Three years ago, in then-principal Ed Korza's classroom, I had two questions for the inmates at the Bergin Correctional Institution.
How many had not completed high school? How many had a relative — father, brother, mother, etc. — who had also served time? To both questions, hands shot up.
One of the few white prisoners in the room mentioned that not only was his father in prison, but so were his two brothers. "I'm feel like I'm cursed," he told me.
No, there wasn't a hex on this young man, but the odds of him also winding up in prison were predictable — even in Connecticut, where whites are incarcerated at rates significantly below the national average. By contrast, African Americans and Latinos here are incarcerated at rates significantly above the national average, according to a 2004 study by The Sentencing Project in Washington.
"The greatest predictor of whether a child will end up in prison is not their educational status or the community they live in, or their economic status," said Mark Earley, president of the Virginia-based Prison Fellowship organization. "It's whether or not they've had a mother or father in prison."
Call them the forgotten children. Nationwide, there are two million offspring of prisoners who, according to studies, are from five to seven times more likely to wind up in the joint just like dad or mom. In Connecticut, with nearly 20,000 prisoners, it is estimated that 14,000 to 17,000 children have inmates for parents.
Deal with these kids now — or deal with them later through the courts and Department of Correction.
The state's Commission on Children wants to raise the profile of this problem. An informational meeting is scheduled for today, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Legislative Office Building, to discuss how to best provide for children of prisoners.
"As Connecticut's prison population rises, one of the unintended consequences has been the number of families and children that are also impacted when a father or mother goes to prison," said Susan Quinlan, executive director of the Hartford-based Families in Crisis. She was in Chicago Tuesday at a national conference focusing on children of incarcerated parents. Connecticut is one of 14 states granted money from the Soros Foundation to develop programs to serve these forgotten kids.
Last Saturday, I wrote that the state should use the $600 million it now spends on Connecticut prisons and transform them into educational and counseling centers. Inmates, 75 percent of whom are high school dropouts, would not be released until they earned at least a high school equivalency diploma, an associate's degree — if they already had a GED — or learned a trade. The e-mails continue to stream in from folks saying, yeah, why not.
Violent offenders, of course, would still get the extended-stay package.
Poverty + Illiteracy = Prison. It's an unsettling equation and a generational one. To break it, society has to reduce recidivism, but also remind the heirs of inmates that a prison stint is not a birthright, or something in their DNA.
In Connecticut, 75 percent of the inmates are black and brown. Most come from poor urban areas such as Hartford, where almost 70 percent of the households with children are headed by single parents. Earley, who runs the Prison Fellowship program, is a former Virginia senator and state attorney general. For more than a decade he was a proponent of tough-on-crime legislation, but now says Virginia had an "unbalanced approach." The Prison Fellowship has run the Angel Tree program for the last 25 years. The year-round effort connects 500,000 children of inmates to mentors and enrichment programs, through 13,000 churches.
"This group is one of the most 'at risk' of the at-risk children groups in the United States," Earley said.
They deserve better than to their have lives cursed.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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