One day Dennis, my husband and co-founder of POPS the Club, visited a former student of his who had been arrested at 17; despite having no criminal record, John was sentenced to a heinously long prison term, and some months later, Dennis traveled up to New Folsom prison to see John. There he waited for hours in line in the rain the way people who visit prisoners so often do. When he did finally reach John, they spent an hour together in a grimy visiting room, and a week later John sent a letter he wanted Dennis to read to his students. He wrote about WHY they should listen to their teachers, stay in school, study hard, not wind up where he was. And so that week In class Dennis began to tell the story of visiting his former student. The moment the words “New Folsom” came out of his mouth, a young woman named Kiara looked up, startled, and raised her hand.
Now this was extraordinary; it was week 17 of the fall semester 2012, and as Dennis told me later that night, for the previous 16 weeks, Kiara had come into class every day, laid her head on the table and fallen asleep. He barely knew what she looked like. He had never heard her voice.
That day he said, “Yes, Kiara?” and she said, “My brother is at New Folsom,” and then she began to talk, and talk, and talk.
Now, anyone who has spent any time in a high school classroom knows that students only talk when they’re gossiping or hanging out with their friends; in class they usually speak in monosyllables. But Kiara couldn’t stop talking about her brother, how much she missed him, what had happened. The other students were rapt, so Dennis didn’t stop her.
After school that day he came home and told me the story, and suddenly it all seemed so obvious:
“We should start a club,” I said.
It was obvious because in the 1990s I visited a prison as a newspaper columnist and there I met and fell in love with a man serving a 7 to Life sentence. We fell in love. We married. And for the next several years I raised his young daughters. Our marriage lasted seven years—and for those seven years I visited him in one prison after another almost every day—and I frequently took the girls along to those visits. During those years I learned the hard way what it is like to love someone who is incarcerated—the toxic combination of stress, sorrow, shame, and stigmatization. For children the experience is nightmarish. My girls refused to tell anyone where their father was—they’d already endured people telling them they weren’t welcome in their homes; they’d been teased and shamed and labeled. And so they learned how to become liars. “Dad’s a missionary.” “Dad’s in the army.” “Dad died.” “Dad’s a spy in Russia…” When child-at-risk reports came home, my elder stepdaughter told me I was NOT permitted to tell her teachers about where her dad was. Never mind that we’d just endured his transfer to another prison, another three-hour wait in line, another shaming by a guard, another weekend in a dismal visiting room. Never mind that she was coping with stressors her teachers should have known about. She knew they wouldn’t understand, and they would only label her if they knew— “trouble,” “a likely prisoner,” “daughter of trouble.” And so the secrets remained, the sorrow remained, the stigma and shame grew. (for more on this story, listen here: Kept Together By the Bars Between
My ex-husband and I divorced in 1999. Three years later I married Dennis, a high school teacher and a man who knew next to nothing about prison. But he learned—from me and from the girls who he too came to love. And soon he began to notice that many of his students seemed to carry an extra burden, a half-buried secret: Someone they loved, he was sure, was incarcerated, or had been first imprisoned and then deported.
For years Dennis and I talked about what we could do for these kids. That day when he came home and told me about Kiara, we looked at each other and we just knew: We’d start a club, a club for kids whose lives had been affected by prison. This would be a place where they could see they were not alone, despite feeling that way (1 in 15 children in the US has a parent who is or has been incarcerated, and that’s just parents, never mind siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, friends). It would be a place where they could write their stories, both to heal their own pain and to share their stories with each other and with a world that needed to hear them. It would be a place where we would all break bread together, and nurture and nourish each other.
That Christmas break we wrote up a one-page proposal after studying the template from the first-ever club for gay students that was started in 1988 at Concord Academy in Massachusetts, a club and concept that eventually expanded into the GSA. It’s tough today to imagine a school without an LGBT club.
We knew we would have a couple of rules for our club:
One, no one is SENT to to POPS the Club. All members self-select.
Two, we meet at lunch, not after school—too many students had after-school jobs or long journeys home or sports and other commitments.
Everyone eats. Nothing breaks down barriers faster than sharing a meal.
We tell our stories. As writers and writing teachers, we know the power of finding one’s story and sharing it. We are an arts-based club, featuring opportunities to write, draw and publish our students’ work.
Dennis explained to me something I now understand: The only way to spread news in a high school is by quietly talking about it.
Forget posters and PA announcements and flyers.
Tell a few kids, and word spreads.
And so he announced to his five classes (of 40-plus each) at Venice High, that beginning the next Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 1:28, he and his wife would be hosting a new club for anyone whose life was affected by prison or jail. There’d be food, he said.
The night before that meeting Dennis and I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and brownies. The next day at 1:25, we pulled the desks in his classroom into a circle, spread the food out onto other desks and waited. Thirty seconds after the bell rang, a 10th grader, Nelvia, walked shyly into the room, took a sandwich, smiled and sat down. Ten seconds later Arianna, another 10th grader walked in.
“You?” Nelvia said, her eyes wide.
“You?” Arianna echoed her.
They stared at each other for a moment and then ran into each other’s arms.
It turned out that Arianna’s father had been incarcerated since she was five years old; Nelvia’s beloved godfather had been incarcerated since she was three. Arianna and Nelvia were the kind of friends who visited each other’s houses ever since kindergarten, but neither had ever told the other about this burden she shouldered. Now that secret was out. And the bond between them was cemented in empathy.
Eleven kids showed up that day:
John later told us he had just returned from juvie and was sure that by June he’d either be dead or in prison until this club became his family and he had a place to be heard and cared for;
Tony and Luis who had brothers in prison and didn’t want to follow in their brothers’ footsteps;
Kiara, of course; Nelvia and Arianna;
E’majin whose boyfriend was in prison, and she couldn’t bear the way she was treated by everyone around her (except her fellow club members);
Steven whose parents had both been in prison;
Eric, whose father was;
Alondra and Ariel whose dad had been arrested a few weeks earlier and who now couldn’t believe that their dream had come true. “It’s just what we imagined,” Ariel said, “that there would be somewhere we could talk about what’s going on, how hard it is…with people who might understand.”
By May, the students had chosen the name for the club. They wanted something that didn’t sound sad, that had a POP to it but also reflected the pain the club was helping them to cope with. POPS stands for Pain of the Prison System.
Nelvia and Eric designed a logo and tee-shirts.
They all told other kids.
By the time we wrapped up for the year, there were 25 regular attendees—kids whose parents and brothers and sisters and other beloveds were incarcerated, kids whose parents had been detained in ICE facilities and then deported, kids who had done time themselves, and one young man who wanted to become a police officer who “got it,” who understood the pain crime and its attendant punishment can make on those indirectly affected.
That year we published an anthology through PEN USA PEN USA Programs, and inside that anthology we included a POPS section. Publishing the POPS the Club’s stories not only helped to empower the writers and to strengthen the bonds among the group, but these were the stories every other student in the school wanted to read—even those who claimed to despise reading couldn’t get enough of the POPS stories.
Pages quickly became dog-eared, and Dennis understood that this was the reading material he had always needed for his students—stories that spoke to them, their truths, unvarnished.
In September 2013, Dennis and I once again made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, though we had begun to make enquiries to various restaurants about providing better lunches, and a few had expressed interest in helping to support our cause. But we worried no one would show up. After all, of those 25 students, only a few—Nelvia and Arianna, Alondra and Joslyn—hadn’t graduated. We needn’t have worried.
That first day in fall 2013, 15 students came. Every week after that the club grew. Every week there were more stories, more tears of sorrow and joy, more bonds created.
We invited guest speakers, one young woman I knew (from my work as a memoir teacher), a stunning white woman in her 30s who has a successful career in the entertainment industry. When she was 17 she did some time herself, though she had spent thousands of dollars keeping that information off the internet and away from any of her work colleagues. She also has an incarcerated brother and worries deeply about the stigma and sorrow his daughter endures. After she spoke, she said, “I want to do whatever we can to help you spread POPS. Just telling this story today, just being in this room changed my life.” She became a member of our Board of Directors–Our Board–every year, she runs a fundraiser at The Laugh Factory. Ever since that day, she has stopped hiding her story.
In October 2013 I applied to become a nonprofit, with the intention of spreading POPS to every school in Los Angeles, and ultimately beyond. I did this because I know it’s needed, and with every school we add, I learn more about why POPS matters so deeply.
One day in late September 2013, Chelina, a regular attendee who came because she’s a prisoners’ rights activist with a dear friend inside, brought her friend Bianca. Bianca walked into the room looking at the floor. We have a rule in POPS: No one has to say why they’re there, only that they have a connection. Eventually most tell their stories, but no one is pressed to do so. But I introduced myself to Bianca, and Chelina said, “You can tell her why you’re here.”
Tears started rolling down Bianca’s face. “My brother,” she managed to choke out through her tears. “I hate him…”
She told me her brother had been sentenced to 29 years, that he had been her best friend, her role model and now she was so mad at him, she hadn’t spoken to him in the five years since he’d been sent away to Pelican Bay. She couldn’t, she said. I gently asked if she ever wrote about him, or to him, and she shook her head. “You could write him a letter you never send,” I said. “Just think about it, okay? And welcome…”
The next week Bianca showed up for the meeting right on time. She walked over to me and handed me seven pages of writing. A letter to her brother. “I’m sending it,” she said. And a few weeks later, she had a letter back from him.
After that, Bianca began to talk to the other students, telling them how much it hurt to lose her brother, telling them how good it felt to finally be in touch with him, and how much she needed to learn and how it helped her to write about all that had happened. By late November of that year, less than two months after Bianca first came to POPS, she agreed to be a speaker at a Summit on the Children and Families of the Incarcerated sponsored by Friends Outside LA.
Bianca and Angel, whose dad is serving a Life Without Parole sentence, stood on stage at that conference in front of 300 people, and though they had just months earlier kept secret the stories of their loved ones, they began to tell their truths. These were stories no one in the room had heard—not the social workers, the police officers, the prisoners’ rights activists, the school, city and county officials.
Since that time Bianca and Angel both have spoken at other summits and conferences. Bianca volunteers at one of the clubs in LA that launched in Fall 2015. Other students from other schools and from Venice POPS have read onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and at readings at Barnes & Noble at the Grove. Three attended the Atlantic Magazine’s Summit on Race + Justice to introduce POPS to 300 justice activists from across the country. Two young women, a 15- and 16-year-old from Venice POPS, attended a two-day Listening Session in Washington, D.C. where 19 young people, ages 15 to 23, from 14 states, all of whom are the children of the incarcerated gathered to speak to 33 federal officials, a gathering sponsored by the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated and The American Institutes for Research. Thirty-seven POPS students from three schools stayed after school on a rainy Friday in April 2016 to speak to Elias Alcantara, a representative from President Obama’s White House’s Domestic Policy Council who traveled to LA to learn about POPS.
And our story continues…