Parental Rights of a Father in Jail

Man standing behind bars in prison cell, close-up of hands
A man is standing in a jail cell. (Image: Darrin Klimek/DigitalVision/Getty Images)

Parents incarcerated in a county, state or federal prison lose many of the rights that free parents take for granted. Prisoners who are parents don’t automatically lose their right to be a parent, but they often lose the means to continue to be an engaged, included and effective parent. There are many ways the mother of a prisoner’s child can legally block the prisoner from any kind of relationship with his child.

Basic Problem

Fathers who go to jail remain fathers, but only technically, according to the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, CCIP. However, parenting requires contact and inclusion in the child’s life and this is difficult for a prisoner to achieve or maintain while behind bars. When mothers choose not to include the prisoner in the child’s life, there is little the father can do about it.

Lack of Jailhouse Visits

A prisoner has no ability to force the mother of his minor child younger than the age of 18 to bring the child to visits at the county jail or prison, the CCIP notes. Although prisoner might try to file suit to force such visits, such a suit will require hiring of an attorney. There are no provisions for free legal representation from behind bars for these kinds of cases.

Refused Phone Calls

Most prisoners are allowed to make collect calls and paid-for calls depending on their monetary resources in prison. Fathers have the right to call their home but that does not mean the mother will accept a collect call, or answer her phone when the prisoner calls on his dime. The mother has the right to refuse to allow the prisoner to talk to his child on the phone.

Blocked Correspondence

Prisoners can write all the letters they can afford to write and send home, but there’s no guarantee that mothers will deliver letters to the child. Mothers can also easily intercept letters--both ways. Minors have none of the usual rights to secure postal services that adults have.

No Right to Information

Mothers of the children of prisoners have no legal obligation to keep in contact with the prisoner in any fashion once the cell doors close. Prisoners can do little to force a mother to interact with him or include him in parenting decisions unless he files a lawsuit.

Losing All Rights

If a prisoner still has legal joint custody of the child, some guardianship rights may still be in effect. Mothers may have to seek the father’s permission for the child to undergo life-threatening elective surgery, for example. If this becomes a problem, mothers can file a motion to have the incarcerated father stripped of his custody and decision-making rights altogether. According to the CCIP, most jurisdictions rule on these motions in favor of the mother, especially since the father often has no means to hire a private attorney and defend his rights in court.


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