#LoveIrishResearch BLOG: Masculinity: Father and Prisoner

As part of our #LoveIrishResearch theme for March, “A Balancing Act: Research and Gender,” we welcome guest blogger Daragh Bradshaw. Daragh is a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar at the Centre for Social Issues-Research in the University of Limerick.  His project, entitled ‘Imprisoned Fatherhood,’ explores the experiences of families affected by paternal incarceration. Today, Daragh writes about difficulties for imprisoned fathers in negotiating fatherhood in the very masculine world of men’s prisons.

In our culture, gender and our definitions of masculinity and femininity are bound up in familial roles and such as husband or wife, mother or father, which shape our sense of who we are and how we should behave. For men in prison, it can be difficult to enact the role of husband and father. Their lack of access to these important and meaningful identities can be very damaging to their sense of self, given that they live in a context where traditional constructions of masculinity are challenged through subordination, restriction and deprivation. In response, men often engage in combative behaviours seeking to regain both social power and a positive sense of their own masculinity. In the process, men can erode their social bonds with those outside of the prison context as well as with those within.

Even in prison, fatherhood offers men a way to redefine their masculinity away from traditional combative roles, and increases the possibility of enhanced social connections.  By adopting a father-orientated masculinity, alternative traits of care, guidance and nurture become possible. The difficulty for fathers who are prisoners is that it is not always easy to maintain such an identity.  By engaging in conversations about family concerns, prisoners leave themselves vulnerable to ridicule by their fellow inmates.  Additionally, the prison structure restricts access and opportunity to engage with family in any meaningful way. We are left wondering how much society cares about the children of male prisoners, especially because of common perceptions that the identity of a male prisoner cannot include being a father, or assumptions that the father is entirely absent from childrearing within families affected by incarceration.  Neither view reflects particularly well on wider society.

In the course of my Irish Research Council-funded project, I have interviewed imprisoned fathers who spoke about their difficulties in negotiating a father-orientated masculinity, as well as the problems faced by their partners raising children on the outside.  Fathers reflected upon the artificial nature, from their perspective, of family interactions during prison visits, such as only being allowed to hold their child or give them gifts with an officer’s consent, and only having access to their children via gatekeepers, the child’s guardian.  Imprisoned fathers also struggle to engage with what they believe is their traditional role within the family.  They spoke about their reluctance to discipline or reprimand their children as this might make the child choose not to visit again. My findings emphasised the fathers’ perceptions of their loss of power and status within the family unit.

When speaking about their understanding of what it means to be a ‘father’, prisoners were quick to reject the notion that there was such a thing as an ideal father, emphasising instead the many potential variations. They rejected the idea that their absence made them any less of a father than anyone on the outside.  Some of the men, however, still had difficulty informing their children of the reason for their absence, as they thought that doing so would undermine their moral authority within the family. Some men chose to tell their children that they are either: ‘away at work’ or ‘helping others’.  In this way, these men were also attempting to preserve their status of carer and provider

Finally, difficult as the prison’s parenting programmes were for their participants, as these men redefined themselves primarily as father rather than prisoner, their relationships with others improved.  Communication patterns with those on the outside were enhanced, and a greater sense of solidarity with other imprisoned fathers emerged.  This alternative construction of masculinity can be utilised in facilitating their community re-entry and can support fathers in engaging meaningfully with their families.  Maintaining imprisoned fathers’ contact with their partners and children is an important component in efforts to protect vulnerable children from a future of criminality and to safeguard against emotional and behavioural difficulties. For the imprisoned fathers, those who maintain a positive relationship with their children are six times less likely to re-offend. This is surely something that should be supported and encouraged.

With Professor Orla Muldoon, Daragh recently co-authored a report evaluating a prison-based parenting initiative called Family Links. You can download the report by following this link