In the United States, some two million children are believed to have one or both parents behind bars.
But a program in place in Milwaukee and a handful of other locations aims to have prisoners play a role in these children’s future educational success.
The Creative Corrections Education Foundation raises money from the community for college scholarships benefiting the children of current and former inmates. And inmates also are contributing to the fund.
“Contrary to popular belief, the overwhelming majority of inmates, even though they are incarcerated, still care about the children, about their community,” says founder Percy Pitzer.
Pitzer, who lives in lives in Beaumont, Tex., is a former prison warden who has worked in prisons for nearly 30 years. He says the families of those incarcerated have just as hard of a time as those behind bars.
“I’ve seen hundreds, if not thousands of kids, go through the visiting room and you could almost pick out who you’re next client was going to be,” he says. “And I thought if I ever had the opportunity I’d try to do something to prevent that.”
Pitzer says a program like Creative Corrections is important in a city like Milwaukee, where he says only 47 percent of black young men graduate from high school. Out of the drop-outs, 60 percent end up behind bars.
“It’s certainly cheaper to try to get these kids in school than to incarcerate them,” he says.
He also hopes that it will reverse the trend of growing rates of incarceration and a ballooning corrections budget. When he started in the prison system, Pitzer says there were about 200,000 Americans behind bars; today, there are 2.3 million incarcerated with a prison industry budget of around $65 billion per year. Wisconsin has the nation’s highest rate of incarcerated black men, and in Milwaukee County, more than half of black men in their thirties have served time in prison.
“At some point we have to say, ‘What are we doing?’” he says. “We have to take a look at that and see if we are in fact doing the right thing. We could probably find better ways of doing things.”
Through Creative Corrections, inmates can donate a percentage of the small amount of money they earn while behind bars – for instance, the cost of a candy bar from the prison commissary. It might not be a lot per inmate, Pitzer says, but en masse, it adds up.
“There are 2.3 million incarcerated. If we got 10 percent of them participating in the program, we could send 100,000 of their children to school versus prison,” Pitzer says.
Pitzer says in doing fundraisers with inmates over the years, he’s found them positive, involved and dedicated to helping their community. Pitzer also feels because of his background as a warden, he’s in a good position to help inmates’ children.
“Who is going to do that? Who knows both sides of the coin, has the ability to at least attempt to make that change in their lives?” he says. “I am the system, I am in the community. And I think there could be a partnership.”
If Creative Corrections can send even one child to school rather than jail, Pitzer says his efforts will have been worth it.