Every morning, 16-year-old Justice McKinnley wakes up to the harsh reality that her father is not there; her father is in prison. She’s dealt with this for four years now, and her dad’s not due home until 2013.
“Every single day it hurts that I won’t see my daddy,” said McKinnley. “Since my daddy got sentenced to prison, my life changed for the worse.”
McKinnley, her older brother and her mother currently live in North Lawndale, where she is a freshman at North Lawndale College Prep High School. After her father’s incarceration, she said she became severely depressed and began to rebel in school. She also often found herself in violent confrontations in her neighborhood.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, black children are nine times more likely than white children to have an incarcerated parent. Studies have also shown children with incarcerated parents are more likely to end up incarcerated themselves.
Dr. Betty J. Allen-Green is on a mission to change this.
With a shoestring budget, Green is helping kids in North Lawndale and beyond create a path different from their parents.
She is the founder and executive director of the Lawndale Amachi Mentoring Program (LAMP), which offers mentoring services to young people with incarcerated parents living in the North Lawndale community.
“Our object is to break the cycle of incarceration,” said Green.
According to the Council of Crime and Justice, children with incarcerated parents face several different challenges. These challenges can include the loss or change of a caregiver, limited access to a parent during and after incarceration and behavioral and emotional issues such as academic failure, juvenile delinquency and developmental issues.
LAMP was launched in 2006 by staff including Green at Theodore Herzl Elementary School located at 3711 W. Douglas Blvd. in North Lawndale. Green was the school’s principal at the time and there were several students with jailed parents, including McKinnley.
“Children need a program like LAMP because they tend to have instability, especially if it’s the mother who’s incarcerated,” said Billeka Palmer, an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer with the program. “Children need the stability in knowing that someone will be there.”
A 2006 investigation by the Chicago Reporter called “Uncounted and Unseen” found that “children of incarcerated parents are disproportionately poor, African-American and Latino, and for many, their lives are shaped by the same cycle of poverty, violence and recidivism that ensnares their parents.”
According to the Department of Justice, in 1999 an estimated 767,200 black children, 384,500 white children and 301,600 Hispanic children had a parent in prison.
“Many children with incarcerated parents become invisible victims of crime, part of an ill-defined population that often sees its needs unmet,” said study co-author Jeff Kelly Lowenstein.
Kelly Lowenstein and his colleagues found that children’s needs are not a legal priority in the judicial process. Programs for children with incarcerated parents that do exist are specifically dedicated to reuniting families before the parents’ release. However, he believes that positive intervention needs to take place in these young people’s lives throughout their parents’ incarceration.
The impact of incarceration is especially harmful in a community like North Lawndale that already struggles with so many social and economic problems. LAMP focuses mainly on the North Lawndale community, collaborating with 13 elementary schools and a high school in the neighborhood. Green also works on the issue city-wide.
LAMP was patterned after the nationally recognized Amachi program in Philadelphia. The word “Amachi” derives from Nigerian language, meaning “Who knows what God has brought us through this child.”