National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 16, 2003

Neighborhood scarred by missing parents

Parents in prison: far from an abstract problem

Students attending Craig Elementary School in the New Orleans neighborhood of Treme, the site of many workshop sessions at Critical Resistance South, can look across the street every day and see the landscaped hills and paths of Louis Armstrong Park.

Jerome Smith, who grew up in this neighborhood, sees the park every day too. Instead of a pleasant green space, though, he sees an open scar. More than 30 years ago, earthmovers demolished 13 square blocks of homes, corner stores and clubs here to make way for a proposed cultural center. Three years later, in 1969, Interstate 10 ripped through the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, replacing the stately oak trees on the wide median with concrete pillars and paving.

The neighborhood never recovered. Businesses and churches left, and the city refused to make good on promises to relocate displaced residents within the area. Treme’s heritage as one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in the country remains, as does its role as an incubator of brass band music and colorful “second lines,” the traditional New Orleans street parades in which a dancing community follows the musicians down the street.

Many of the families whose roots here extend back into the 1800s, however, moved to the suburbs long ago. Some of them still send their children and grandchildren back to Craig Elementary, which they remember as the lynchpin of Treme and the source of a strong education. Over time, though, that has eroded too. Craig’s classrooms are currently overcrowded, and its students’ scores on the Louisiana Education Assessment Program tests are low enough to place it in jeopardy of being shut down for poor performance. The music program that was the pride of the school in the 1950s is gone; in fact, during 2002-03, Craig had neither a music teacher nor an art program for its students.

For 31 years, Smith has encouraged young people to take pride in Treme’s heritage by participating in Tambourine and Fan, an informal youth program at the Treme Community Center that combines sports and tutoring with music, second-line dancing and Mardi Gras Indian traditions. Smith believes music, especially, is a heartbeat that knits the community together. But now he sees a new scar ripped through the fabric of Treme in the form of missing parents and siblings who have been sent to prison.

“During summer camp, we ask the children to visualize the person who gave them life and say ‘thanks,’ ” said Smith. “Two summers ago, two children said, ‘I can’t. My people are in jail.’ ”

Nationwide, 1.5 million children have parents who are in prison. Smith does a quick tally to localize those figures. From the four elementary schools he works with in Treme and the neighboring French Quarter, Smith said, he can think of no less than 200 children whose parents are incarcerated. Other accounts corroborate that estimate. When Sheila Young, principal of Craig Elementary, asked the third-grade artists who painted the prison portraits for Critical Resistance how many had family members or neighbors in prison, half the class raised their hands. The Rev. Randy Mitchell, another Treme activist, estimates that 300 people from the neighborhood have been sent to prison over the last eight years.

Smith believes that children should be taken into consideration in sentencing. Given the circumstances that already exist, though, he’s working on another solution: a teleconferencing center where children can visit with their imprisoned parents. He envisions a centrally located computer bank in New Orleans and enough contact time to allow genuine involvement, not just the truncated conversation allowed by expensive prison phone calls. The idea has the endorsement of several Orleans Parish criminal judges and has been well received by administrators at Angola. Smith plans to start the program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (St. Gabriel), the two largest adult prisons in the state. Initially, the computers will be set up at the New Orleans Public Library’s downtown branch, he said. Eventually, he’d like to get the Housing Authority of New Orleans on board to provide computer access at community centers in public housing developments.

“It’s not whether it’s going to happen, it’s when,” said Smith, who has been working on launching the network for a year and a half. “Unless we’re dealing with demons or the devil, there’s no one who will say no to it.” Kids need to speak to their parents, he said, and parents need to be involved, to participate in parent-teacher conferences, to read with their children, to call on a birthday.

In the meantime, Tambourine and Fan provides a safe space where kids can talk about their parents, brothers, sisters and friends who have gone to prison. “Talking about it, they discover they’re not on a lonely island, that the stigma is removed,” said Smith. A seasoned civil rights activist, he sees possibilities of changing the whole criminal justice system. “If youngsters gain confidence in addressing the things that go against them -- well, most of the civil rights movement was carried out by young people,” he said.

-- Lili LeGardeur

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 2003

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