Fatherhood interruptedA parenting program for prison dads aims to help them make the most of their connection to their children, despite the walls between them.
Kwaku Frimpong has just wrapped a wonderful weekend with his wife and 1½-year-old son.
They kicked a soccer ball around the yard, he says. Baked banana bread and chocolate chip cookies. Curled up together and watched Paw Patrol.
Then they packed up their things and went their separate ways — his wife and son back to the security checkpoint where they entered 72 hours earlier, their belongings searched coming and going, and Frimpong to a prison conference room for a Zoom interview with CBC Radio.
Their private family visit, sometimes called a PFV or trailer visit, was over.
Frimpong, 38, has been in a federal institution since he was 23.
CBC is not naming the prison because the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) protects the locations of people in its custody for privacy reasons.
Although Frimpong is full of smiles as he recounts the pleasures of the visit they’ve just had, the family’s everyday circumstances aren’t as rosy.
“It’s very, very hard not seeing your son every day, picking them up from school, and bringing him to school, seeing him and holding him like I just did this weekend,” said Frimpong.
It’s estimated that more than half of the men in Canadian prisons and jails are fathers. But over the years, advocates say very little has been done to help them with parenting.
That’s a missed opportunity, they say, because research shows strong family ties not only help people reintegrate into society and lower their chances of landing back in prison, but also decrease the risk their kids will get in trouble with the law.
“When you see someone who’s arrested on TV, or you hear about it on the news, not many people’s minds go to the fact that there’s a partner or a mom and dad or children who are left behind,” said Louise Leonardi, executive director of Canadian Families and Corrections Network (CFCN), a non-profit that helps families affected by incarceration.
Listen to the radio documentary about a parenting program for dads in prison.
While research findings on this vary, children of incarcerated parents are estimated to be two to four times more likely to follow their parents’ footsteps into crime compared to the general population. But that’s far from the only reason to be concerned about the disruption to the parenting relationship, said Leonardi.
“[The children are] often very, very lonely, and they just miss the parent who has been incarcerated. There’s a great deal of shame around the fact that your parent’s inside. They might be bullied and teased at school. They have nightmares and might regress in their behaviour because they just don’t really know how to handle it all.”
Frimpong is a recent graduate of a newly expanded parenting program, called Dad HERO, that’s been recognized as a best practice by Canada’s Office of the Correctional Investigator.
Created by CFCN in partnership with CSC, Dad HERO was designed specifically to help incarcerated fathers deepen their understanding of childrearing and make the most of their connection to their children despite the walls between them. So far, 385 men from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds have taken the program since it was launched in 2018.
Although there are also moms behind bars who need support to maintain ties to their families, for this project CBC Radio is focussed exclusively on incarcerated dads.
Not only did we want to examine the impact of the Dad HERO program specifically, but men also make up the vast majority of the adult prison population — 92 per cent of those in federal custody and 85 per cent of those in provincial or territorial facilities. That means helping incarcerated fathers improve parenting skills holds the most potential for improving the lives of families affected when a parent goes to prison.
It’s hard to pinpoint how many Canadian children have a parent in custody because there’s no formal process for gathering information about family status when people enter jails and prisons.
But CFCN and other organizations that do similar work have estimated that at least 450,000 Canadian children have a parent who is incarcerated, said Leonardi.
Jessica Reid, co-founder of non-profit organization Kids with Incarcerated Parents (KIP Canada) and a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph in southern Ontario, researches how children are affected when a parent goes to prison.
“Parental incarceration is considered to be an adverse childhood experience,” said Reid, who is based in Toronto.
“And what that means is when children are separated from an incarcerated parent in the first 18 years of life, research has shown that it actually has impact across the lifespan, and impacting all facets of development.”
The magnitude of that trauma highlights the need for communities and policy-makers to support the connections between incarcerated parents and their kids, she said.
That’s why her organization and other advocates are pressing to have the children of incarcerated people included in the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights.
Bill Rasmus, director of reintegration services for the Correctional Service of Canada, oversees social programs and other supports that help prepare people to return to the community after prison. He also helped CFCN get the Dad HERO program established in Canadian prisons.
He said strong family relationships can play a key role in helping a person manage well during their sentence and when it’s time to re-enter society.
“We know that when families are involved, and when they are supported, first of all, it provides for better adjustment; we see improvements in behaviour for inmates when they’re actually in custody.”
When they have a family to go back to, he said, the chances of them succeeding when they return to the community are higher.
One prominent study on the topic found a positive association between receiving prison visits from family and lower rates of returning to prison once released, often referred to as “recidivism.”
The researchers reported that those who received an average of 6.7 visits in a year had a 14 per cent lower chance of returning to prison. The effect was even greater for those who received two private family visits, with odds of readmission about 22 per cent lower than those who did not have those weekend-long periods with family.
Yet the stigma that surrounds crime means there can be a lack of political will to prioritize and pay for the kind of social supports and programs that have been shown to help those who go to prison and their families.
“As much as it’s a simple thing in our minds, and sometimes in reality, to isolate them and to push them off to another place, these really are neighbours who are just as connected with families as anybody else,” said Rasmus.
“And so if we want to really enhance the potential and the probability for somebody to reintegrate successfully, their connections with their families are a key and a core part of that.”
That’s important if we want to break the intergenerational cycle of crime, too, he said.
Breaking that cycle is important to Dayna Mainprize. A mother of six in Toronto, her father spent a decade in prison.
“He was released when I was 13 or 14,” she said. “I’m not even sure I got to experience what being a child really was. It was just constant activity that involved police, visiting prisons.”
One particular police raid is crystal clear in her memory.
“We lived in a highrise and I was coming home from school with my mom. And we got off the elevator. And these detectives just flashed their badge right in front of our faces and demanded entry into the home.
“And then they took away my dad. He was, like, stark naked…. I feel like they could have maybe handled it a little different, asked us to be removed from the condo. Like they just didn’t care. And so those are the things that as young as we were, we’ll remember because they made it so traumatizing.”
Mainprize met the father of her children when she was 16. He’s also been in trouble with the law and incarcerated for short periods. She said she’s tried to make the relationship work for the sake of the kids, but their on-again-off-again relationship is now permanently off.
“I think he was already on the wrong path when I met him. I think that that was normal for me,” she said. “Then like he just became the same person my dad was, so I just fell into that cycle again.”
To try to keep that cycle from continuing with her own children, Mainprize’s older kids attend after-school programs run by KIP Canada. In non-pandemic times, the organization also transports families to prisons because travel costs are prohibitively expensive for many of the families affected by incarceration.
Mainprize said she wishes these services, and the Dad HERO program, had been around when her father was in prison in the 1990s.
“I think if my dad had somebody mentoring him on how to be a better parent, then he might have made a stronger bond and connection with me from inside and prior to his release that could have built a relationship to be more stable.”
Prisoners can seek support for family-related concerns from CSC social workers, parole officers and chaplains, but things like parenting classes aren’t widely offered. They tend to be sporadically available, often hinging on support from outside agencies and funding.
The Dad HERO program, for example, was paid for by a $750,000 grant from the men’s health charity Movember as part of a mandate to address men’s mental health and suicide prevention. But it, too, will need a source of sustainable funding in order to continue, once funding runs out at the end of 2023.
Helping to raise a child from behind bars isn’t what anyone hopes for when they become a parent.
Frimpong said he and his wife wrestled for a long time with whether having a child while he’s in prison was the right thing to do.
“My wife never seen herself basically coming in prison visiting me with a kid and all of that, and I used to look at that and thought that was crazy, too, right?” he said. “I always told her, ‘I don’t want to be selfish.’”
But that changed about 2½ years ago, said Frimpong. “We decided that we’re not getting younger, and we have a lot of support with both families so we decided to start a family even though it’s hard, it’s really hard for my wife.”
A common theme that applies to the lives of many of the people who wind up in Canadian prisons is poverty, said Else Marie Knudsen, a social worker and assistant professor from Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., whose research focuses on the experiences of children of Canadian prisoners.
BIPOC people are also overrepresented in Canada’s prison population, she said. This is most notable with Indigenous people, who represent just 4.5 per cent of the Canadian population, but 30 per cent of the people in custody.
After immigrating at age 11 from Ghana with his father, stepmother and siblings in 1996, Frimpong said his parents had their hands full just working to get by. His father worked afternoons and through the night driving a cab, so Frimpong didn’t see him that much.
Frimpong lacked “that home feeling” he’d felt when he was surrounded by extended family in Africa. He said he was also a hard-headed kid who didn’t want to listen to anybody.
“At the time, I was very young and naive and very stupid with no ambition.”
He didn’t want to work long hours driving a cab like his dad. Instead, he said, he modelled himself after the only people he saw driving nice cars and had nice shoes in his low-income Toronto neighbourhood, people living the “street life,” selling drugs.
Soon he was living that street life himself. In 2007, he and another man hatched a plan to rob someone using the pretence of a drug deal. During the robbery, he shot and killed both the victim of the holdup and his own accomplice with one bullet.
Frimpong was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and given a life sentence with no eligibility for parole for 25 years. He knows the severity of his crime and understands why many people won’t care about him as a dad. But he said they should.
“I feel like when you’re convicted of a murder, or any sort of crime that somebody [perceives] as something crazy, that’s just ‘lock them up, throw away the key,’ right? But we have loved ones out there [and] influence over a lot of people. So wouldn’t you want that person in prison to have … resources to improve themselves to become better people?”
Until his social worker told him about the Dad HERO program, he said he’d “never heard anybody say anything about men over here learning how to become fathers.”
He was paired with Marg Holland, an instructor for the program who has been working with CFCN to help incarcerated people and their families for two decades. Before the pandemic, the parenting program was delivered on site to groups of men, but Frimpong did the course over 10 weekly one-on-one phone calls with Holland.
“I was very fortunate that Marg took her time and basically this gave me tips and ideas and how I could become a better father.”
Frimpong said he speaks to his wife and son on the phone twice a day, including before his son goes to bed. During the course, he took pamphlets he got and went through the content with his wife on the phone. Sometimes that meant posing questions around issues they might encounter when their child is older.
“And that was helpful because we got to see that our parenting styles were different but we were able to communicate and get it right.”
Holland said so many of the fathers she works with “come from a place of violence or neglect” in their upbringings.
“Many of the dads say to me, ‘I’m here because I want to be a dad, and I didn’t have a dad. I want my children to experience what it is to have a dad.’”
Jirard Saddleback, who was finishing a seven-year sentence at a federal institution when he spoke to CBC Radio in late 2021, counts himself among those men who lacked a positive relationship with their father.
Growing up on Samson Cree Nation, near Maskwacis, Alta., about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, the legacy of residential schools was all around him. Saddleback’s grandparents were survivors. Many of his relatives, including his parents, struggled with addiction.
“I shouldn’t continue to blame my father. But that’s what I do right now,” said Jirard, 31.
The eldest of seven kids, Saddleback said he started selling drugs when he was in elementary school, and did it to help put food on the table.
“So, OK, I told my mom, I’m like, ‘Hey, I got some money here. Go buy some food.’”
He dropped out of school in Grade 7, and was 13 the first time he was sent to the Edmonton Young Offenders Centre.
Saddleback said that when he became a dad, he did better for a few years, working in Medicine Hat, Alta., and learning the concrete trade. But then work took him to Fort MacMurray, prompting the family to move their home base to Edmonton. There he and his young family lived with his partner’s mother, plus several other family members who didn’t have jobs. Money was tight, he said, so he started selling drugs to his coworkers to bring in extra cash.
Things quickly went south when a series of events left him behind in payments to someone higher on the drug-dealing food chain. He was charged and convicted for robbery with a firearm.
Saddleback hasn’t seen his sons, now eight and 12, in nearly seven years. He is disappointed there haven’t been in-person visits with his sons, or even a video call — for that, their mother would have to agree to be on his official list of visitors.
But not every partner, or co-parent, wants to maintain ties.
Saddleback had been paroled for a while and was working in construction in B.C., enjoying newfound freedom he had to FaceTime his kids every day. But then he violated conditions of that parole and returned to prison, something he now calls “a bad decision.”
For a period of time in early 2021, Saddleback went without calling his boys. “It was just a big feeling of shame, you know? Like, letting my kids down.”
He credits the Dad HERO course for encouraging him to reconnect.
“It helped me to reflect on my values. You know, what I should think about as being a father and how to try to communicate with my kids,” he said. “And I built up the courage to get back in touch with them.”
Saddleback has recently left prison under statutory release.
Aaron Goodchild, a CSC social worker who recommended the Dad HERO program to Frimpong, said family concerns are a common theme in his work.
The men he works with may struggle to communicate well with their co-parent or with how to help their children understand why they aren’t around. Because they don’t live with their kids, they miss out on learning about how children progress developmentally, Goodchild said.
There are a lot of misconceptions about people in prisons, Goodchild said, ones he even held himself before starting to work in correctional facilities.
“I was educated in social work, but … my frame of reference for what prison was like was Shawshank Redemption, probably like a lot of people, or Orange Is The New Black or whatever. And that’s not how it is.”
Sure, there are dangerous individuals who need to be in prisons, he said. “But a lot of these people are pretty normal people that just have faced some unfortunate circumstances in their lives that have brought them into conflict with the law.”
His client, Frimpong, understands that those misconceptions exist.
“One thing that I always say is this: I never asked people for forgiveness, because I don’t even feel like I’m entitled to that, right? But just see my actions. See what it is that I’m doing, you know; see if what I’m doing is showing that I’m actually making an effort to try and change my life, right?”
For Frimpong, those actions include working to be a good father, but also starting a mentoring program to help young Black men in prison avoid following a path like his own. He also recently started taking an introduction to psychology course and hopes to work with at-risk youth when he’s paroled.
The earliest Frimpong will be eligible for day parole is in 2029, when his son will be around nine years old.
“I pray and look forward to that day every day. But at the same time, I know that I have to equip myself with tools, proper tools for me to be there for him. So that’s what I’m doing right now every single day. So eventually when I’m out there, me, my wife and my son, we start from there.”
Written by: Brandie Weikle | Audio documentary by: Brandie Weikle and Joan Webber | Artwork by: Ben Shannon | Copy edited by: Janet Davison | Digital producers: Althea Manasan and Brandie Weikle