MILWAUKEE — IT’S the singular guest at a prison who receives a standing ovation from inmates. I’ve heard of only two: Johnny Cash and Percy Pitzer, a retired warden who in 2012 started a nonprofit corporation to award college scholarships to children of inmates.
I sit on the board of Mr. Pitzer’s group, called the Creative Corrections Education Foundation. I recently went with him to visit some of the inmates at the Milwaukee County House of Correction. It was morning and many were still on their thin mattresses — sleeping, reading, crocheting, playing cards — as he began a day of speeches.
He started in H6, a 60-bed women’s dorm. “Good morning, ladies. I’m Percy Pitzer, from Beaumont, Texas,” he began. He told them that he had made a living for his family by working for the Bureau of Prisons, and that he and his wife wanted to give back. So he’d kick-started a scholarship fund with $150,000 of his own money. But he wanted it to become an inmate-funded venture, and said it would not work without their help.
“Will you help me with the price of a candy bar a month?” he asked.
His audience probably had a sense of the odds working against their children. Close to seven million children in the United States have a parent involved in some form of correctional intervention — jail, prison, probation or parole. More than two million have parents behind bars. The impact is largely focused on minority communities. Families of inmates are left with very little on which to survive, and so the cycle of poverty and crime goes unbroken. According to the American Correctional Association, up to 50 percent of incarcerated juveniles have an incarcerated parent.