The latest U.S. census numbers show that of the 2.5 million incarcerated men and women, one in 28 is a parent, and about two-thirds of these parents are in for non-violent crimes. http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2010/09/one-28-kids-parent-jail-study/
Author Amy Friedman and her husband, Dennis Danziger, a teacher in Venice High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, organized Pain of the Prison System, (POPS) to help children with incarcerated parents.
Danziger said he understands the prejudices that prisoners’ families and friends suffer after a loved one becomes incarcerated. He noticed that when asked to write about their experiences, some of his students left out mention of their incarcerated parents.
But one of Danziger’s students, Kylie, a normally quiet student, finally opened up about her brother’s incarceration. “It was as if that word ‘Folsom’ had unleashed a torrent of memories she suddenly was able to share,” Danziger said. After he told Friedman of the “Kylie miracle,” Friedman suggested, “We should start a club for these kids.”
The ensuing mission statement says, “POPS is a school club that welcomes all those students (and other school personnel) whose lives have been touched by prison. We offer a space where members are encouraged to express their truths. POPS recognizes potential where others might see only despair. We thrive on seeing the world as it is while imagining it as it could be. POPS creates hope by tackling shame and fear and building a community based on dignity and openness.”
“The club is about prison,” said POPS member Alondra Magellanes. She said although their dad went to jail for only a little over two months, “It was like a bomb went off in our family.” Then they went to a POPS meeting. “My brother Arial accompanied me to the club… There were at least 15 students who showed up, probably more, and what happened over the next 25 minutes was not what I could have ever anticipated. My brother and I, who are usually quiet people, became surprisingly open and talkative. Ariel immediately began pouring out his emotions. He couldn’t stop. I followed.”
Friedman says, “Seeing some of the kids climb out of their embarrassment, their silence, their shame and fear, wow! It’s amazing.”
Friedman’s third memoir, Desperado’s Wife, is about her previous marriage to an incarcerated man and her struggle to endure the hardships of the relationship.
Danziger and Friedman say they wish to see a POPS club in every school with the hope to take away the shame and sorrow young people must deal with in having an incarcerated parent.
Anastasia Stanecki, a co-founder of POPS, said, “It is by far the most important work I have ever done, and I am truly thankful. I have found these kids. I draw strength from their willingness and courage, and I take it with me when I leave that classroom. I am a better woman for it. I have never felt stronger. I knew with all my being that I was right where I was supposed to be.”
In a POPS meeting, student Magellanes said, “One adult speaker explained how her earlier life became so difficult that she turned to drugs and alcohol and her sister attempted suicide multiple times.” She said the two of them then “turned their loss and sadness into a non-profit organization that helps women who have been victims of violence.”
The sisters are writer/producer Maxine Lapiduss and branding expert Kelley Whitis. They created “Linda’s Voice,” a program designed to engage, educate and empower women to work together to end domestic violence. Both sisters are now POPS club board members.
POPS student Nelvia Marin, wrote of the anguish harbored by many youths with a parent in prison. “Seen him a few times… All that’s left in my household are negative comments, with a bad vibe. But you will find him behind bars, in jail, wearing an orange jump suit/black numbers on the left side of his chest.”
Another supporter of POPS is Spoon-ful of Wisdom, which is a question and answer forum where inmate Spoon Jackson at Lancaster State Prison answers questions posed by POPS members.
“I’m going to visit my dad in prison for the first time in 11 years. Is there anything I should know or specifically prepare for,” asked one young person. Jackson responded: “Your dad will be blessed and beyond happy to see you—it will be like paradise on earth to him, and his smiles and laughter will be endless, like a big sunset. The visiting room is a special, sacred place for us—a place of honor full of love and family.”
In 1978, Jackson began serving a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence for a crime he committed while a teenager. Jackson published has several books since his incarceration. He’s also received four PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Program awards. Jackson is an actor, poet, a teaching artist, and is featured in Michael Wenzer’s award winning 2011 documentary At Night I Fly—Tales From New Folsom.
“My godfather has been away in prison since I was three years old,” asked another POPS club member. “I want to try and make his life better. Is there anything I can do?” Jackson responded: “Yes! Just be yourself and stay in touch with him by mail. Also, grow and be and do the best you can with your life. That will also make your godfather’s life better. As long as he has your love, faith, and realness in his life, he won’t feel so abandoned.” Jackson may be contacted at email@example.com.
As Friedman and Danziger develop POPS, they say they plan to expand the organization by posting “Here’s How to Start a Club” on their website in an effort to encourage teachers to start clubs at their school.
Lunch is a vital part of the POPS experience. “Lunch nourishes all of us. It makes the club a place of nourishment, spirituality, emotionally and physically. And lunch puts everyone in a good mood—another element of bonding,” said Friedman. “Nothing fancy, peanut butter sandwiches, brownies, juice and water, chips, and whatever can be hustled up for the kids.”
A POPS supporter, fellow school teacher Tory Toyama, received a donation of baked goods from Panera Bread for the lunch program. One local vendor, Pitfire Pizza, has offered to donate free pizza for POPS club members once a month. Others who have stepped up to contribute to POPS are baker Pain Quotidienne, and Susan Broussard and Nicole Quessenbury, two chefs who frequently make lunch.
“Whenever we’re in a room with the kids, it’s as if that room has lifted off the floor—the sense of community, comradeship, safety, understanding, joy, yes joy at no longer carrying a secret so many of these kids have carried,” Friedman said.
Friedman hopes for additional community support. To help write to Friedman and Danziger at firstname.lastname@example.org or to Friedman directly at Friedman@Friedmanfriedman.net or at POPS the Club, Venice High School, 13000 Venice Boulevard, LA, CA 90066. Their website:www.popstheclub.com.
[Author’s note: “I was a POPS kid before there was a POPS club.”]