Volunteers Help Teens Who Have Loved Ones in Prison Find an Outlet in Art and Strength in Each Other
Two teens in Los Angeles attend a meeting of a new club at Venice High School for students who have a loved one in prison. Although the girls have been friends since grade school, neither one knew that the other had a father serving time. They hug, relieved to be free of their secret.
More than 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent in prison, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. That’s one of every 28 children.
“You’re not likely to be aware of these kids,” says Dennis Danziger, who has taught English for 22 years in southern California high schools. “There’s such a huge stigma attached to even knowing someone in prison that kids tend to keep the sorrow and pain bottled up inside.”
That’s a pain his wife, writer Amy Friedman, knows firsthand. She met her first husband while he was incarcerated in Canada; at the time, she was writing a series of newspaper columns about prison life. They married while he was still in prison.
Friends and family severed relationships with her, and her husband’s two young daughters refused to let friends or teachers know where their father was, for fear of being ostracized. Her husband was paroled seven years after their marriage, and they later divorced. But Friedman has continued being a mother to the two girls, even after moving to California and marrying Danziger several years later.
Also a writer, Danziger has long encouraged his students to write about their lives and feelings. That’s how he found out some of his students had friends or family members in prison. In 2013, he and Friedman started a club to provide a safe space for high school students struggling with the stress of having a family member or friend in prison – offering community and opportunities for expression.
Today, P.O.P.S (Pain of the Prison System) meets weekly for about a half hour while school is in session. After lunch, donated by area restaurants, students work on writing or art. They share their creations and are coached by Danziger, Friedman and a team of volunteers. Sometimes there is a guest speaker.
“Our vision is that no one should have to struggle alone with the shame, stigma and sorrow too often connected with having a loved one in the prison system,” Friedman says.
“These clubs are a way for students to learn ways to cope and to feel that they are strong enough to create their own paths,” Danziger says. “Turning secrets into stories and poems can set them free.”