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.
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