By STAN STOJKOVIC  Image courtesy twitter.com

MILWAUKEE — IT’S the singular guest at a prison who receives a standing ovation from inmates. I’ve heard of only two: Johnny Cash and Percy Pitzer, a retired warden who in 2012 started a nonprofit corporation to award college scholarships to children of inmates.

I sit on the board of Mr. Pitzer’s group, called the Creative Corrections Education Foundation. I recently went with him to visit some of the inmates at the Milwaukee County House of Correction. It was morning and many were still on their thin mattresses — sleeping, reading, crocheting, playing cards — as he began a day of speeches.

He started in H6, a 60-bed women’s dorm. “Good morning, ladies. I’m Percy Pitzer, from Beaumont, Texas,” he began. He told them that he had made a living for his family by working for the Bureau of Prisons, and that he and his wife wanted to give back. So he’d kick-started a scholarship fund with $150,000 of his own money. But he wanted it to become an inmate-funded venture, and said it would not work without their help.

“Will you help me with the price of a candy bar a month?” he asked.

His audience probably had a sense of the odds working against their children. Close to seven million children in the United States have a parent involved in some form of correctional intervention — jail, prison, probation or parole. More than two million have parents behind bars. The impact is largely focused on minority communities. Families of inmates are left with very little on which to survive, and so the cycle of poverty and crime goes unbroken. According to the American Correctional Association, up to 50 percent of incarcerated juveniles have an incarcerated parent.

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By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Most people can remember when Christmas meant getting up at dawn and running to the Christmas tree in our pajamas excited to see what was under the tree and in the stockings hanging on the mantel.

For children who have parents who are incarcerated, Christmas is not filled with visions of lollipops dancing in their heads; in fact, December 25th is just another day without their parents and can be even more depressing than any other day of the yeImage courtesy www.oklahomawomenscoalition.org ar.

Children who are missing a parent because they are spending time in prison are not only left to deal with loneliness they feel from having an absent parent, but also face ridicule and stereotyping. Many of these lost children are told they are going to turn out just like their parent that is incarcerated.

New Hope, a program created about 20 years ago by the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma is taking a more positive approach for addressing the needs of children who have at least one parent in prison. Instead of reminding children they have no chance of turning out to be productive citizens, they are encouraged to pursue an education. The children are led down a different path than their parents followed.

On Dec. 21, New Hope hosted a Christmas party at Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa. Children whose holidays would have been filled with sadness gathered around a table arranged with decorative trimmings and assembled their own wreaths.   

The church hall was filled with fun, playfulness, and laughter.  Toys, gifts, and food were plentiful. The kids were entertained by making their own reindeer and treats.

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Image courtesy syracuse.comDianne Frazee-Walker

Ricardo Garcia, 28, reads to his nephew, Noah, from a Colorado prison. Garcia is incarcerated for a burglary conviction and parole violation. He has hopes that by exposing his nephew to literature, Noah will have a chance to live a different life than his uncle.

“Before, when I was out on the streets I was not a good example for him,” Garcia said. “I have a desire to be there for him. I want to be a good role model. I really hope they see that education is important and that reading is important.”

Garcia and other inmates are changing the grim statistics that children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to end up in prison.

The reading program, Read to the Children is an innovative idea directed by Diane Waldon, state librarian.

Read to the Children entails inmates who have a good behavior record reading children’s stories to their kids. The parent’s voices are recorded on a DVD and sent to their children or loved ones. The postage is paid by the participating inmates.

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Creating strong family bonds to prevent domestic violence and ensure a peaceful community is what The Elijah Network strives to accomplish. The Elijah Network partners with churches, schools and government agencies to help youth grow in a positive, supportive, faith-based community. 

One of the programs that The Elijah Network is involved with is the Dare to be You program. This program helps to empower adults and youth from diverse communities by focusing on positive development of youth through training, curriculum and technical assistance. 

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