POPS: Pain of the Prison System – program for children of incarcerated parents

Posted: July 30, 2013 in Resources
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THE FORMER “DESPERADO’S WIFE” NOW HELPS KIDS COPE WITH THE PAIN OF HAVING AN INCARCERATED PARENT

by Amy Friedman



When I first met Dennis Danziger over a decade ago, I was reluctant to tell him anything about my first husband. Finally, after Dennis and I had known each other for a couple of months and as we were falling in love, I confessed my secret: that my ex-husband had been in prison for murder when we met and married and was now serving a lifetime parole. Dennis, who is a writer and teacher at Venice High School and is an exceptionally compassionate, accepting person, initially had the reaction I had over the years come to expect.

He expressed disbelief and fear—for his safety and for his children’s.

That fear infuriated me. We spent hours talking as I tried to educate him about prisoners. To begin with, that they are human beings not caricatures, I told him. My ex and I had separated amicably and his sole interest was in living a quiet, law-abiding life, that he had no interest in Dennis and certainly not Dennis’s children.

Still, Dennis struggled with what clearly felt to him as the threatening shadow of my past, but we continued to talk about about his preconceptions and fears. Then I finally introduced Dennis to my stepdaughters, who were by then in their twenties, he fell completely in love with them.

His relationship with the girls was the window through which Dennis began to understand the prejudice and punishment so many prisoners’ families and friends face for having committed no crime; the only thing the girls (and I) had done was love someone who had done something terrible and was locked up and paying for it.

And there was another change meeting my step daughters brought to my new husband. Until he met me, Dennis assumed he did not know anyone—at least not well—who was related to a prison inmate. It turned out he was wrong. When he started paying closer attention to hints dropped by his students in stories they were writing, he began to suspect what they were not writing. Over time, he discovered that in nearly every class he taught–first at Palisades Charter High and later at Venice High–he had at least one student who was coping with the heartbreak of having a parent inside, or a friend, or a brother or sister or cousin. The students ranged across ethnic, socioeconomic, and racial boundaries.

Quietly, carefully, my kind (and newly informed) English teacher husband helped his students to tell begin to tell these stories.

According to a 2010 study, one in 28 children in this country have a parent in prison (two thirds of whom are in for non-violent offenses). Given the vast numbers we imprison in this country, this fact is not surprising. Since 1980 the US prison population has grown by 790%. We have the largest prison population in the world, with 2.5 million men and women in prison and more than seven million on some sort of probation or parole. Yet, while there is a lot of conversation in California and around the nation about the cost/benefits of our hyper-aggressive incarceration policy, there is too little discussion about the collateral effect that same policy has on the children (and siblings and friends) of those in prison.

For a long time after Dennis and I married in 2002, we thought and talked about those kids. Then one day in early 2013 several things happened, all right in a row, that forced us to stop merely thinking, and start acting:

First, last December I published a memoir, Desperado’s Wife, about my life when I was married to a man inside.

On the day the book was released, my eldest stepdaughter, who is in her 30s now, called to tell me she never wanted to speak to me again. I wept, of course. But I also understood her anger. She spent her entire life hiding this one fact of her life—that her dad had been a prisoner—and she didn’t want to be outed. She didn’t want to remember the families who wouldn’t let her visit their homes when she was young, or the misery and insults of prison visits, or the loneliness and fear and prejudice she faced throughout her childhood and early adulthood.

A few days after she called, Dennis got a letter from one of his favorite former students. When he was 17, John was arrested for shooting someone in the shoulder. The victim was in and out of the hospital that night. But to our horror and sorrow, John was tried as an adult and sentenced to serve 22 years in state prison.

Dennis had recently visited him in New Folsom, and now John was writing to ask Dennis to share his cautionary tale with his students, which he did. When Dennis came home from school, the day when he recounted John’s story, he told me about a miracle that had occurred. Dennis had just finished relating to the kids what had happened to John, ending with, “So a few weeks ago I went to New Folsom to visit him…”

As he was talking, a student named Kylie lifted her head from her desk, and raised her hand. Dennis was stunned. School had been in session for 26 weeks, and prior to that day, Kylie had never said a word in class. But on this day, she began to talk.

“My brother’s at New Folsom…” she said, her tone at first tentative. “I visit him…” As she spoke, she seemed to gain confidence. Kylie kept talking. And talking. It was as if that word Folsom had unleashed a torrent of memories she suddenly was able to share with the people in this classroom and, once started, the flood of words had a force of their own.

In class, high school students generally do not speak at length, and Dennis wondered if he ought to stop her, but the kids were rapt. They wanted to hear Kylie’s story, and Kylie clearly needed to tell it. So he stayed silent and listened, and when she was finished her face had changed—her eyes were bright, the habitual strain in her expression had washed away.

After Dennis told me of the Kylie miracle, I said, “We should start a club for these kids.”

“Let’s do it,” he said.

We began making plans.

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