The number of people who are behind bars in America is much bigger than it was 40 years ago. In fact, it’s five times higher. That means a lot more parents are doing time, and having a record can limit people’s ability to get a job, find a place to live and provide for their kids. A local program is trying to help dads get around the obstacles and back on track with their families.
Adonijah and his sister Evelyn were clutching hundreds of those tickets games spit out when you win. We were standing in Dave and Buster’s—the loudest, blinkiest arcade I’d ever seen.
Thick snow covered the roads this morning, but hundreds of folks turned out to this free Christmas party hosted by PB&J, a nonprofit that provides a full spectrum of assistance for families, including parents who just got out of lockup.
I asked the kids what they were going to get with their tickets.
"I don’t know. I’m trying to save still," Adonijah said. Evelyn wanted a Teddy bear. Evelyn said she’s glad to be at this big Christmas shindig, together with her family. And that’s the goal.
Krystyna Ciszek, PB&J’s special events coordinator, had been greeting folks at the door all morning. Food’s on the right, she said, games are on the left. And you can play any game you want as much as you want.
"For the kids, it means the world" she said. "They get to have fun. They get to meet Santa Claus and Misses Claus. For the parents, it’s less stress for them. And they’re able to provide something special for their kids, where they normally might not be able to."
Joseph Shaw used a program for fathers at PB&J to break the cycle of drugs and jail. He said sometimes the desire to provide for your family is part of what compels parents to turn to crime. "That’s why you go back to that because you want to buy your kids clothes," he said. "Like, you want to be able to have money to take them out to eat or if they’re hungry. So that’s what makes you get that drive to do whatever it takes to provide for them even if it’s wrong."
It was around the holidays in 2012 when Shaw left jail after several rounds in and out on drug-related charges and linked up with PB&J. He says getting back into the swing of things can be rough. "So incarceration is real structure. You know when you eat. You know when you sleep. You know when your laundry comes. You know when you make your bed," he said. "The transition back into society can get a little stressful."
Erika Croft said it’s hard to re-learn how to function outside of jail. She used to be a parent re-entry specialist for PB&J’s program for dads. It’s called Fathers Building Futures. "When you’re dealing with somebody that comes from an incarceration environment, they have to present a certain way, mainly for survival," she said. "They have to be a different personality. They have to follow a different set of codes. It’s like a subculture when they’re incarcerated."
But even beyond that, Croft said, it’s hard to get hired, or to find someone who will rent to you—especially housing that’s not back in the same old neighborhoods where you got in trouble. And, she said, ex-offenders often don’t have family support to help them get back on their feet. "They don’t have the social networks that we take for granted," she said. "We don’t have, 'Oh I can call my dad and get help with the rent.' Because if you also think about it, a lot of these peoples’ families are sharing the same economic burdens they are."
Fathers Building Futures hooks dads up with a job—20 hours a week in carpentry or car detailing for minimum wage. When people buy their wooden cutting boards or bring their wheels by for a scrub or a shine, the funding goes back into the program.
Still, Croft said, the trick is trying to figure out how fathers can best acknowledge their past as they try to move forward. "We coach them in how do they address that one question. 'Well, I see that you’ve had these convictions.' Well, there’s no other explanation than I’ve made some mistakes. I’m doing these things to recover from it. I’m trying so that way I can get back to a relatively normal life."
Today, Joseph Shaw is the woodshop supervisor at PB&J. He’s been clean for four years and had steady employment for three. He says he wakes up every day thinking about how to see the Fathers Building Futures program grow and make sure other men have a place to land. He also has a wife and two kids that he can support now, a daughter age 2, and a son age 11.
"It means the world to me," he said. "This was the first year I ever got to buy my son school supplies. Now that I am able to be what I was created to be, it feels good. Like there is no other better feeling in the world."
Shaw said knowing that his family has what it needs is everything.