By Chris Bowman
Whether we like it or not, our labels shape how we see ourselves and how in turn the world sees us. When our labels tell us we are accepted, we belong and we have value – we will thrive. But what if your label reads: Prisoner’s Kid? What then?
This is a question we at Second Chances SA ask all the time. What labels has society given to prisoner’s kids? And more importantly, what labels do they give themselves?
The Labels They Carry
The first time I visited the home of a prisoner’s kid (PK) – the eldest daughter was at home in the middle of the day. Turns out she wasn’t at school after having been physically bullied there the day before.
At the second home I visited a few hours later, a teenage son was still recovering from the trauma of having been beaten up earlier that week by a pack of classmates outside his local fast food hangout. When I think of the label these two young people would have used to describe themselves that day, I fear it may be ‘worthless.’
I have since heard stories of young daughters of prisoners looking for affection and attention in the wrong places and of young sons getting involved with the wrong crowds. If we could ask them deep down what label they are looking for, I dare say it would simply be to be accepted and valued.
In listening to stories like these from our PK (Prisoner’s Kids) Family Care Team and our PK Mentoring Camps coordinators, the message is pretty clear – being the child of a prisoner is a tough gig.
The Cost of the Label
When a parent goes to prison (or in some cases when both parents go to prison), there is always a huge impact on the family. There are emotional, practical, social and financial consequences. These can be enormous and in many cases it is the family, not the prisoner, who is left to deal with them.
I recently met a grandmother in her 60s who had taken on sole custody of her four youngest grandchildren after both parents were sentenced to prison. This grandma loves her grandkids and has taken extreme measures to give them a fighting chance in life but you can hear it in her voice – she mourns her grandchildren’s loss of their childhood and laments the loss of her ‘golden years.’ She is no longer simply a doting grandma; she is now their mum and dad instead.
I was sceptical the first time I heard the statistic that prisoner’s kids are anywhere between five to seven times more likely than their peers to one day end up serving time in prison. ‘Crime isn’t hereditary’ I told myself so what exactly is the story here? I think it has everything to do with their labels.
Unfortunately many of the prisoner’s kids we work with grow up being labelled unwanted and useless – sometimes by their families, sometimes by their peers, sometimes by society.
When these are the negative labels you grow up hearing and believing early in life there comes a point when the labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. This is why crime becomes intergenerational. As the saying goes, ‘Hurt people hurt people.’
A New Label
Jesus has some very different ‘labels’ for the children of prisoners. In Matthew 19, Jesus becomes indignant when his disciples try and block children from coming to be blessed by Him. He makes it very clear that children matter dearly to Him and that if anything, the disciples have much to learn from them and their child-like faith.
Later on in Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples on the Mount of Olives that in serving the hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned they are in fact serving Him. Jesus seems to have a deep heart for children and for prisoners. I dare say His labels of love for the children of prisoners would read: created, cared for, and celebrated.
Jesus sees beyond the superficial labels we carry and instead sees deep into our hearts. In 1 Samuel 16:7b we read, ‘The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ What if we could follow this example too?
As a society and as individuals, we cannot dictate the choices people make. The societal and economic gaps that perpetuate generational poverty, unemployment, and incarceration are enormous. But we are not helpless and we are not without options to advocate for the voiceless.
The children of prisoners are the invisible victims of crime because we as a wider society have allowed them to be unseen and unheard. What if we followed Jesus’ example by seeing beyond the superficial labels and began to use our words and our actions to reshape the labels prisoner’s kids carry? What if we instilled and championed value, belonging, and acceptance into their hearts?
At Second Chances SA our goal is to uplift prisoner’s kids. All our programs are custom-designed to help these kids by equipping them to make good choices in their own lives so they can create crime-free futures for themselves.
Together, we can change the labels and in doing so, we can change lives.
Chris Bowman is Prisoner’s Kids Community Advocate for Second Chances SA. He has a passion for human stories and for the lessons we can learn from them. He blogs on his website WheresTheScript.com
Second Chances SA has recently compiled a report, prepared by Nova Smart Solutions, titled Prisoner’s Kids: The Invisible Victims of Crime. If you would like to know more about the plight of prisoner’s kids here in SA and would like a copy of this report, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 8272 0323.