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Published in Print: August 17, 2001, as Prison Break

Prison Break

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The children of our growing population of prison inmates are the hidden victims of their parents’ crimes—and yet another challenge for educators.

It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and we stopped for breakfast before making the drive to New York’s Attica State Prison. The two of us talked about what it’s like to visit Dad—this child of 8 was an old hand at this. My God, I thought to myself, I never dreamed I’d be taking one of my students to prison to visit her father. But I needed to learn and try to understand. The child was excited that her principal was taking her out for the day. I had mixed emotions: pleasure that the trip evoked a positive response but anger that any child should ever have to make such a journey.

I had never been to Attica prison. As we rounded the bend, the building towered before us like a castle, and I fleetingly felt as though we had been whisked back to an era of kings, knights, and fair maidens. Reality quickly set in, however, as a van took us to the processing center. I was appalled by what this sweet child had to hear and see as we walked among people engaged in crude conversations. Among other subjects, they were discussing lawyers, arson, and prison time. I wanted to grab her and run.

Once checked in, we were given a number, called, then driven to the main gate, where we were shuffled through a metal detector. A barred gate opened, we stepped in, and it closed behind us. The next gate opened, and this waif and I walked to the building housing the visiting area. On the way, she blurted out, almost as if showing me a piece of family property, “There’s the trailer we stay at when we visit my dad on the weekend.”

The more we talked, the more I took note of this man's genuine concern for his child.

The room in the visiting area was not at all what I’d expected. Its walls were beautifully painted with a collection of Disney characters, the creation of two of the prisoners. One wall was lined with vending machines and microwaves, as visitors were not permitted to bring in food and other items. In one corner of the room was a play area for children, with tables and toys. In another, an inmate snapped Polaroids of inmates with their guests. The room was filled with about 50 tables, where prisoners sat with families and friends. I identified the prisoners not only by their green-colored pants, but also the assigned seats facing the guards.

A guard led us to a table, where we waited. Inmates entered the room one by one. Finally, the door opened, and my pupil’s father came out. The look on her face was one of total, unconditional love. He barely had time to sit down before she climbed onto his lap. And for the next three hours, their interaction touched my heart. She noticed every detail of his face. “Dad, did you see my new hairstyle?” she asked. And she surprised me by saying, “Ms. M., did you know that Mark Chapman was here?” Her father pointed in the direction of the jail cell of John Lennon’s assassin. “My mom loves the Beatles.” For an 8-year-old, she knew so much.

Parental incarceration forces thousands of children each year to endure traumatic separations and family dislocations. These children are much less likely than others to succeed in school.

The more we talked, the more I took note of this man’s genuine concern for his child. There was no pity in his voice, just a desire to do what he had to until his release, and then be the father he really wanted to be. We talked about what I might do as an administrator to help him and his child bridge their separate lives, at least in relation to her education. I suggested parent-teacher conferences via telephone, sending school work to him, providing information about classroom activities, and family visits—even if his little girl had to miss a few days of school. And anything else, I thought, that we can do to keep this child from becoming a statistic.

At the end of the visit, the girl’s father and I embraced. He then slipped me a piece of paper to give to the guard, who handed me an envelope. To my surprise, it contained the father’s handcrafted token of appreciation, a beautiful card. “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart,” it read. I walked out feeling much differently from when I walked in.

Facts carry a heavy burden: The children of our growing population of prison inmates are the hidden victims of their parents’ crimes—and they represent yet another problem placed on the plate of educators, as well as society. Federal statistics show that, in 1999, an estimated 721,500 state and federal prisoners were the parents of roughly 1.5 million children under the age of 18. Parental incarceration forces thousands of children each year to endure traumatic separations and family dislocations. As a group, these children are much less likely than their peers to succeed in school.

For the kids’ sake, the moral and ethical issues that surround the prison system may be less relevant than the care we take to ensure their futures.

Intervention to prevent delinquency and criminal behavior needs to begin at a very young age, according to experts. Dr. Howard Spivak, the chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ task force on violence, has found that 68 percent of chronic offenders may be identifiable in kindergarten. There is an increased statistical likelihood of criminal behavior among the children of prisoners. One study puts the odds that children with imprisoned parents will themselves one day be incarcerated at almost six times that of other kids.

Support services for these children and greater awareness of their plight are imperative if we are going to break the cycle of negative social behavior and involvement in crime. For the kids’ sake, the moral and ethical issues that surround the prison system may be less relevant than the care we take to ensure their futures. What is important to them is how we each—individually and collectively, as educators and as citizens—choose to make a difference, one child at a time.

Vol. 13, Issue 1, Pages 52-54

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