By Boston Woodard
On Sept. 18, a first of its kind symposium was held inside the California Medical Facility (CMF) state prison in Vacaville. POPS (Pain of the Prison System) the Club is for students who have endured the hardship of having a loved one incarcerated.
With 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States (quadrupled since 1980) millions more are affected. The young children of the incarcerated experience many difficulties due to the prison system through no fault of their own.
POPS the Club cofounders Amy Friedman, author of Desperado’s Wife, and her husband, Venice high school teacher/author Dennis Danziger, recognized a need to help students with a loved one being behind bars. In February 2013, when they launched the first POPS the Club at Venice High School in southern California, they had no idea it would bloom into a model for high school clubs throughout California and beyond.
Due to a strong belief in its principles, staff and prisoners at the CMF enthusiastically invited POPS the Club’s founders to a general assembly. They spoke to more than 300 prisoners, most of whom have a direct connection with POPS kids or were POPS kids themselves. It was standing room only in the CMF’s Aaron J. Kuk Memorial Gymnasium.
CMF Warden Robert Fox opened the symposium by welcoming Friedman and Danziger to the CMF and recognizing the importance of their work. Fox approved the POPS symposium, allowing for one of the largest CMF events in years.
Dave Hudson, academic instructor for the Disability Placement Program (DPP) and director of the CMF’s musicology program, spoke about the vital need for programs like POPS. Working with the CMF’s Mountain Oaks Adult Educational Center’s Principal F. Farmer, Hudson and several teachers’ aides spent weeks making sure the POPS symposium was not only interesting and informative, but also as welcoming as possible for Friedman and Danziger.
“POPS the Club is a long-needed support system to high school students whose lives are impacted by family members who are incarcerated,” said Hudson. “Participants can now share their experiences with ‘POPS kids’ and realize that they are not alone. Their self-esteem is elevated and their isolation disappears. The pain of the prison system chain is broken!”
Friedman and Danziger explained to a rapt audience that POPS the Club is designed much like the original LGBT club, which started in 1988 in one Massachusetts school. It was to support those students struggling with stigma. Shame, silence and sorrow connected with loving someone inside.”
Prisoner Gerrard Hite said, “POPS the Club creates an atmosphere for prisoners’ family members (especially students) to be active and part of a welcoming community, a community that breaks bread and breaks down barriers that may hinder students.”
Burch Bowen explained, “I personally have two children who are ‘POPS kids,’ affected by my incarceration. I support POPS the Club 110% and I’m in awe of what Amy, Dennis and all POPS supporters and volunteers have given to this program.”
Among the hundreds of listeners at the event was Reverend Keith Knauf who has worked as the CMF’s Pastoral Care Services/Hospice Unit Chaplain for 20 years. Friedman and Danziger were given a tour of the hospice unit by Knauf. They saw the astonishing amount of attention and care hospice patients receive at the CMF.
“I recently had the honor of attending a POPS presentation. Amy and Dennis touched the hearts of all who heard them,” said Rev. Knauf. “It is not uncommon to see fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and cousins from the same family incarcerated at the same time or at alternating times. This really feeds hopelessness because of our society’s inability to rehabilitate.”
Loneliness and shame are inherently connected to the prison system, and that shame has silenced many prisoners’ loved ones. POPS the Club offers friendship, camaraderie, community and an opportunity for students to tell their stories.
Adan Murillo, pastoral care volunteer and office clerk, said, “It was a pleasure meeting two generous hearts such as Amy and Dennis, who do amazing things for some amazing students. What an honor for me.”
Friedman and Danziger told the POPS story in tag-team fashion. While Friedman gave a sequential account of POPS’ history, Danziger read several passages from Ghetto by the Sea, POPS the Club’s second annual anthology. At times during the readings, the entire gymnasium became quietly engrossed.
Prisoner author Michael “Ice Mike” Davis, who addressed the assembly with his take on POPS, said, “There wasn’t a POPS the Club around when I was growing up, so I jumped at the opportunity to write a piece published in Ghetto by the Sea, related to my pain in the prison system. That was an honor for me.”
After reading the two POPS the Club anthologies, the CMF’s Volunteer Education Program teacher, David Birt, said, “The wonderful, evocative poems and short essays contained in Runaway Thoughts and Ghetto by the Sea are about the true price of mass incarceration. Prison affects much more than those imprisoned. It affects all of us, and we as a society should let the voices of these children lead to meaningful reform.”
Dave Lavorico has been the recreational supervisor (“coach”) at the CMF for almost three decades. “I’ve witnessed hundreds of events held in our gymnasium over the years. The POPS event not only drew one of the largest groups of spectators I’ve ever witnessed in our facility,” said Lavorico, but “the message by Friedman and Danziger delivered regarding what they do for students who have been affected by the criminal justice system was extremely important and comforting to our inmate population.”
Because the CMF is a medical and general population facility, many attendees were men who experience challenges with mobility, vision and/or hearing. An interpreter was provided by Principal Farmer to facilitate those who required help. Wheelchairs and walkers lined the front rows of the gymnasium with many more queued along the perimeter’s walls.
Principal Farmer approved a school general assembly to welcome Friedman and Danziger. In addition to the students, more than a hundred non-students from various groups throughout the prison were invited to learn about POPS the Club. Farmer coordinated the event, which included a luncheon where Friedman and Danziger spoke with the CMF’s Mountain Oaks Adult Educational Center’s faculty.
“It was amazing talking to CMF’s student body and educational staff,” said Friedman. “Dennis and I really enjoyed our time with them. I want them to know that we are extremely grateful. Dennis and I thank Warden Fox and his administration, Mountain Oaks Adult Educational Center’s students and faculty, and all the volunteers who assisted in making our trip inside an unforgettable one.”
Marvin Mutch said, “POPS the Club, in giving voice to those who are normally left to silence, has empowered those discarded and forgotten lives caught in the undertow of California’s prison system. Using art, music, creative writing and a sense of family, Amy and Dennis encourage the whispered telling of each unique and hidden story.”
CMF’s Chief Deputy Warden, D. Cuevas, and Public Information Officer, A. Gonzalez. Cuevas and Gonzalez talked with Friedman and Danziger about POPS and the importance of such programs for students affected by the prison system.
Some of the speakers who have visited POPS students are author Luis J. Rodriguez, Inspector General Robert Barton, former NBA player Cuttino Mobley and Hollywood film producer and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Scott Budnick.
The event concluded with several songs by The Academics, a core group of CMF musicians who are part of the musicology incentive program within the CMF’s Education Department.
According to Education Week, “Having a member of the household go to prison is one of the key ‘adverse childhood experiences’ that California studies found to contribute to significant health, educational and social problems for children even decades later.”
POPS the Club is expanding to four more high schools in southern California and one in Oakland, with others in Minnesota, Washington state and Toledo, Ohio. The club is in conversations with schools across the state of California. POPStheClub.com, Inc., is a California public benefit corporation that creates support clubs in high schools.
Additional information about POPS the Club may be obtained at POPS the Club, P.O. Box 10461, Marina del Rey, CA 90295, or www.popstheclub.com.
Boston Woodard is a prisoner/freelance journalist and author who has been writing for the Community Alliance newspaper since 2005.