The study of children separated from an imprisoned parent raises a series of psychological and social issues that may affect children as well as their parents. The following text is a speech entitled “Imprisonment: Family Ties and Emotional Issues,” given by Dr. Alain Bouregba, Psychoanalyst and Director of the Fédération des Relais Enfants-Parents I (France) in May 2002 during a study day in Padua.

Difficulties encountered by fathers in prison in assuming their role and function

During the course of this presentation, I will be drawing on my experience with imprisoned fathers to trace the difficulties they encounter in assuming their role and function as fathers. I will then demonstrate how these difficulties act as obstacles in their rehabilitation, underscoring the need to provide them with support to enable them to better shoulder parental responsibility. This is in the best interests of the child. The conditions under which the parental function and role are exercised in the case of imprisonment are determined by several factors; any attempt to provide an exhaustive analysis of these factors would require a very lengthy treatise. Rather than attempt to give a global overview, I have chosen to highlight the various dynamics involved. I would first like to emphasize that paternity, in contrast to maternity, is not founded on experience; it is based on a statement or declaration.

The first declaration is made by the mother, who informs the father that the child she is bearing is his; the second is made by the child, who expects his or her father to assume his responsibilities. The primacy of words over experience results in the former playing a major role in the individuation process. Becoming part of a paternal filiation entails acceptance of a genealogical principle which is based on a symbolic, not an emotional, link. The paternal function projects, in the mathematical sense of the word, the child – who is alienated from his or her mother following gestation and the subsequent fusion that occurs during the first few months of existence – into a structure dominated by the rules of affinity and belonging. As a result, the infant learns to integrate the asymmetry of generational roles. The transposition of the child from a world dominated by sense-related bonds to a world dominated by symbolic bonds characterizes the paternal function.

Yet this function is not exercised exclusively by the father; a child’s entry into and affiliation with a given religious or ethnic community also plays a role. Moreover, paternity is also a sense-related experience during which the father fears his child as an extension of the self. Paternity and the paternal function are two distinct notions.

The father contributes to the child’s entrance into a network structured by various affiliations. His link to the child is immersed in a series of attachments dominated by reciprocal identifications: the child’s identification with the father and the father’s with the child. The father sees in the child what he has been in the past and/or what he wishes he had been.

A father’s projective identification with a daughter is just as powerful as his identification with his son. In the case of identification with the son, the imaginary complex with which the father identifies the child (projection) before actually identifying it with himself (introjections), is determined by his masculine ideal. In addition, the contents of the imaginary complex are preconscious and visible. With respect to a girl, the father projects onto his daughter a feminine ideal that corresponds to the image of the ideal woman he would have liked to be, if he had been a woman, not the ideal feminine object that he would have liked to possess.

The various identifications under scrutiny here are those handed down by primary narcissism. Paternity is founded on an emotional attachment resulting from an identification of the child with an imaginary complex conjured up by the father himself. This identification leads to an affiliation that transcends the father figure. This is why analysis of the paternal role implies an analysis of the nature of the father’s attachment to his progeny. I therefore propose to discuss the difficulties of attachment of an imprisoned father with his child, and then to examine the difficulties in transmitting his life story.

The imprisoned father’s attachment to his child

This attachment is exaggerated with respect to the imaginary, given that it cannot be experienced in reality. The more the father misses the child, the more he invests in the child and imagines him or her in an idealised form.

Some fathers actually deny that their child has grown. For example, some fathers speak about their child as if they were the toddler they left at the time of their arrest, when in reality, these toddlers have become adolescents,.

The exaggeration of imaginary bonds result in terrifying projections for some fathers in terms of their child’s future or, conversely, in idyllic images laden with denial. In both cases, it is as if the real child were competing with the imaginary child envisioned by the imprisoned father. Yet the paternal reverie, which grows even more intense as absences become longer, is frequently far from corresponding to the real child, who, visiting a few hours each month, is not present enough to realign the father’s dreams with reality. Over time, the child feels increasingly alienated from the image of the child to which the father has reduced him/her. This sometimes results in the child’s inability to communicate with his or her father. the imaginary exaggeration in the father’s attachment to the child inevitably becomes an obstacle to the relationship, sometimes rendering it impossible.

Paternal transmission

Separation does not explain all of the characteristics of an imprisoned father’s attachment to his child. The relationship is dominated by the imprisoned father’s fear of contaminating his child with the “psychosocial germs” responsible for his own delinquency. Prison frequently commutes feelings of guilt into feelings of being a victim, and proportionately so the longer the sentence. Instead of fostering the emergence of a feeling of responsibility, prison validates feelings of irresponsibility. The very conditions of imprisonment, in which everything is programmed and scheduled, rendering the detainee an infant, block the emergence of the parental role. One can only hand down that which one feels responsible for. Conversely, a parent who transmits to his or her child their life story without assuming responsibility (as opposed to justifying it) destines the child to a fatalistic way of seeing the world. The father must be able to say “here is what I have done with what I am, now it’s up to you to do something that is entirely your own, with the name that I am handing down to you.”

The feeling of irresponsibility causes the father to say: ” My name, which is also yours, brought me unhappiness, made me what I am today; and in transmitting it to you, I also transmit to you this destiny.” The symbolic weight of the father’s words must make the child aware that the transmission is not a form of alienation or conditioning, but rather the very condition for freedom itself. Infantilzation, irresponsibility, victimization – all of which characterize the prison experience – can jeopardize the father’s function in transmitting his life story. Fathers often grow resigned, which has multiple repercussions on the child’s development.

Psychosocial impediments to exercising paternal function

I have previously attempted to describe the various elements that risk perturbing the father’s attachment to his child and hindering his ability to assume the paternal function. If I were to focus solely on this psychological perspective, I would run the risk of omitting a major aspect of the difficulties encountered by imprisoned fathers. The bond between the child and his or her imprisoned father is obviously hindered by psychological mechanisms, yet social and psychosocial practices and facts also come into play. The relationship between the child and the imprisoned parent is often impacted by economic difficulties (travel costs) as well as by administrative and juridical resistance or interdictions. It also can be jeopardized by family conflicts or by recomposed families. When these obstacles surface, the Relais Enfants-Parents staff often acts as mediator : between the imprisoned father and the mother of the child; between the father and the institution that has placed the child; between a father on remand and the examining magistrate; and sometimes between the imprisoned father and his child. This role as mediator reveals the relevance of the term “Relais” (relay), which is particularly relevant with respect to fathers who are foreigners or of foreign origin. Too often, when families break down as a result of migration, they face a series of social and psychological obstacles.

The fifteen regional Relais Enfants-Parents associations have been working efficiently for seventeen years to minimize the dissocialising effects of incarceration, effects that would be unwise to deny.

In essence, the individual is linked to his fellow man; reducing a human being to the self, isolating him, inevitably animalizes the individual. In this way, prison sentences devoid of any modicum of freedom lead to a curious contradiction: they deconstruct in order to repair.

The issue of family ties, which are at the crux of this paradox and act as a divide between the humanizing underpinnings of the individual and the most violent and painful machinations, is entangled in issues of an educative, psychological, juridical and social nature. It is thus imperative to foster family ties, without reducing them to a kind of utilitarian role, in which they serve the rehabilitation of the imprisoned parent.

Prison policy cannot instrumentalise family ties, particularly those involving children. Maintaining family ties naturally acts to minimize the dissocialising effects of prison, but they cannot be used to achieve this end. The nuance here is key. In given situations, childcare professionals are often obliged to rely on family ties as a reference. In the case of a severely depressed detainee, for example, Relais professionals have been contacted by prison directors and psychiatric staff members who maintain that the lack of contact with his or her child has aggravated the parent’s mental state. We must show compassion and respect for an inmate’s emotional and psychological distress, yet it is an even greater obligation to avoid attributing any kind of therapeutic role to the child with respect to the parent.

A break-down in family relations is a major factor in difficulties in the rehabilitation process. As early as 1975, Brodsky underscored how prisoners who maintained family ties were less recidivist and encountered fewer disciplinary problems within the prison setting. Yet it is up to the childcare professional, psychologist, paediatrician and pedagogue to evaluate how and to what extent, in certain situations, the relationship between a child and his or her imprisoned parent should be shepherded.

This is why childcare professionals took the initiative in creating the Relais Enfants-Parents associations which work to maintain relationships compromised by imprisonment in more than one-fourth of France’s penal establishments.

These professionals, as previously mentioned, act as mediators in situations in which relationships are compromised by conflicts pitting the prisoner against the other parent or judicial authorities. But our main focus is on the child, accompanying the child to the prison to meet with his or her parent in child-friendly settings. During these visits, we often help the child speak freely and without guilt about what is troubling him.

Children sometimes express fears of being disloyal or of hurting parents when telling them that they don’t want to come as frequently to the prison. At other times, children are puzzled by a parent’s violence and indignation, which is beyond their grasp and frightening to them. It is also important for us to help the child free himself from any feelings of responsibility for a parent’s suffering.

I’d like to illustrate how a parent, unwittingly or not, can make a child feel responsible for his or her distress. One mother, who was serving a twenty-year sentence, said the following to her three children during a visit: “I’m sorry for what I’ve done because it has taken me away from you.” Although these seemed to be affectionate words, as soon as they were spoken, the youngest child started to act out and refused to speak. As they exited the prison, and everyone had calmed down, the person accompanying the children tried to help the child express why he had reacted this way. Almost immediately, the eight-year-old child said in a voice filled with deep disarray yet irritated to no end: “You know, I have nothing to do with mom’s being in prison.”

The Relais Enfants-Parent’s approach revolves around the need to release the child from feelings of guilt or responsibility for a parent’s situation, as well as feelings of disloyalty or shame. Of course it is just as important to work with imprisoned parents to reinforce the parental role and help them surmount obstacles hindering the relationship with the child. But our experience and approach will always be determined by the best interests of the child.

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