By Dianne Frazee Walker

If you dare to watch the video featured in an online kit made for child advocacy groups and prison programs for children of incarcerated parents, be prepared with a box of Kleenex handy.  

Sesame Street producers have done an extraordinary job of animating a puppet character that perfectly portrays a dejected child who misses his dad because he is in prison.

Image courtesy blog.sfgate.com

Alex is a Muppet with a face shaped like a football, who wears a grey hoodie and has spiked blue hair. His eyes are drooped in sadness.  “My dad is locked up in jail,” Alex mutters in disgrace. “I miss him so much,” he snuffles with his head to his chin. Alex’s human teacher, Sophie, consoles Alex by telling him she understands because her father was in prison, too, when she was little.

The chances are pretty good there would be at least one person who can relate to having a parent in prison because one in every 18 children have a parent incarcerated.

A retired school teacher explained she realized this social disaster is a sign of the times when she overheard her students comparing what color jumpsuits their daddies wore in prison.       

Leave it to the long-running children’s television series Sesame Street to initiate a workshop for children with incarcerated parents. “Little Children, Big Challenges” is an online tool kit intended to help kids with a parent in prison find support and comfort. The videos provide families with strategies and tips for talking to their children about their struggles with having a parent in prison.

Even though Sesame Street has noble intentions for adding Alex to their puppet repertoire, Mike Riggs, writer/editor for Reasons and conspiracy theorist/radio host, Alex Jones are annoyed about the messages the online toolkit interprets. Riggs is angry about the incarceration data in America that warrants a puppet explaining to children the meaning of incarceration. Jones doesn’t agree with the second video in which Alex expresses his emotions about his father spending time in prison because he believes the dialogue between Alex and Sophia misrepresents a “fix-all” for a very serious problem for children growing up without a parent because he or she is in prison.

Riggs and Jones are not criticizing Sesame Street for coming up with a creative approach to dealing with children who have parents in prison. They are appalled at how the US prison population has grown by 790% over the last 30 years, making it the largest prison population of any nation in the history of the world, resulting in a market for tools to help children cope with incarcerated parents.

It’s not Sesame Street’s fault that the growth of prison complexes or the war on drugs has caused many non-violent offenders to sit in jail while their children are being raised by a single parent or someone else. The children’s show is just trying to help innocent kids deal with the consequences of mass incarceration.

 Riggs is absolutely right: That the Sesame Street online toolkit even has to exist in the first place shows how much pointless damage our prison system does not just to people who are caught up in the overly punitive, often racially biased justice system, but also to their families. 

 Sesame Street isn’t the problem, but hopefully the very existence of this video and online toolkit can help wake people up to the way that excessive incarceration is destroying families and hurting the most vulnerable – children.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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