A Father's Freedom

Father. Husband. Son. These are some of the words that describe the nearly 2 million people currently incarcerated in America. This Father’s Day, we celebrate the resilient incarcerated and formerly incarcerated fathers who find ways to parent their children–to offer advice, make dad jokes, help with homework, and share love–despite the walls that separate them from their families.

Nearly half of all incarcerated people are fathers with at least one child under the age of 18. The effects of mass incarceration on fathers and communities are widespread; 1 in 2 adults have had a family member incarcerated and at least 5 million children have had a parent incarcerated. Having a parent incarcerated is a deeply destabilizing event that can contribute to health issues, problems in school, reduced household income, and make children more vulnerable to future incarceration. In spite of all of these challenges, many incarcerated fathers still manage to maintain strong, loving and present relationships with their children and research has shown that the strength of the parent-child bond can help young people overcome the harms caused by incarceration and succeed in their lives.

Truly honoring Father’s Day requires us to reflect on the human toll of mass incarceration and the punitive policies that unnecessarily separate families without making communities any safer. It is also an opportunity to uplift the incredible fathers forced to show up for their children from behind jail and prison walls. Fathers like Rob G. Rich, a formerly incarcerated father who successfully navigated parenting while enduring and surviving over two decades in prison.

Learn more about Rob in his own words below. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What makes a good dad in your opinion?

Engagement is probably what makes for a good dad. I read an article once while I was incarcerated, it was a father’s day edition, and they were talking about the amount of time that the average father spends engaged in the life of their children. Astonishingly enough, I found that the average father was only spending an average of eight hours per month with their children. It’s one thing to be present in the household but being present isn’t the same as engagement. I started realizing that I could be a far more formidable father in the life of my children just by being intentional. So between two visits a month we were afforded by the state, assuming that my wife was able to get them down early enough in the morning and they would leave late enough in the evening, I would have an average of about sixteen hours that I could be engaged in some way or another with my family, thus allowing me an opportunity to be an above average dad despite my incarceration.

“ I had to figure out creative ways to still hold up to my role as protector.

What was the hardest part of being incarcerated when it came to being a dad?

When we think about the traditional role of a man or a father in a relationship, one of the roles of the father is to be a protector. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to protect when your physical presence is behind bars. I had to figure out creative ways to still hold up to my role as protector. It came with storytelling. It came through being able to give them insight from what my life lessons have given to me, with the hope that when they found themselves in difficult circumstances and challenging times my voice would echo through their senses. Kind of like the bands that they used to wear that say, “What would Jesus do?” Hoping that in these moments, it would be like, “what would Dad do?

"Fathering to me became something more akin to coaching...As an incarcerated father you're sidelined but you can take your team to victory."

How did you think about fathering when you were incarcerated, given you weren't able to be with your sons on a daily basis?

Fathering to me became something more akin to coaching. Coaches are not in the game. They’re not on the field. They’re on the sidelines. They’re outside of the game, yet they still play a very pivotal role in the tempo of the game and how the game is going to conclude, and whether your team is going to win or lose is largely determined by the quality of the coaching happening from the sidelines. As an incarcerated father you’re sidelined but you can take your team to victory. Good coaches make champions.

How do you think incarceration impacted your sons?

They have a whole saying that situations and circumstances don’t necessarily define the man as much as they reveal to him and others who he is. I think incarceration for me, my wife and our children, it proved to us who we are. Because statistically they were supposed to be seven times more likely to be incarcerated themselves, nine times more likely to drop out of high school, more likely to to have children out of wedlock. So, statistically speaking, my kids were set up to fail.

But instead, they became doctors. They’re working in congress in our nation’s capital. Two of our sons have served tours of duty in our nation’s military. Our youngest son completed highschool and is headed to college at age 16 following in the footsteps of his older brothers. Our oldest paid his way through college by working a full-time job and then pursued further studies as a sommelier. Each of them chose to succeed in spite of incarceration. Incarceration revealed excellence and success regardless of circumstances.

What do you want people to know about the criminal justice system?

One thing that I would want people to know about the system is that the system of slavery is still alive. It has just taken on new forms. Mass incarceration is probably the latest outgrowth of that peculiar institution and it is, much like slavery of old, backed, supported, and enforced by law. The 13th Amendment is thriving in our nation’s courts daily—enslaving Black and poor people in record numbers that tower above the early years.

How do you think your kids would describe you?

Man, that was kind of scary for a moment, because as parents we do a lot of stuff and we hope that it sticks right. In preparation for today’s interview, I sent out a group text and I asked: “What do you all think about my fathering?” And my eldest son, he’s the dentist of our family, our family’s first doctor, said that he thought that I was “caring, loving, and thoughtful.” Then he said, “if I had to give an idea of who I believe that you are as a father, you would be a mix between Will Smith’s character in Pursuit of Happiness and Denzel Washington’s character in John Q.” I was like, wow, okay, I accept that! 

More about Rob G. Rich

Father, husband, author, cultural provocateur, change agent and subject of the Academy Award nominated film TIME, Rob G. Rich is a formerly incarcerated person who spent more than 21 years behind bars before receiving clemency in 2018. Rob is more popularly known as 1/2 of the dynamic duo FoxandRob. Following his release from prison Rob started Rich Family Miniseries whose mission is to change lives and laws through love. Understanding that “to be free is to free others” Rob along with Fox launched an initiative of the Participatory Defense Movement in the Crescent City of New Orleans. PDMNOLA as the organization is more affectionately known teaches Legal Awareness as a best form of defense to those who are Justice Involved. PDMNOLA measures its success by the amount of time they save someone opposed to the amount of time they have been sanctioned to serve. To date their organization has saved more than 3,400 hundred years of time for families whose prison sentences had no end in sight. But, above all Rob’s greatest achievement and life’s work is his 6 sons who he shares with wife Fox Rich. Rob has dedicated his life to taking his mess-turn-message to engage others on the importance of family and the value of freedom.

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