When Your Dad's Behind Bars

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Mickel Marchan, 7, lives in Brooklyn with his mom, while his father does time at a prison upstate. An after-school program for kids in similar situations helps him cope.

Photo by: Richard Caplan

Mickel Marchan, 7, lives in Brooklyn with his mom, while his father does time at a prison upstate. An after-school program for kids in similar situations helps him cope.

Mickel Marchan stands about two inches taller than any of the other six- and seven-year-olds in his after-school group at Children of Promise, a Brooklyn program for children with parents in prison. This past fall, his creative movement class had barely begun when he decided to use that physical advantage to test the limits of “creative.” Mickel sent one boy tumbling into a cluster of desks with a fierce shove. Then he tussled with one of the teenage interns, scowling beneath the lid of his red baseball cap.

Darci Adams, who leads the class, yanked Mickel into a smothering hug. He briefly stiffened to the embrace before melting into it, like butter on toast.

Mickel (pronounced ME-kel) is one of about 105,000 kids in New York state who have a parent in prison, according to the Osborne Association, a New York City nonprofit that has been working with incarcerated people and their families for almost 80 years. Across the country, the ranks have grown to more than 2 million such children, as the inmate population has increased by 1.8 million, or 435 percent, over the last 30 years. (The general population rose 35 percent over that same period.) Even as localities have built prisons, they have often overlooked effects on the family infrastructure that many prisoners with children leave behind.

“When kids lose a parent, whether they pass away or leave because of a divorce or going to war, those kids get some level of sympathy. But when parents go to prison, their kids don't get that,” said Sharon Content, founder of Children of Promise, which enrolled its first after-school program one year ago, in March 2009. “Our goal is to get the children to the point where they don't feel shame and they really feel like they have a shot at life,” said Content, who launched the group in 2007 after spending a decade working with at-risk youth at the Boys & Girls Club of America in the South Bronx and at the Osborne Association in Brooklyn.

Children of Promise opens its doors each weekday afternoon to nearly 80 of these kids, along with their families. Children receive counseling, get help with their schoolwork and express themselves through art and movement. Older kids work with mentors. And everyone gets a chance to play.

With major funding from the state and federal education departments, the organization set up shop in an old college dormitory in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The program occupies the top three floors, which include office space, classrooms, a library, an arts-and-crafts center, a computer lab and a gymnasium badly in need of renovation. The smell of fresh paint permeates the air.

Mickel, who’s in the second grade, said that his favorite thing to do at Children of Promise is to play basketball in the gym. This doesn’t surprise Gabriel Coren, a senior counselor who spends each afternoon with Mickel as his group leader. “It’s so important for him to be accepted by the boys,” said Coren. “He’s very much aware of what the boys are doing.”

Like 93 percent of kids with a parent in a New York state prison, it’s Mickel’s father who is incarcerated. He’s serving five to 10 years at Livingston Correctional Facility, five hours west of New York City, for possession of drugs. He’s eligible for parole as early as Nov. 2010. His sentence began in 2004, before his son had turned two.

Mickel didn’t say much about his father on a recent January afternoon. He said he couldn’t remember what his father wrote in his letters or what the two of them talked about on the few occasions that Mickel had accompanied his father’s family to visit him.

Asked how he felt about not being able to see his dad, Mickel said: “Sad. And angry.”

Those are two of the common denominators found among this young, vulnerable population. Mickel is hardly the only child who fights or screams or cries. “Anger is the first emotion [these kids] go to whenever they're confused or sad,” said creative movement teacher Darci Adams. “And they have a lot of fear. It all comes out as anger.”

Sure enough, Gabriel Coren noted that when Mickel first started at Children of Promise in September, he brawled with someone every single day. Mickel still often arrives each afternoon in a dark mood. “What’s changed is his willingness to ask for help and to take it on [someone else’s] terms,” said Coren.

Mickel lives with his mother, Glennis Quashie, 27, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. She said that he’s “calmed down” a lot over the past months, noting that he loves to read. He's proven to be excellent at math, too, cruising through an assignment during a homework session at the after-school program. It’s numbers, in fact, that make Quashie and Mickel’s day-to-day existence arduous. They survive on the $237 she makes each week working part time for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. They also receive about $300 a month in food stamps. Money is a constant struggle.

Sharon Content located Children of Promise in Bedford-Stuyvesant because it’s one of seven New York City neighborhoods with the highest incarceration rates. Her long-term goal is to establish a location in each of the other six: East New York, Brownsville, South Jamaica, South Bronx, East Harlem and the Lower East Side. She feels a holistic approach helps families best: In addition to providing a full array of services to kids, Children of Promise also supports the caregivers—single parents, grandparents, foster parents, other family and friends.

Content wants to reach these kids before bigger problems develop. “We have to acknowledge the trauma these kids have gone through. It's hard to admire someone when people say that person did something bad. But that person is still someone's father or mother.”

Most afternoons at Children of Promise allow Mickel and the other kids to forget that trauma for a couple hours, in no small part because they’re all in the same boat. They all have a parent in prison. Children of Promise is the safe place where they can leave shame at the door. Of course, it’s not that simple. On the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Mickel spent about five minutes brooding at a table by himself. Gabriel Coren offered to talk, but Mickel shook him off. So Coren let him be.

Coren wasn’t acting out of disregard. He understood Mickel, knew that he’d matured and had confidence in the boy he was becoming.

It was homework time. All around Mickel, kids yelled and laughed as they ate their snacks or ransacked their bags in search of a school assignment. All of them clamored for attention. Almost unnoticeably, Mickel stood up and pulled a folder from his backpack. Gabriel Coren was on the floor, bent over another boy’s work. Mickel leaned in, patted the top of Coren’s head and said, “Mr. Gabriel, I need help.”