By Boston Woodard
Of those in for nonviolent crimes, America has the largest prison population in the world, with 2.5 million men and women in prison and more than seven million on some sort of probation or parole (www.rawstory.com/rs/201 OI0910ne-28-kids-parent-jail-study/). Amy Friedman and husband Dennis Danziger met just over 10 years ago. Friedman is an author and creative writing teacher. Danziger, also an author, has taught English and sports literature in Los Angeles Unified School District. Together, they envisioned and organized one of the most needed and important school clubs in the state: Pain of the Prison System, better known as “POPS.”
Danziger began to see and understand the prejudices and punishment so many prisoners’ families and friends face for having committed no crime; they are guilty of only loving someone who did something bad and is in prison for it. Danziger began to notice what some of his students were not writing about—their parents. He soon learned that students, ranging across many cultural, socioeconomic and racial boundaries, had parents behind bars.
One of Danziger’s Venice High School students, Kylie, a normally quiet student, opened up to the club about her brother’s incarceration. “It was as if that word Folsom had unleashed a torrent of memories she suddenly was able to share,” said Danziger. He let Kylie tell the story, something she clearly needed to do as the rest of the class sat captivated listening to her.
After Danziger told Friedman of the “Kylie miracle,” Friedman suggested, “We should start a club for these kids.”
They organized a set of objectives for the club. The club’s mission statement proclaims: “POPS is a school club that welcomes all those students (and other school personnel) whose lives have been touched by prison. We offer a space where members are encouraged to express their truths. POPS recognizes potential where others might see only despair. We thrive on seeing the world as it is while imagining it as it could be. POPS creates hope by tackling shame and fear and building a community based on dignity and openness.”
“The club is about prison,” said POPS member Alondra . “My brother accompanied me to the club, which meets for lunch. At least 15 students showed up, probably more, and what happened over the next 25 minutes was not what I could have ever anticipated,” said Alondra. “My brother and I, who are usually quiet people, became surprisingly open and talkative. Ariel immediately began pouring out his emotions. He couldn’t stop. I followed,” said Alondra.
“Seeing some of the kids climb out of their embarrassment, their silence, their shame and fear—Wow! It’s amazing,” said Friedman.
Their dad went to jail for a little more than two months. “It was like a bomb went off in our family,” said Alondra. After his release, her dad came to the club to say thank you, and their mom brought treats in appreciation for what POPS had done for her children during Ernie’s jail period.
Friedman’s third memoir, Desperado’s Wife, tells of her marriage to a man in prison that ended amicably after seven years and her struggle to endure the hardships of imprisonment. After marrying Danziger in 2002, they began to discover how many of Danziger’s students had become caught up in the misfortune of having a parent in prison.
The idea of POPS began to emerge. Danziger and Friedman’s dream is to see a POPS club in every school. The thought and hope is to lift the shame and sorrow from those young people who must deal with the reality of having a parent behind bars—through no fault of their own.
Anastasia Stanecki, co-founder of POPS, who resides in Los Angeles, writes personal essays and works in the entertainment business as a successful film world denizen, said she found her soul purpose with her work with the young people in the POPS club. “It is by far the most important work I have ever done and I am truly thankful,” said Stanecki. “I have found these kids, I draw strength from their willingness and courage, and I take it with me when I leave that classroom in Venice High. I am a better woman for it.”
Of the day Stanecki walked into the Venice High School classroom to speak with the POPS kids, she remembers, “I have never felt stronger. That day I didn’t know what to say or what I would do, but I knew with all my being that I was right where I was supposed to be, and so the words came with ease.”
During a club meeting, “one speaker explained how her life became so difficult that she turned to drugs and alcohol and her sister attempted suicide multiple times,” said Alondra. The young women Alondra talked about so expressively have become successful businesswomen and “turned their loss and sadness into a nonprofit organization that helps women who have been victims of violence.”
In a significant piece of prose, POPS club member Nelvia articulates an anguish harbored by many youth with a parent in prison. “Seen him a few times…all that’s left in my household are negative comments, with a bad vibe. But you will find him behind bars, in jail, wearing an orange jump suit—black numbers on the left side of his chest.”
Sometimes teenagers, and the younger generation in general, don’t have an opportunity to express themselves, their feelings about what’s going on in their lives or what’s important to them. POPS gives them an opportunity to open up and be themselves.
The POPS school club provides a comfortable environment for students to relate circumstances in their lives. POPS provides a safe and nurturing community for those who have endured the Pain of the Prison System. “We are daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, friends, wives and husbands of people in prison, on probation and on parole,” said one member.
POPS also allows young men and women to be young people. E’majin wrote about a young student she saw at school whose magnetism astounded her. “He’d transferred from a school across town. A month went by, and I had been dying to say at least one word to him, a ‘hi’ maybe,” said E’majin.
“My friend told me he was interested in getting to know me, but I didn’t even know his name…she gave me a note from him: ‘I’m transferring back to my old school…I didn’t get a chance to talk to you….I hope you call…if you don’t I can understand that too.’” It was signed Allen. “His name was Allen. I thought it was a nice name,” said E’majin.
The significance here is Harris had a chance to share this part of growing up with POPS club members and staff. It was an opportunity for this young lady to talk about what all teenagers experience in their young lives.
Friedman suspects that from the number of people writing them and visiting the Web site and liking them on Facebook, the club will keep growing. “It clearly is a club that strikes a nerve,” said Friedman.
Another supportive element added to the POPS format is “Spoon-ful of Wisdom.” Since 1978, Spoon Jackson has served a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence for a crime he committed when he was a teenager. While serving his sentence, Jackson has published several books (and is a recipient of four PEN American Center Prison Writing Program awards); he’s an actor, poet, a teaching artist and is featured in Michael Wenzer’s award-winning 2011 documentary At Night I Fly—Tales from News Folsom.
“Spoon-ful of Wisdom” is a question-and-answer forum where Jackson answers queries posed by POPS club members about the prison system. Jackson understands the heart and welcomes inquiries on many prison issues.
One young person asked Jackson, “I’m going to visit my dad in prison for the first time in 11 years. Is there anything I should know or specifically prepare for?”
Jackson’s response in part was, “Your dad will be blessed and beyond happy to see you—it will be like paradise on earth to him, and his smiles and laughter will be endless, like a big sunset. The visiting room is a special, sacred place for us—a place of honor full of love and family.”
“My godfather has been away in prison since I was three years old. I want to try and make his life better. Is there anything I can do?” asked another POPS club member.
“Yes! Just be yourself and stay in touch with him by mail. Also, grow and be and do the best you can with your life. That will also make your godfather’s life better. As long as he has your love, faith and realness in his life, he won’t feel so abandoned,” answered Jackson. (Ask Jackson by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Mike, a student who has been there (with the club) since the beginning, stood up and said, “I have a confession. I don’t have a relationship to prison of any kind, but I came originally because my friend E’majin was coming and she said there was lunch. But then I started listening to your stories, and I began to understand so much more about the world and to care so much about you. And it helped me to see my own life in a completely different perspective, so I couldn’t stop coming.”
Co-founder Stanecki said, “I can sit there with one of these kids and even though we are in different parts of our lives, or from different neighborhoods, I can listen to him, and I can look at him and I can say to him…I understand.”
Some of the activities POPS is beginning to achieve are hosting guest speakers such as documentary filmmaker Christina McDowell, whose father went to prison when she was 18. McDowell has been doing films on prison and art projects. POPS speaker Bruce Lisker served 26 years in prison. Lisker was eventually cleared of having anything to do with the murder for which he was wrongfully convicted. Other guests come from various organizations. A mural is also in the works for the POPS club, which they hope to display inside Venice High School.
Guest speaker Nancy Mehagian told the story of her two years spent in Holloway Prison in England 40 years ago and raising her newborn daughter there. The kids were rapt, just as they had been while listening to Lisker.
As Friedman and Danziger develop POPS, they will be posting on their Web site “Here’s How to Start a Club” in the coming weeks. Their hope is to reach out to other teachers and encourage them to start clubs at their school.
POPS is applying for 501(c)3 status. Their demanding schedule as educators, editors, ghostwriters and writers—without a bigger team, more volunteers or staff—keeps progress slow.
Lunch for the POPS club is a vital part of the POPS experience. “Nothing fancy,” said Friedman. Peanut butter sandwiches, brownies, juice and water, chips and whatever can be hustled up for the kids. “Lunch nourishes all of us. It makes the club a place of nourishment, spirituality, emotionally and physically. And lunch puts everyone in a good mood—another element of bonding.”
Food donated to the POPS club lunch program is a welcomed blessing. A POPS supporter, fellow Venice High School teacher Tory Toyama, received a donation of 40 loaves of bread and 40 pastries from Panera Bread for the lunch program. One local vendor, Pitfire Pizza, has offered to donate free pizza for POPS club members one every other month. Others have stepped up to contribute to POPS. Le Pain Quotidien donates their leftover baked goods every Tuesday night. Susan Broussard and Nicole Quessenbury, two chefs, frequently make lunch for POPS club members.
One would think such an important youth program would draw support from local politicians and community leaders. According to Friedman, “So far, no local officials [or community leaders] know about POPS and no one is yet involved.” Their support and participation would be a huge boon to the club.
There are countless young boys and girls across America who are in this world with an enormous void in their lives through no fault of their own. The social stigma children experience as a result of a parent behind bars can have longstanding negative ramifications. POPS the club gives them a place to be who they are—young people with dreams and aspirations. Friedman, Danziger, Stanecki and all those in support of the club are excited about the positive upshot of life after POPS.
Friedman said, “Whenever we’re in a room with the kids, it’s as if that room has lifted off the floor the sense of community, comradeship, safety, understanding, joy—yes, joy—at no longer carrying a secret so many of these kids have carried.”
If you’ve been touched by someone in your life being in prison, on probation or parole and want to help the kids in the POPS club, contact Friedman and Danziger at email@example.com or at POPS the Club, Venice High School, 13000 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90066. People can read more about the POPS club at www.popstheclub.com.
(Author’s note: “I was a POPS kid before there was a POPS club.”)
Boston Woodard is a prisoner/journalist who writes for the Community Alliance and the San Quentin News. He wrote for the Soledad Star and edited The Communicator. Boston is the author of Inside the Broken California Prison System, which is available at www.amazon.com, www.fresnoalliance.org and www.humblepress.com. Learn more at www.brokencaliforniaprison.com. Write him at Boston Woodard, B-88207, 2NB-101, S.Q.S.P., San Quentin, CA 94974.