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June 9, 2013

"New Sesame Workshop film helps children of jailed parents"

ElmoThe title of this post is the headline of this notable new segment which ran this morning on the CBS Sunday Morning show.  Here are excerpts:

A new program is aiming to make kids in crisis streetwise -- "Sesame Street" wise, that is.  Seth Doane reports:

At 24, Francis Adjei is now the head of his household, a role he never imagined having to play. "One day, we're all together having dinner; following day, she's in jail. And we don't know what to do," he said.

Two years ago his mother, Jackie Pokuwaah, A Ghanaian immigrant, was convicted of grand larceny, and is serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence at a state penitentiary.  Adjei had to drop out of school, and now spends his days managing his siblings' schedules, trying to keep them in school....

"When the police came and took your mom," Doane asked Francis, "did anyone ever explain what it meant to be incarcerated?"

"To the children? No," he replied. "We've never went down that direct path, just kind of been beating around the bush."...

But soon Adjei and his brothers and sisters will find a little help on a familiar street: Sesame Street.

Melissa Dino is in charge of a Sesame Workshop production aimed at helping families like Francis' cope.  She told Doane she was struck by the lack of resources for those with an incarcerated parent.  The new, 30-minute documentary mixes the fictional with real-life.  It will not air on the regular "Sesame Street" show, but will be distributed this week to therapists' offices, schools and prisons.

And there is certainly a built-in audience.  According to the Pew Charitable Trust, there are currently 2.3 million Americans behind bars, the largest prison population in the world, which means one in every 28 kids in the U.S. has a parent in prison.  That's up from one in 125 just 25 years ago.

Some of those 2.7 million minors -- including Francis' sister, Breanna Amankwah -- say they don't like people to know a parent is in prison. "When it comes up in a conversation, I just feel uncomfortable, like, really uncomfortable," she told Doane. "I don't feel like talking. I kind of feel a little stiff, and I don't really feel normal."...

Dino said children sometimes think it's their fault that a parent was incarcerated. "They have difficult, guilty feelings; they have all kinds of feelings. They're not sure how to express them," she said. "Incarcerated" features a Muppet character, Alex, who has experienced a father who is in jail. The colorful character is, in effect, color-blind.

"The beauty of a Muppet," said Dino, "is they can be any color. They can speak to so many different children.  Alex is orange and he's got blue hair, so he doesn't speak to any one particular ethnicity or race.  He speaks to all children."

Sesame Workshop, which let us peek behind the scenes at its nine-month-long process, has in recent years tackled issues from divorce to deployment to death.  And Sesame recognized that incarceration was an issue that affected kids, too.  More than 50 percent (54%) of people behind bars have a child under 18....  So Sesame Street, in its simple, familiar way, is trying to break it down, using imaginary characters to explore — and explain — what was once unimaginable, but now more and more common.

Though the image I have reprinted above is meant to add a little levity to this story, I want to compliment Sesame Workshop for taking on this important and serious issue.  The materials assembled by Sesame at the webpage "Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration", which provides an array of resources as a toolkit for kids and parents, seems to be developed and delivered with a keen sense of the keen problems that modern mass incarceration has helped create for today's families and children.

June 9, 2013 at 10:59 AM | Permalink


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I previously worked with a former employee of the Childrens' Television Workshop.
I have volunteered with Prison Fellowship to help families of prisoners.

// "At 24, Francis Adjei is now the head of his household, a role he never imagined having to play. "One day, we're all together having dinner; following day, she's in jail. And we don't know what to do," he said.
Two years ago his mother, Jackie Pokuwaah, A Ghanaian immigrant, was convicted of grand larceny. ." \\

Here are some of my consistent observations from our facility's inmate population.
They take incarceration somewhat seriously.
They take their crime not-so-seriously, and
they take the victims of their crime, not seriously at all.

Here are my ideas for families of prisoners based on my relationships with them.
The children take incarceration and separation more seriously. If they can be taught
-- by Sesame Street or someone more intimate preferably -- to view crime as evil and victims
as worthy of much more sympathy than their selfish parent, they will have a better future than the criminal.

For innocent family members, much remorse is not necessary, but for the criminal, the crime must be realised
as morally wrong, and being caught and punished be seen as consequential; not unjust, prejudiced, or arbitrary acts
of the state or of karma. All should be sorry for what he did, not for being caught. Otherwise, why not repeat it, emulate it, etc.?

Posted by: Adamakis | Jun 10, 2013 11:01:17 AM

BTW: The pic is mighty revolting, just like the real elmo actor.

Posted by: Adamakis | Jun 10, 2013 12:20:10 PM

BTW: The pic is mighty revolting,

similar to some of your observations and generalizations,

Posted by: Malcolm | Jun 11, 2013 7:52:11 PM

What about the large portion of prisoners nationwide who are being punished for victimless crimes? Maybe all those in the power structure who are imprisoning people for victimless crime could be made to watch this muppet play and somehow be made to empathize with "the children" they are always so eager to pretend they are protecting.

Posted by: 8th Amendment | Jun 14, 2013 10:08:48 AM

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