fathers looking for their families. Today, however, the search is reversed, not only for black children but all children, as they yearn and look for a loving father.
Men in America seem to have difficulty forming a fully-rounded image of manhood. White or black, they have to go with what is basically a stereotype of what they read and see. In many cases, there is a cool pose and swagger, the air of unflappability, the way of seeming always in control. All are trying to exert dignity and worth in a world that often denies them these things.
There is a reluctance in our culture to talk about father-love. If fathers were taught love instead of power, then there would be no absent fathers. Loving fathers do not abandon their families. Without loving fathers, gangs with distorted views of masculinity become the missing fathers, creating desperate fatalism, a place of despair where young men commit suicide by degrees.
The great passion in a man’s life may not be for women or wealth or toys or fame, or even his own children, but for his masculinity. And, at any point in his life he may be tempted to forsake things for which he regularly lays down his life, for the sake of masculinity. The pseudo-militarism and macho-posturing of prison life epitomize this outlook.
With prison populations increasing, the number of children with a father in prison shows no signs of waning. In fact, two of every hundred children have a parent in prison. So, imprisoned men must ask if they are just sperm donors in their children’s life, or if they can father responsibly from behind bars despite a lack of fathering in their own childhood.
Fatherhood must be rooted in love rather than violence and materialism. Fathers must be more than “cool dudes” who eventually leave behind bitter, weeping women filling prison visiting rooms.
If our species is to survive, men must take responsibility for their sperm and learn the art of loving fathering. To be better fathers behind bars, men must move beyond denial of their own father-loss and begin to heal by talking with each other about father-pain. They must release the oppressed tears that hardened over time behind macho masks. They must reach out with love to their offspring over and over — even if their children don’t respond.
It is time for fathers to be fathers no matter where they are. It is time for men to put down their guns and pick up their babies. It is time for men to go home to their sons and daughters.
Richard W. Dyches and Edward Hudson are co-founders of Family Bridge Network in Lockwood, Calif., a nonprofit organization that advocates for children of prisoners, foster children and children of deployed military. They can be reached through familybridgenetwork.org.