— By Icy Frantz
Growing up, screen time in my family’s home was limited. There were not many screens to manage, but the one screen, an old fashioned deep-set tv in our family room, was strictly regulated by my mother, not so much for content but for amount of time spent in front of it.
I remember the excitement of the much-anticipated Friday night watching Brady Bunch and Partridge Family and in my younger years, Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. We didn’t really think about what we were watching, whether it was a blended family with a housekeeper named Alice, or a teenage band traveling around in a colorful bus, or a man dressed in a cardigan following his daily routine of changing from his work shoes into his more comfortable sneakers singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” It was time spent unwinding, but with substance that crept into my soul and has stayed with me all of these years.
To say that Mr. Rogers impacted me greatly is probably an overstatement, but he taught me about the importance of neighborhood. I have been the benefactor of many wonderful neighborhoods. Early on, my family lived on a dead-end street where neighborhood friends would meet after school to play games at the house with the biggest front yard. When I was a little older, we lived in an association and I remember my parents dropping my older sister and I off at a neighbor’s home in the middle of the night, when our younger sister was born. And, in my teens, I lived in a condominium complex, where we traveled safely on bikes and enjoyed a wonderful sense of freedom arriving home just in time for dinner.
My neighborhood of today is also idyllic. It’s safe and friendly, and if the roads could talk, they would tell you there is a certain cadence and routine to the day and to the year. Many early risers leave for various jobs at sun up, while school children congregate to await buses or are driven to school. Dog walkers and joggers are next to travel our roads. In Autumn, high school children with new licenses often drive a little too fast, disturbing the collected leaves, deposited for pick up on the sides of the road, and in the spring, those out for some exercise stroll past trees and plants, just blooming and transforming our little community. In summer, our children ride bikes and scooters, sell lemonade and play soccer. It’s a small geographical space we claim as our own, and I would like to think that we support each other and that our neighborhood has a hand in shaping the next generation. And, for this, we are lucky.
But just north on I-95, there are neighborhoods in our state that look and feel vastly different. These are neighborhoods often infused with gang activity, poor quality housing and few resources. Schools are overcrowded and jobs are limited. Roads are worn and cracked and garbage is piled on the sidewalks. In fact, some of these neighborhoods are the most dangerous in our country, and I have to wonder how growing up in these geographical spaces shapes the next generation?
The other night, I had the opportunity to attend an event hosted by Family Reentry, a nonprofit dedicated to helping reduce the likelihood of reincarceration for its clients, young men and women who have spent time behind bars. The statistics shared were eye-opening and tragic.
In Connecticut, one in three black men will be incarcerated.
Bridgeport and Hartford alone account for 24% of the state’s prison population.
The average taxpayer in Connecticut pays over $62,000 a year to house an inmate.
The average daily inmate population in Connecticut is 18,492.
According to a study by the Connecticut Department of Corrections, within 5 years of release, 79% of formerly incarcerated people are rearrested and 50% are returned to prison with a new sentence.
Over the past year, Family Reentry has successfully cut down on rearrest rates though its Domestic Violence program. Rearrest rates of those receiving services was below 8%, which is well below the state’s 12% rate. Also, within Family Reentry’s residential programs, 90% of the clients were able to transition into the community and long-range housing after securing employment and maintaining a savings account. Providing services to recently released inmates and their families has the potential to save the state money and help transform an individual and a neighborhood and a generation.
We heard from a client, a young man who had been in and out of the prison system for most of his life. This young man was caught in a cycle, one in which he grew up surrounded by adults, many of whom had spent time behind bars and in a neighborhood where, seemingly, the best way to make money was to sell drugs. He, too, found himself behind bars and upon release his record prevented him from getting a job, and so he ended up back in “pharmaceutical sales” and then back behind bars. He found Family Reentry, or perhaps Family Reentry found him, and he was able to break the cycle. He was lucky.
I may not understand a life behind bars, but I understand a little about second chances and fresh starts. I think to a certain extent, we all do. We have been given them. In fact, I have been given many and I needed them and I still do, even with all of the wonderful neighborhoods in which I have lived, raising and supporting me. Maybe, that’s why I identified so strongly with the mission of Family Reentry and was impacted and asked the question. What do you need?
What do you need? This question makes me feel like I am tackling our child’s back to school list: backpack, mechanical pencils, a composition journal and wouldn’t it be nice if it could be that tidy, that simple? I assumed the organization, like most, would need resources and they do, and volunteer time, which they do, but the answer I got made me really think:
“We need to help people gain awareness.”
Becoming aware is like waking up from a good night’s sleep. Sometimes, it’s a gentle awakening with the first light of day, a calm stretch and a slow gradual start, but other times it’s the result of the shrill sound of an alarm clock, abrupt and jarring. For me, learning about Family Reentry and the problems associated with incarceration was more like the latter. It was an awareness that literally yanked me out from beneath my warm comforter. Sometimes a new awareness does that.
Our children would tell you that I am not a fan of too much screen time and what really gets to me has less to do with content and more to do with posture. It’s the looking down when, really, we need to be looking up and looking out. We need to look up at the neighborhood around us and into the eyes of others and, if you believe, we need to look up to the heavens for guidance and inspiration. We need to look out beyond our own backyard, beyond the gates and our own understanding. And, we need to look out for each other.
Neighborhoods impact us, and I am aware of the impact of strong and supportive neighborhoods, the ones with the celebratory balloons tied to the mailboxes and the make shift lemonade stands. And, I am aware that not every child is so blessed to grow up with balloons and lemonade stands. Being a good neighbor is all about a watchful eye and support for each other. The real question is: where do we draw the line, the line that divides us rather than connects us?  Where does one neighborhood end and the next one begin?  Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe Mr. Rogers said it best: “Won’t you be my neighbor.”

 

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