Celebrating Father's Day

The Joy of Reuniting Incarcerated Fathers with their Children

Christian Bizimana
The Child's Journey Program Manager, Prison Fellowship Rwanda

There is nothing more rewarding and life-changing in prison ministry than connecting children with their incarcerated parents. This is especially true when elevated transport costs or complicated visiting regulations create significant barriers. For many children, the inability to see their parents for extended periods is not much different from losing a parent to death. Reuniting with their parents after such a long absence brings life back in every sense.

In our ministry, most incarcerated parents are fathers. While a prison visit can be profoundly impactful, it can also be challenging if the children are not well-prepared for the visit. We have observed that emotional responses vary significantly between boys and girls. Once, while preparing for a visit, after announcing it at one of our events, the children were excited. But I noticed a young girl named Gracie who appeared sad and reserved. Curious, I asked why she was upset. In a soft voice, she revealed that she was not willing to see her father because he was the cause of her family’s miserable life.

Regardless, a father is a father, and that’s the message we want children to embrace. Still, the love for a father is priceless, and we are privileged to witness the emotions that making parental connections comes with—tears, excitement, shock, silence and deep, prolonged hugs.

The journeys we take with these beautiful children, whether going to or coming back from the prisons, are filled with many untold stories. Once, on a three-hour trip to the prison, I sat next to a young girl who silently cried. After giving her some time, I asked why she was crying. It was the first time she had seen her father in 15 years. She didn’t know if he would recognize her or how the experience would unfold, but what really mattered to her was the love they had for each other and how much she missed him.

Connecting children with their parents is like a multicolored package full of surprises. One of the most precious elements inside is forgiveness. Depending on their age, children often arrive with mixed feelings of love, confusion, frustration and much more. We rely on God in these moments. We have been blessed to witness forgiveness between children and their parents, deep vulnerability from the parents, and the restoration of relationships. It is always beautiful and emotional to see parents and children recreating fond memories within the prison’s walls, whether it is playing games, walking hand-in-hand, holding each other, singing, dancing or exchanging gifts. It is also a relief for the children to find their parents in good health.

We’ve noticed that children who connect with their parents perform better in school. On the other hand, many psychological issues we encounter stem from children who do not see their parents, often leading to depression, anxiety and aggressive behavior – to name a few.

I remember an 11-year-old girl who developed high blood pressure. We made sure she received the best treatment we could afford. After stabilizing her condition and putting her on regular medical watch, our dedicated clinical psychologist and caseworker, Shami, recommended a visit with her father. Since that visit, she has not had any blood pressure issues.

Recently, while speaking to a group of professionals about our work, I introduced myself by saying, “I have 1,200 children!”  They thought it was a joke. But again, this reflects how the mothers of these children view us, and how the fathers do too. During a recent visit to a correctional facility, inmates told us that we are the fathers of their children. One parent, in the presence of his three daughters, told me, “Please take care of my children, they are yours!” Since then, they have called me Dad.

To the Prison Fellowship International community: You are fathers and mothers to many grateful children. We are grateful as well that you have made us better fathers and mothers to these beautiful children. I leave you with this Bible verse:

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:4