Suwannee Democrat

Local News

August 22, 2013

Little children, big challenges-Fla. prisons institute new program

Jasper — The Florida Department of Corrections Region II facilities held Sesame Street Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration events and activities on Saturday, Aug. 17, during their regularly scheduled visitation and Hamilton Correctional Institution was one of the participating facilities.


The program

Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration is a new resource for children and their families to help them cope with the reality of incarceration. Florida was one of 10 pilot states that launched the resource and the Florida DOC partnered with Sesame Street on the project at no cost to the DOC.

With a total of about 64,475 minor children reported by Florida inmates, the program is attempting to fill a need to help children who have a parent in prison cope with the situation and strengthen family bonds, while also entertaining them with an age appropriate video, compliments of Sesame Street and other fun activities.

The program is designed to support and comfort, as well as reduce anxiety, sadness and confusion that young children may experience during the incarceration of a parent; provide at-home caregivers with strategies, tips, and age-appropriate language they can use to help communicate with their children about incarceration; inform incarcerated parents that they can parent from anywhere; and provide them with simple parenting tips highlighting the importance of communication.

The number of children with an incarcerated parent has increased nearly 80 percent in the past 20 years. With nearly 2.7 million children having a parent in state or federal prison, there are few resources in existence to support young children and families with this life-changing circumstance.

Sesame Street Workshop worked closely with advisors and partners in the pilot states to distribute and integrate the program into the correctional facilities and organizations that specialize in early childhood education, mental health and counseling, parenting programs, foster care, and organizations that have missions specific to helping families cope with the incarceration of a loved one.

The partnership between the Department and Sesame Street Workshop is a collaboration that will allow for the dissemination of these much needed resources in Florida institutions for incarcerated family members, children, caregivers and loved ones.

The DOC has created a resource page on their web site with a variety of resources and materials which can be previewed at www.dc.state.fl.us/oth/children/.

Hamilton CI

At Hamilton CI, inmates and their families were able to congregate in the chapel to watch a Sesame Street video. The kids got to enjoy games like Simon Says, Red Light/Green Light and a beanbag toss. They were also given crayons and sheets with popular Sesame Street characters that they could color. Cookies and punch were provided and served by two inmates.

The first group of about 20 people, inmates and their families, arrived in the chapel about 9:45 a.m. and were greeted by Assistant Warden Robert Smith and several of his staff. After Warden Smith’s opening remarks, the video was played. It addressed a variety of things and included an explanation of what incarceration means. It also assured the kids that their confused feelings are natural. They were encouraged to talk to adults about their feelings and they were reminded that “It’s never a kid’s fault.”

Smith told the group that each household would be given a packet of information on the program, including a copy of the video and some parenting tips to take home with them.

“It’s a pretty interesting video and it really hits home,” said Smith. “When you see it, it’s a true testament of what it does to the parent and what it does to the child.”

Smith went on to say, “We are trying to make a difference in the inmate population so that all inmates, when they get a chance to go home, they are productive citizens.”


The inmates speak out

The media was invited to attend the event and were given the opportunity to speak with inmates and visitors who participated in the day’s events.

Hamilton CI Inmate Terell Warren is 34-years-old and serving a 25-year sentence for attempted murder. He’s looking at a release date of 2028 and has been incarcerated since 2003. He said he is trying to get into the masonry or electrician trade program at the prison.

Warren’s sister Margaret Owens brought his 10-year-old son Shawn to visit during the event. This new program, Warren said, will help him get to know his son better. Shawn said he enjoyed the video and he had fun with all the activities and being able to spend time with his father.

Warren said, “I believe this is a good program. I think this is a lot better than the regular visits.”

Twenty-nine-year-old inmate Kevin Muniz said, “It’s nice that they’re finally doing something different, since we don’t have much to look forward to. So, when they do something special like this, it means something to us. While I was watching the video, I got a little emotional. It kinda made me feel like a piece of crap, but I get a second chance,” he added.

Muniz is from Tampa and it’s been six years that he’s been behind bars, serving time for vehicular homicide.

“I got into a car accident and somebody died,” said Muniz. “I wasn’t drunk or anything. I had marijuana in the car, but I wasn’t under the influence.”

Muniz has two sons, ages six and eight, who were brought to the event by Muniz’s parents. He said the boys seemed to be having a lot of fun, especially with the beanbag toss game.

Speaking about one of his sons, Muniz said, “I know my son still loves me and we have a good relationship, but I know it’s also affected him, with me being away from him.”

Muniz said he was able to obtain his GED while incarcerated and is still hoping to get into some sort of vocational training before he leaves the facility. He said he would like to learn a trade in order to have a shot at getting a decent job when he gets out of prison, so that he can provide for his sons, although, he said he knows how difficult it is for a convicted felon to find employment.

“It’s going to be hard,” said Muniz. “It’s pretty much working in the sun and breaking your back everyday or working for yourself.”

Muniz continued, saying, “Stuff happens in life. It’s not about falling down, because we all fall down, but it’s about getting up. So, I know I got a second chance at life. At least I have the opportunity to progress, get healthy and get my mind right.”

Muniz, at the end of the interview said, “Not everyone who goes to prison is a bad person. I only got two more years to go. I’m almost home, man.”

 

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