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POPS the Club: Making a Difference in America’s High Schools

By Ava Martoma, Age 13

“One of the most important things that POPS has done this last year - and every year since its founding - is providing an outlet for the expression of difficult emotions.” - Amy Friedman (front, third from left)

Today, KidsMates is interviewing Amy Friedman, co-founder of POPS (Pain of the Prison System) the Club. Affectionately known as POPS, Amy’s club provides a safe and empowering space at school for teenagers who struggle with the realities of being separated from their incarcerated loved ones.

I met Amy - pre-coronavirus days - after delivering my first presentation about parental incarceration before a national audience. Amy introduced herself after my talk and, sensing my nerves, asked if she could give me a warm embrace. She wanted me to know just how proud everyone was of me. That pretty much sums up Amy - helping kids… one big hug at a time!


POPS quickly adapted to the pandemic by shifting their meetings from schools to virtual spaces, which now make it possible to attend from anywhere in the country. I’ve attended virtual POPS meetings and have been blown away by the line-up of guest speakers and entertainment. The pandemic may have changed how POPS does things, but not its commitment to kids. We’re really lucky to have Amy here with us to speak about her work.



Ava: Amy, tell us your story as it relates to the criminal justice system and POPS. 


Amy: I co-founded POPS the Club because of my personal experience with the criminal justice system. In the early 1990s, I was working in Canada as a newspaper columnist and began writing about incarceration. I was interviewing individuals in a medium-security prison - everyone from the administrators to the guards, from medical personnel to prison educators, from prisoners to their family members - and writing a series of columns on the prison. Ultimately, I fell in love with and married a prisoner. Through this, I immediately learned the stigma associated with loving a prisoner; I was fired from my job, thrown off boards of directors, and lost friends and family!


As I began to raise my husband’s daughters, the struggle came closer to home. My girls’ father went to prison when they were just 3 and 7; by the time I met them, they were 9 and 13. At that point, they were already so deeply scarred by the stigma that they had decided that the only way to cope with their dad’s incarceration was to hide it - from teachers, peers, and even extended family members. As they grew older, the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual burden of that secret only grew more difficult.


Their father was released in 1998, but we divorced the next year. Still, the girls remained my daughters, and for years, I wrestled with how I might support other children like mine.


In 2002, I moved to Los Angeles where I married Dennis, a high school English teacher. Through a grant from a writers’ organization, I began to visit his classrooms to teach about personal essays. There, I discovered that the statistics did not lie: 1 in 14 children in the United States has a parent who is or has been incarcerated. I found many of those children in Dennis’ classrooms. Dennis and I began to talk about how we could provide support for this group of kids - who, like my daughters, usually hid what they were experiencing from everyone.


In 2012, we decided to launch a club for children of incarcerated parents at the school where Dennis was currently teaching. Within weeks, my new club had 25 members. The impact felt by club members was so profound that I applied for 501(c)(3) status. My goal was to bring “POPS” clubs to schools across the country.


As of fall 2020, POPS the Club is in 19 schools in 5 different states. Even though many years have passed since we created our first club, the dream remains the same - to spread to schools everywhere. POPS the Club has impacted the lives of countless children with incarcerated loved ones, including four graduates, who have returned to the program as staff members.


Ava: What a wonderful dream! What is the most important thing your organization has done in the last year to help children or families facing incarceration?


Amy: One of the most important things that POPS has done this last year - and every year since its founding - is providing an outlet for the expression of difficult emotions. In addition to club meetings that provide support by peers and trained volunteer leadership teams, each year POPS publishes a book collection, containing the writings and artwork created by its members. Last year, POPS launched its anthology, We Got Game, through Out of the Woods Press. We also contracted with a national distributor to spread the book farther than we have been able to in the past.


With the upcoming publication of January 2021’s Dream Catchers, the 7th POPS Anthology (preorder available here), POPS has published the work of more than 700 young people with incarcerated loved ones. We hope that these books will help to better educate our society about the true impact of mass incarceration. POPS is also in the early stages of developing a podcast to further empower POPS youth and educate the public.


Ava: Wow, I’m looking forward to seeing it all come together! What issues do you think people don’t understand about individuals with an incarcerated loved one?


Amy: It is difficult for people to understand the impact that incarceration has on people if they aren’t themselves affected. The concept of, in The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s words, “a shared sentence,” is not sufficiently ingrained in our nation’s consciousness. Among the challenges we’ve always had at POPS is finding ways to sensitize people—including educators, funders, and donors—to the needs of kids who have or have had loved ones incarcerated. Of course, many stigmatize anyone associated with prison, but even those who are already sensitive to the incarcerated often only think of the incarcerated/formerly incarcerated person, not about those who love them.


Secrecy is also a big challenge. Too often, even loved ones wish their children to keep their family member’s incarceration a secret from everyone, including school officials, friends, and neighbors. Thus, the burden of their secret continues.


Ava: What can people do to help families and children deal with the secrecy of incarceration?


Amy: Be open about how wise and strong and talented and resilient the children of incarcerated — and siblings and other loved ones of the incarcerated — are.


That has always been my goal - beginning with helping these youth themselves to recognize their strengths, and beyond that, to amplifying their wisdom, vision, and voices to the rest of the world.


Ava: What specific tips would you give to children coping with adversity?


Amy: The first tip I would give would be to resist those who insist you must keep the truth of your life a secret from those who are supposed to be your supporters—especially teachers and school administrators, and peers.


The second tip I would give would be to utilize any opportunity to reach out to others who are coping with similar adversities. I remember, on the first day of our first POPS meeting, the first two girls who walked into the room turned out to have been friends since kindergarten. They were very good friends, and they knew a lot about each other, but what neither one of them knew was that the other one ALSO had a dad in prison. It was a secret they had not shared over their many years as friends. When they realized that they shared this experience, their bond deepened, and the relief they felt at not having to carry that secret any longer changed everything for them. Through POPS the Club meetings, we’ve found again and again that being able to express one’s truth is the beginning of freedom.


Ava: Listening to all your great advice, I have to ask you what or who has most influenced your thoughts on incarceration?


Amy: Well, I would say that it is the hundreds of men, women, and children that I now know who have been/are incarcerated or have an incarcerated loved one.


Before 1992 (when I began writing about prison), my idea of prison and prisoners was shaped entirely by (and often misinformed by) movies, television, and misleading statistics. I knew a few people who had gone to prison or jail, and I blamed them for bad behavior, figuring that we had a reasonable justice system.


I wasn’t conscious of what I now know to be a caste-like system in the U.S… how we have created a “second-class citizens”, (largely composed of black and brown citizens) who are denied unimaginable rights forever.


I didn’t understand the challenges incarceration imposes, the challenges of re-entry into society, and certainly not the challenges placed on families.


I didn’t understand the impact of having a criminal record and the denial of basic civil and human rights imposed on prisoners—including the loss of the right to vote, to serve on juries, to be free of legal discrimination in housing, employment, access to public benefits.


I didn’t understand how all of this impacted the people who have broken a law and have been sentenced to pay a price.


I didn’t understand that once you were labeled as a felon, old forms of discrimination are made legal again. As Michelle Alexander puts it in one of the most important books ever written, The New Jim Crow, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”


But most of all, I didn’t understand how this impacted incarcerated members’ loved ones as well.


Ava: If you were giving one last piece of advice about how to make a difference, what would you say?


Amy: We need to accept the fact that, in the United States, we have created a penal system that is unprecedented in our world history, one that is hobbling more than half of our population. We must challenge our assumptions and admit our stereotypes, biases, and misconceptions. We are all part of the problem, but each of us can become part of the solution. However, that takes will.


For those who feel helpless, begin by finding a person or organization fighting for social justice who you can help to support. Read the words of the young people in organizations like POPS the Club, Echoes of Incarceration, Daughters Behind Bars, KidsMates, Girl Scouts Behind Bars, The Place4Grace, and more.


In the end, we can all make a difference.


Ava: Thank you, Amy, for sharing. You’re right, together we can all make a difference!


If you’d like to find out more about POPS the Club, you can contact them at info@popsclubs.org.

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