This article is touching in a distressing sort of way (New York Times, 12/26/10). It’s about a program in New York’s prisons called “Daddy and Me” that teaches literacy to inmates or improves the reading ability they already have. One of the main reasons for doing that is so the men can make recordings of themselves reading children’s books that their kids can then listen to. When making the recordings, the men pretend they’re there with the kids reading to them; the kids presumably pretend their dads are there reading to them as they listen.
“Block everything out, take a deep breath and pretend you”re reading to them,’ Mr. Rosado mumbled to himself as he headed to the Daddy and Me recording room one Thursday morning.
For the most part, these men are not sympathetic figures. They’re heroin addicts and thieves, crack cocaine addicts and muggers. They’re not the worst of the worst but they leave a lot to be desired. Statistics suggest the huge probability that they grew up without fathers themselves, a fact curiously omitted by an article about fathers in prison and their children.
When asked where he grew up, Mr. Reddick said, “Right here,’ meaning Rikers.
But when the article shifts to the home of one of the men, in which live his kids and their mother, readers get a faint whiff of the far-reaching effects of fatherlessness.
Ms. Bosch said that she woke up at 6:30 a.m. and that by 7, she and the boys would already be fighting. She fights to rouse José, to get him ready and out the door to get to school on time. She fights to keep Steven under control as she rushes to get breakfast.
The rest describes the poverty she and the children live in as they do battle with roaches and mice daily. Ms. Bosch is not employed. It’s a scene that cries out for a father who can bring home the bacon and help keep the kids in line. But Dad’s not there and this time he’s got no one to blame but himself. He’s the one who turned to robbery to support his drug habit. Still, as he verges on completing his sentence, he’s hauled into the federal system for the same crime but there he’s staring at a 10-year bit. The system wants him behind bars and that means “raising” his children via sporadic audio recordings of his voice. So, with the same indirection it used in treating fatherlessness, the article suggests the problem that our zero tolerance penal system poses for families. With 90% of inmates being men, and over 2 million people incarcerated, criminal law is yet another thing standing between children and their fathers. No one would argue that multiple and/or violent offenders don’t belong in prison, whether they’ve got kids or not. But neither can we say that the system of criminal justice in this country doesn’t put people behind bars who don’t really belong there. Simple drug possession has led to the incarceration of some 800,000 people currently serving their sentences. And, although men and women use illegal drugs in about equal numbers, the number of men and women incarcerated for simple possession is nothing like equal. In those cases too, men make up over 90% of the ones behind bars. Indeed, the most authoritative study done to date of sentencing patterns in the federal criminal system shows that being male (vs. female) is as big a detriment in sentencing as being black (vs. white). The Times piece mentions none of that, but that’s not its point. Its point is to show that a single state program for inmates is doing something to connect fathers behind bars with their children on the outside.
“People are multidimensional,’ said Dora B. Schriro, the city”s Correction Department commissioner. “Part of being a man is being a dad, and part of being a good man is being a good dad, in the most fundamental sense of the word.’
If they didn’t learn that on the outside, maybe they will on Riker’s Island.