NEW YORK — Grab your hankies: To help kids coping with a parent in prison, "Sesame Street" created a Muppet whose father can't play with him because he's in jail.
"Sesame Street" has always made it part of its larger mission to address all children, not just the ones with traditional families or easily digestible experiences. In the latest move toward that goal, the popular children's program created an online toolkit, titled "Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration," for those struggling to raise a child who has an incarcerated parent. Released just in time to help kids in need get through Father's Day, the toolkit has its detractors. Alex Jones naturally went into full-blown conspiracy theory mode on Infowars, calling it a "propaganda program designed to help children accept the fact that daddy is in jail" by dangerously telling kids that "all you have to do is talk about your feelings, draw a few pictures, write letters to your dad, and toddle off to visit him in jail every now and then and everything will be all rainbows and lollipops." (Better to tell them . . . what?) Mike Riggs at Reason was also angry, though not at "Sesame Street" but at the U.S. government for incarcerating so many people that these kinds of materials are necessary. He points out that nearly 7 million people are under correctional supervision in this country, writing, "congratulations, America, on making it almost normal to have a parent in prison or jail."
Obviously, "Sesame Street" can't do anything about the growth of the police state or the war on drugs that has resulted in the massive incarceration numbers in this country. The show is just trying to help innocent children deal with the repercussions. But Riggs is absolutely right: That this even has to exist in the first place shows how much pointless damage our prison system does not just to people who are caught up in the overly punitive, often racially biased justice system, but also to their families. As Jill Filipovic writes in the Guardian:
Since 1980, the US prison population has grown by 790 percent. We have the largest prison population of any nation in the history of the world. One in three African-American men will go to jail at some point in his life. Imprisoning that many people, most of them for non-violent offenses, doesn't come cheap, especially when you're paying private contractors. The United States now spends $50 billion on our corrections system every year.
Sesame Street isn't the problem, but hopefully the very existence of this video and online toolkit can help wake people up to the way that excessive incarceration is destroying families and hurting the most vulnerable children.