POPS the Club Gives Kids with Incarcerated Family Members a Space And a Voice

Teacher and sponsor James DeLarme interacts with a group of POPS the Club students at El Camino Real Charter High School.

Children with parents or other family members who are in prison can be stigmatized, ostracized, scorned and branded. Even worse, they can be an invisible population, a collateral damage afterthought through events they had not been part of or might not even known had occurred.

Author and prison rights activist Amy Friedman doesn’t forget them.

In 2013, she and husband Dennis Danziger, a writer and former high school teacher, founded POPS the Club (pain of the prison system) with 20 students at Venice High School in Los Angeles where Danziger was teaching at the time.

The students either had a family member or knew someone in the prison system. They had nowhere to release their deeply felt feelings of anguish and frustration, or knew others in similar circumstances. The club met weekly on campus, giving the students safe space to congregate and an artistic outlet to voice, write or draw that pent-up anger, confusion and depression.

That initial POPS club has since grown into a nonprofit organization, with 18 clubs in five states. Two of them are in Valley area schools — El Camino Real Charter High and Monroe High.

POPS annually produces a book featuring those thoughts and artistic works by current students and alumni of the club. This year’s collection of artwork, poems and stories, entitled “Dream Catchers,” is available on Out Of The Woods Press  

“Part of POPS and our arts programming is giving back some of the arts instruction and opportunity that have been pulled out of many of the schools,” Friedman said.

Then she hits you with a stunning statistic: In the United States, Friedman said, one in 14 children has a parent who is or has been incarcerated.

“That means pretty much any classroom you walk into in the United States, there’s gonna be somebody who’s been impacted by that,” Friedman said.

She has direct knowledge of such impact. More than 25 years ago, while writing a series for her newspaper column about how prisons work, Friedman fell in love with and married her first husband who was imprisoned, and diligently helped him raise his two daughters. The marriage lasted seven years.

“I saw and felt the stigma of loving somebody who was incarcerated; I saw what it did to me and to [his daughters],” Friedman said.

“POPS is about a population full of people who are seen as bad or associated with bad and, somehow, are tainted by it. They’re often not recognized for how truly smart, talented and capable they are to go beyond that.”

The health pandemic caused by the coronavirus was another unwelcome upheaval in the lives of the club members, she said.

“COVID-19, like it did with everyone else, complicated everything. As soon as the schools were closed, we could no longer meet on campuses. We’ve been meeting on Zoom since the end of [last] March but continue to provide services, and offer other opportunities for the kids. But we can’t wait to get back into the schools,” Friedman said.

The students are being deeply impacted by being unable to meet at their schools, she said. They miss seeing friends, teachers and their counselors. “In addition, prisons and jails have been closed [to visits]. So [the students with family incarcerated] can feel even more isolated. And because it’s pretty scary inside the institutions, there’s even more fear for those loved ones. I have a lot of friends inside various institutions, and it is not good. When you love somebody who is locked up, it’s hard.”

She said she is interested to see how the Biden administration will address public education as a whole, which Friedman contends has been badly neglected nationally for too long.

“I think public schools have been abandoned in a million different ways,” she said. “There have been a lot of different administrations — not just Trump’s — that have kind of destroyed public education or worked toward doing that.

“Classrooms are packed. My current husband had 40-45 kids in the classroom; you can’t serve kids efficiently when you have that kind of crowding, and underfunding for arts programming.”

POPS the Club is funded primarily through private donors and Friedman is hopeful for increased corporate sponsorship. She said more than 700 kids have gone through the club since its inception. And books like the current anthology are proof of its effectiveness.

“One of the tenets of club is that the kids who come, they choose to come,” Friedman said. “There’s food there. And it’s fun and happy and family-like. They don’t have to say why they’re there…people commit crimes, they get convicted and they serve time. But they’re not always defined by their crimes.

“I’m not in touch with everyone who graduated from the program but those we have surveyed and have been surveyed by others rave about how important is was in helping them graduate from school and cope with family and personal issues. They feel like they had a voice in the world. One of the purposes of the books is creating art as a healing experience. But the other purpose is these kids have a lot to teach all of us. I wanted their voices out in the world. People can learn things from reading about them.”

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