Amachi: Faith-Based Mentoring to Children of Prisoners

Prison has always been a part of my life. I grew up hearing stories of my mother and my older sister going to Alderson Women’s Prison in West Virginia, where my mother helped facilitate nonviolence trainings with Community for Creative Conflict Resolution, a precursor to the Alternatives to Violence Project. When I was a child, a 15-year-old playmate of mine from my meeting was sentenced to 35 years in prison. When I was 21 years old, I spent three weeks in an Italian prison on suspicion of "criminal association" in the wake of a political demonstration in Genoa where I had been working as a journalist and researching the techniques of nonviolence. My co-defendants (the Publixtheatre Caravan, a street-theater troupe) and I are still facing a possible trial in this matter. All of these experiences have led me to a particular concern for the hidden members of our society, those from whom all control over their own lives has been taken away: America’s prisoners. For this reason, I became interested in Amachi.

It is difficult to draw conclusions about Amachi, a national initiative to provide caring, committed mentors to the children of prisoners. No one can deny the program’s tremendous impact, nor the need that it addresses. The program has grown nationwide at a dizzying rate and is currently the most extensive and best-organized one-on-one mentoring program for children of prisoners in the United States.

Since Amachi was started in Philadelphia in April 2001, 25 cities across the country have adopted the Amachi model, and 75 more cities in 37 states have adopted similar programs, influenced by Amachi’s work, to mentor the children of prisoners. As of March 31, 2003, Amachi had 482 mentors; 82 percent of these mentors are African American, a much higher percentage than that generally found among large-scale mentoring organizations.

However, as with all programs funded by the President’s Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program (FBCI), it raises disturbing First-Amendment questions about the federal government’s role in encouraging religious activities, especially among one of the United States’ most vulnerable populations. In addition, questions remain as to the best ways to heal the social wounds caused by incarceration.

Amachi is innovative in its format: parents are contacted directly in prison and give organizers contact information for their children’s caregivers, while volunteer mentors are recruited through church congregations either local to the children’s communities or working in partnership with a local church. For a year or more, mentors spend at least one hour a week with the children they are paired with, engaging in recreational, cultural, educational, and religious activities.

Amachi’s financial management and oversight is provided by the national nonprofit research and consulting agency Public/Private Ventures. Organizational expertise in screening and training mentors comes from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS), a nationwide program with 100 years’ history of providing guidance and academic assistance to children through committed, long-term, one-on-one mentoring.

Two-thirds of Amachi’s funding comes from private sources such as the Pinkerton Foundation, whose goal is to "reduce juvenile delinquency." The remaining third comes from municipal and federal sources such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grants made available to delinquency-preventing programs via the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, and the Corporation for National Service. The White House FBCI office now also offers special grants to programs that mentor the children of prisoners.

Amachi’s theoretical basis comes from the criminology research of John J. DiIulio Jr., former director of the White House FBCI Office, and Byron Johnson, both professors with University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society. Byron Johnson’s study of a "Christian prison" in Houston, Texas, provided part of the theoretical foundation for Governor Jeb Bush’s controversial "faith-based prison" initiative in Florida.

John DiIulio may be best known to some as the man who coined the term "superpredator," in 1996, when referring to the urban children whose families he called "fatherless, Godless, and jobless" and who he warned would soon sweep the United States with violent crime. Much of the public fear of urban youth generated by that warning led to harsh mandatory-sentencing laws for first-time and juvenile offenders that have caused the juvenile jail population to triple between 1990 and 2000; ironically, violent crime has continued to drop steadily since 1994.

Describing Amachi, presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer reported, "Without effective intervention, 70 percent of these children will likely follow their parent’s path into prison or jail." Many Amachi mentors hope the program will encourage academic achievement, community involvement, self-esteem, and social skills. However, this emphasis on preventing "juvenile delinquency" raises the question of whether Amachi’s funders view the children of prisoners as a threatened population, or as a threat.

The name "Amachi" comes from Nigeria—an Ibo word that, when given as a child’s name, means, "Who knows what God has brought us through this child?" However, the program’s founder, Rev. W. Wilson Goode Sr., pointed out to me in a telephone interview that teaching African heritage and culture is not part of the program, and neither is incorporating children’s parents in the mentoring relationship.

Wilson Goode explained, "The children are recruited by my going into the prison and talking to the incarcerated parents." To sign up children for the program, "the parent gives the name, gender, and caregiver of the child, and there is no further involvement with the incarcerated parent after that point." Wilson Goode knows firsthand the devastating effect that the criminal justice system can have on families; he was mayor of Philadelphia in 1985, when police dropped an incendiary bomb on the MOVE family home at 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia, killing six adults and five children. However, when I questioned him as to how that experience has affected his work, he an-swered, "It is not an issue. It has never come up."

Mentors’ relationships and activities with children must be approved by the children’s primary caregivers and parents, but, in general, mentoring activities take place in a context outside of the child’s normal family life. When I asked Rev. Paul Karlberg, associate pastor at Bryn Mawr’s Proclamation Church, whether parents were involved in the mentoring process, he answered, "No, they just allow us to come in and work with their children, and we talk with them on the side."

When I asked one Amachi mentor which of his Little Brother’s parents had formerly been incarcerated, he answered, "The subject never really came up. We’ve never really addressed it." As I observed his mentoring session, however, his Little Brother brought up the topic of incarceration himself, saying, "My friend got locked up for trespassing and fighting with somebody in the school. He wasn’t supposed to be in the school yard. He was suspended from school. They took him to juvenile hall."

The child then offered the most cogent analysis of social causes for "juvenile delinquency" that I have come across thus far: "They said that if people was gonna fight them, they was gonna fight [back]." When the mentor then asked, "Why do you think people fight?" the boy answered, "If they jealous of the other person, or maybe that person talking about them behind their back, or maybe if they think that person can’t fight." Given such strong incentives to fight, children will need strong support to protect them from those who might jail them for fighting.

Philadelphia has approximately 20,000 children with parents in prison or jail, and nationwide there are about 2.5 million children with parents in prison or jail. According to a 2001 U.S. Senate report, children whose parents are or have been incarcerated are themselves incarcerated at six times the rate of peers whose parents have never been to prison or jail.

Although Amachi is still too young to measure long-term results among participating children, in BBBS’s 100-year history it has achieved marked success in improving academic performance and decreasing first-time drug usage among participating children. Initial Amachi evaluations have shown increased school attendance and increased self-esteem among participating children, but it is important to remember that "delinquency" is far from the only cause of incarceration among the poor, urban, and ethnic minority youth so often deemed "at risk."

As race, class, and power are so closely intertwined in U.S. society, the national rate of incarceration among African Americans is more than five times the incarceration rate among European Americans; Latino Americans are incarcerated at over twice the rate of European Americans. African American children, especially those living in poor and urban communities, often face the same targeting for prosecution, disproportionate sentencing, excessive bail, and inadequate legal representation that their parents have faced.

A factor that must be considered when dealing with generational cycles of incarceration is the simple momentum that our country’s prison boom has gathered over the past 20 years. With 6.7 million people in prison or jail, or on probation or parole, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world; this hits no one harder than children. The population of women under correctional supervision has increased more than six-fold since 1980, and three-quarters of women in prison are mothers.

There are many reasons for this, including mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, reforms that make it more difficult for single mothers to receive welfare, and insufficient funding for emergency shelter for victims of domestic abuse. These factors lead to increased prosecutions of mothers for financial offenses, nonviolent drug offenses such as being the leaseholder to properties where a partner’s drugs are found, and the use of defensive physical force within a wider context of domestic violence.

Children of prisoners may deal with feelings of isolation due to the social stigma of having a family member in prison, the trauma of seeing a parent taken away in what could be a sudden or frightening arrest, and grief at having a parent who is alive but unreachable. The geographical distance of many prisons from the communities where prisoners’ families live, the high cost of telephoning from prison, and inhospitable visiting conditions all further the alienation of prisoners from their families. In addition, children of prisoners live with the threat of being permanently separated from their incarcerated parents because of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which allows courts to terminate parental rights if a child is in foster care for 15 months out of any 22-month period; many mothers spend more time than that simply awaiting trial.

Given the social and psychological pressures placed on the children of prisoners, these children’s special needs for intensive community support becomes painfully clear. Churches have stepped in admirably to provide support, often with the support of local and federal governments; for example, Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia supports not only an Amachi mentorship program, but a neighborhood credit union, a charter school, a public computer lab, after-school programs, welfare-to-work services, emergency food distribution, drug and alcohol counseling, and a range of other services. This demonstrates neighborhood-based ministry at its best, and thankfully, churches are not all alone in recognizing the need for holistic community support.

Innovative alternative-sentencing programs are being explored in several states to allow mothers to raise their children while incarcerated; in Santa Fe, California, for example, some nonviolent female drug offenders may serve their sentences with Family Foundations, a community-based residential drug-treatment program, which allows them to keep custody of their children until the age of six. In addition, organizations such as The Mentoring Center and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children provide inclusive models for community-based support to families affected by incarceration that incorporates parents as well as caregivers into the process of mentoring and advocacy for the children of prisoners.

One program based on this holistic model is Centerforce, a San Francisco Bay-area program "to strengthen individuals and families affected by incarceration through a comprehensive system of education and support." Networks of intervention are needed to counteract the social obstacles faced by the prisoners’ children. Emani Davis, director of Center- force’s project to create one-on-one mentoring relationships with the children of prisoners, explains: "Young people shouldn’t have to be lucky to grow up to be successful, productive, and contributing members of society. As mentors, we realize that we’re not going to be with them forever, and that they have a right to a powerful future. Our role is to support them as they grow into that on their own." As Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, chair of the Advisory Group to the Amachi project in Brooklyn, New York, says, quoting n African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child"—including mentors, parents, caregivers, and the entire surrounding community.