Alex, a fuzzy blue-haired Muppet, was hanging out with his friends, Abby Cadabby, Rosita and Sophia on a special “Sesame Street,” when he suddenly got very sad. His pals had been talking about having good times with their dads.
“My dad is, my dad’s in jail,” he told his friends, head hung low, appearing to be embarrassed and ashamed.
“Why?” asks Rosita, a turquoise Muppet with a yellow bow in her hair.
“I don’t like to talk about it. Most people don’t understand,” Alex says, mumbling.
“Actually, I do understand what you’re going through,” says Sophia, a human character on “Sesame Street.”
“When I was about your age, my dad was incarcerated, too.”
She explains to the Muppet children that “‘incarcerated’ is when someone breaks the law — a grown up rule — and then they have to go to jail or prison.”
“I know how hard it can be, Alex,” she says.
“Yeah, it’s hard,” Alex says quietly.
Then, Sophia sings a song to Alex about other kids like him:
“You’re not alone. I’ve been there, too. Many children have. Many are like you.”
Just like Alex, Justin Jones, former director of the Oklahoma Corrections Department, had a father who was in and out of jail when Jones was a child.
Oklahoma has the highest rate of incarcerated women, per capita, in the world, and one of the highest rates of men in prison. As a result, Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of children with a parent behind bars.
Consequences of addiction
Jones’ dad got in trouble often for his drinking in the small town of Maysville. Throughout his childhood, Jones suffered the consequences of his father’s addiction.
“Anything that happens in your life becomes part of you,” Jones said.
He said everyone in town knew about his dad and figured he’d turn out to be trouble, too. His teachers didn’t have any expectations of him.
“So I gave them exactly what they wanted. Nothing,” he said.
A recent study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that “parental incarceration is independently associated with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavioral or conduct problems, developmental delays, and speech or language problems.”
One in 12 Oklahomans is a convicted felon, Jones said. And children with an incarcerated parent face a 70 percent higher likelihood of becoming prisoners themselves than do those without incarcerated parents.
Jones beat those odds and has spent his career in corrections, working to lower the numbers of prisoners, lower recidivism, improve prison conditions and promote education as a means of staying on the right side of the law.
It was a mentor his junior year of high school, English teacher Mrs. Bradley, who finally broke through the class clown facade Jones had been hiding behind. He credits her with taking an interest and showing Jones his true aptitude.
After retiring from 38 years at the Corrections Department, Jones now works across the country as a corrections consultant, but he’s taken on a special project in hopes of making an impact on the lives of children who are much like he was.
Jones is the new chairman of the board for Little Light Christian School, which is held at Lone Star Baptist Church, E Hefner Road and Eastern Avenue. The private Christian school started in 2012 and has seven “little lights” — elementary school children who have a parent behind bars.
Things like depression, misbehavior, restlessness, and anxiety are normal in these kids’ worlds. Just removing the stigma of having an incarcerated parent opens doors to learning for these students, Jones said.
“Getting (offenders and their children) the desire and passion to learn and understanding that education is the key to freedom, is the goal. And freedom is not going to prison. Freedom is being able to go through life and make choices,” Jones said.
When he was corrections director, Jones liked to show up unannounced during visiting hours on the weekends at various facilities, “to see how staff was treating families, families interacting with children, making sure it was all respectable,” he said.
On one such visit, he overheard an inmate visiting with his son.
“When you come to prison, first thing you need to do is sign up for GED classes, because there’s a waiting list,” that father said to his son. When. Not if.
This is one of the obstacles children with incarcerated parents deal with — assuming they, too, will end up in jail.
Jones said a little boy visiting his father in prison once tugged on Jones’ pant leg while his dad was getting him a soda.
“Do you know who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is?” he asked Jones. “You know, he died for my freedom?”
“Really,” Jones said, kneeling down on one knee. “Tell me about that.”
“Well, education is freedom and my dad says if I get an education, that I shouldn’t have to come to prison.”
Opportunities to grow
At Little Light, the students are given an education in the usual topics: math, English, science. But they also get to learn some of the equally important “soft skills,” said the school’s founder and principal, Robin Khoury.
“We teach them manners, respect, we build their self-esteem, teach them to shake hands, speak up when someone asks their name,” Khoury said. The kids participate in music, art, ballroom dancing. They eat two healthy meals and are transported to and from school each day.
Khoury said the school is ready and willing to welcome as many students as need its services. It’s a privately funded school, so donations and volunteers are greatly needed.
New Day Camp is another chance for kids to just be kids. New Day is a free, week-long summer camp held at Cross Point Camp near Kingston especially for children who have at least one parent in jail or prison. The camp is coordinated by Criminal Justice & Mercy Ministries and a network of United Methodist Churches. For 20 years, the camp has been addressing the needs of these kids and providing them a positive affirmation that they don’t have to end up like their parent.
And that they are not alone.
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