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When a father becomes incarcerated

An illustration featuring two panels side-by-side. In the left panel is a little girl with brown curly hair lying on her stomach and  writing on a piece of paper with a pencil. In the right panel is a man in a dark khaki uniform with a number on it and wearing a beanie. He is reading a piece of paper. The image is outlined in black, which also separates the two panels.
Charnel Hunter

Many incarcerated people are also parents. Their children navigate social stigma and barriers to staying in contact with their loved ones.

Over half the people inside federal prisons are parents to minor children, and the majority of those people are fathers. What happens to their kids and families while they serve time?

To answer this question, host Anita Rao talks with her former thesis adviser Ashley Lucas, whose father was sent to prison when she was 15. Ashley works for the University of Michigan as a professor of theatre and drama and the director of Latina/o Studies, and she wrote a play called “Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass” exploring her own and others’ experiences of having an incarcerated family member.

Anita also talks with journalist Sylvia A. Harvey, who goes by SAH, about her experience of losing her mother to an asthma attack and her father to a prison sentence before she was 6. SAH put her story in context in her book, “The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family,” which contains her investigative research into the carceral system and its intersection with the welfare and education systems.

You can find more resources from SAH here.

Three Challenges Children Face for Staying in Touch with Incarcerated Parents

High Cost Phone Calls

Many families with loved ones in prison struggle to afford the calling fees. Prices vary by state, but can cost as much as $5.70 for 15 minutes — almost $23 an hour.

Journalist Sylvia A. Harvey (SAH) talked with her dad about twice a week when he was in prison during her childhood. She once got mad when he didn’t call for a couple weeks — and only as an adult did she learn it was due to cost.

Limited Access to Extended Family Visits

An extended family visit is private time a prisoner can spend with their family, lasting a few hours or even overnight. In 1993, 17 states had extended visit programs. SAH remembers spending weekends making pancakes with her dad as a little girl during his incarceration.

As of 2021, there are only four states with official extended family visitation programs.

Prisons Located Far From Home

State prisoners are incarcerated an average distance of 100 miles away from home. For federal prisoners, that distance increases to an average of 500 miles — which can be a whole day’s drive. Additionally, most prisons are not accessible by public transportation, making visits difficult for families with limited or no car access.

Please note: This episode originally aired February 10, 2023.

Some links from Ashley Lucas:

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Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.