Whether it's a greeting card, phone call, or gift of a new gadget, Father's Day gives us a chance to express our thanks to our fathers. This week I am particularly thankful for the blessing my children are to me -- not because of the thoughtful note or the hedge trimmer, but because I am able to spend time with them and be involved in their lives.
Imagine finding yourself in a situation where you couldn't visit with your children this Sunday. Their absence might not be due to them living in another state, being ill, or forgetting it's Father's Day. Instead, their visit with you was cancelled at the last-minute -- for no obvious reason -- by someone in authority over you.
You won't be receiving a phone call, either. Incoming calls aren't allowed and making a call is prohibitively expensive and limited to 15 minutes. Calls are so expensive that you only use the time to talk with your wife about the most pressing matters. What if we can't pay all the bills this month? Which do we prioritize?
Why can't you see your children or talk to them on the phone? Because you are in prison.
I found myself in this very position when my daughters were 5 and 4 years old and our son was only 10 months. I was in federal custody for 29 months, and I felt like an amputee -- cut off from my family, my work, my community and my church. With my stumps still bleeding I was tossed into a roiling cauldron of bitterness, hatred, anger, barely restrained violence, and sexual repression. But for me, none of it was as painful as separation from my family.
My wife, Gail, did everything she could to keep me involved in our children's lives during those years. For instance, my eldest daughter, just beginning elementary school, was reading the Boxcar Children books. Gail mailed me extra copies of the books so that I could read along with Courtney and then discuss the books with her as she wrote her book reports. Those were precious moments; I looked forward to hearing my daughter's voice over the phone describing what they were doing in her school.
Incarcerated fathers face a unique challenge. It is very hard for prisoners to stay involved in their children's lives. And rather than encouraging family relationships, many prisons throw unnecessary roadblocks between fathers and their loved ones. For instance, visiting is limited to a few hours one or two days every other week. And the expense of phone calls in many prisons is at least $1 per minute, plus an additional $2.50 just to make the connection. This makes long-distance communication especially difficult.
Many prisons are located in rural areas far from where most inmates live. Their families must travel several hours to make a visit. All visits are subject to last-minute cancellation by prison authorities. Even when the visits aren't cancelled the families meet in crowded visiting rooms. Often parents must spend some of the time going over "adult" issues such as paying the bills or a discipline problem at home. Such talk is boring to the children. However, there is no place for them to go. The small visiting rooms are ill-equipped to keep young children occupied. Something as simple and inexpensive as placing a few coloring books or toys at a child-sized table would allow husbands and wives to conduct the business of running a split household without boring the children and having to keep them entertained.
This Father's Day, while you speak with your children on the phone for only a few cents a minute, I hope you will consider that many fathers can't do the same. Consider this: children of a man who has violated the law still need their father's love. The children are totally innocent, and we should shield them from any unnecessary consequences of their parent's wrongdoing. Please support efforts to strengthen the important bonds of families during incarceration.
For more information on the difficulties faced by the families of the incarcerated visit Justice Fellowship's "Incarceration and the Family" resource page.