The Muppets Go To Prison


Alex has blue hair, wears a big hoodie, and has a father in jail.

Say hello to Sesame Street's newest Muppet.

The United States is frequently cited for having the world's highest documented incarceration rate, with over two million inmates in federal and state prisons. But few people are aware that those numbers are matched by the children who inmates leave behind: more than 2.7 million youngsters have an incarcerated parent, according to a 2010 Pew Center study.

That number climbs even higher when you add the approximately 10 million children who have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives, the study says.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street and other media programming for children, has found a way to address the experiences of such kids, who otherwise have few ways to communicate feelings ranging from shame and embarrassment to defiance.

Alex the Muppet with a jailed father, doesn't mince words.

“I don’t want people to know about my dad,” he says in a video produced by the workshop for the toolkit.

Together with experts in the correctional field, workshop staff members developed a tool kit, “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration,” featuring a DVD, a guide for parents and caregivers, and a children's storybook. Sesame Workshop started distributing the materials—which do not air on television—in June 2013.

“There isn't a lot out there to support a young child (3-8 years old) and give tools to parent and child to have a discussion around this—and for the child to have mixed emotions and still stay connected to incarcerated parents,” says Lynn Chwatsky, the Vice President of Outreach Initiatives and Partners for Sesame Workshop.

Guidelines For Parents and Kids

The material provides parents and young children with guidance on how to talk about a parent going to jail or prison, about serving the sentence, and also what happens when the parent returns.

It focuses on techniques that can help children feel secure, and perhaps even more importantly, it tries to ensure that kids are not stigmatized by their parents' decisions. The guide suggests helping children feel secure by maintaining a routine and letting them know what they can expect from the day.

It also gives tips on what to do when a child is acting out by using the “Breathe, Think, Do” approach: having the child take three deep breaths, identify the problem and then work out the best solution.

“The idea has always been that children who have incarcerated parents are bad and somehow will go down the same path,” said Elizabeth Gaynes, Executive Director of the Osborne Association, a New York based not-for profit for individuals affected by incarceration.

Gaynes, who helped Sesame Street develop the materials, spoke about her personal experience in dealing with reactions when her husband went to prison and she was left at home with three young children.

“People thought I was a bad mom, my children felt ostracized in their classroom,” she recalls. “But if Sesame Street says it's worth thinking about and caring about, it can make a real difference — they are as American as apple pie.”

The program, funded by a mix of private and public partnerships, is being developed in 10 pilot states, including New York, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.

Materials were distributed to jails, prison and community based organizations throughout each state.

Facilitators will also conduct training on how to best use the materials and identify people who may not be reached through the typical outlets.

In Florida, one of the pilot states working with Sesame Street, there are 64,475 children under 18 who have an incarcerated parent. Program managers are now distributing workshop materials to the community rooms and rehabilitation programs at state penal institutions, which house approximately 100,000 inmates, and their supervision partners (probation and parole) which monitor 146,000 people, so they can learn techniques how to interact with their children

At Polk Correctional Institution in Florida, for instance, a Muppet visited the inmates and families.

No Cost to Taxpayers

“Basically it was a huge win for us because the whole program comes at no cost to Florida taxpayers,” said Misty Cash, Deputy Communications Director at the Florida Department of Corrections. All the cost is borne by Sesame Workshop, who raised private funds for the project.

America's high incarceration rate may be falling. The recent announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder that he is instructing prosecutors not to cite quantities in drug cases in order to avoid triggering mandatory minimum drug sentences signals a major change in sentencing policy. And state prison populations have dropped for the third year in a row, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported this July.

But that won't change the need for a program addressing the needs of the innocent victims of incarceration—the children.

Inmates will be returning home to their families—and to children who will always have to live with the aftermath of having a parent behind bars. Numerous studies presented at “Back To Home,” a government conference focusing on re-entry issues, have shown that maintaining a parental relationship is not only good for the children, but for the parents as well—encouraging Sesame Workshop to continue its outreach to families affected by incarceration.

There's no real mystery about why a puppet makes it a lot easier.

As Chwatsky says, “Muppets can communicate with adults and kids better than most people can.”

Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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