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Building family behind bars

Why people inside Jackson State Prison — prisoners and guards — helped Blair Anderson buy a prom dress for his daughter



When Blair Anderson’s youngest daughter was preparing for her high school prom, she needed a dress. That can be a financial stress in many households. But Anderson, a caring father, vowed to pay for his daughter’s dress despite the protests of his wife, who didn’t want to set the girl up for disappointment.

You see, Anderson was incarcerated in a state prison doing 22 years for armed robbery. His daughter was 5 years old when he started serving his sentence. She had few memories of her father at home. But she told her friends that her father was going to buy her dress. She decided if her father didn’t get her a dress, she didn’t want any other. 

Anderson had learned hobby crafts in prison. He made belts, wallets, and the like from leather, stuffed animals such as Teddy bears, and ceramic objects.

“I made more money than most prisoners because I sold hobby craft stuff; more than most prison jobs,” he says.

He put the word out among the prisoners and the guards that he needed to raise the money for his daughter’s dress. Within a couple of days he had enough orders to cover the cost of the dress and got to work. He sent her the money from his prison account.

“I can see the dress right now,” he says. “It was turquoise.”

But this story isn’t about a dress. It’s about the reason people inside Jackson State Prison — prisoners and guards — came through for Anderson.

Anderson had been part of the Black Panthers, the revolutionary socialist organization involved with black empowerment during the 1960s and ’70s. When he left that group he turned the wrong way.

“The majority of Black Panthers went back to academia and business,” Anderson says. “They picked up pens and pencils. I picked up a gun.”

Anderson admits that he committed armed robbery. He was convicted and sent to prison. Doing that amount of time is a good way to become estranged from your family. But Anderson went in determined to maintain those relationships. He asked about programs that could help him be a husband and father while in prison. There weren’t any; so he started one.

“I’m a father of three children,” Anderson says. “It was a personal interest. … I transformed myself into someone that the prison staff could trust to work such a program, had to be someone that a prisoner could trust to talk to about personal things and hold a confidence. I had to learn communication skills.”

What eventually became the Parenting From Prison program started as informal discussions in the prison yard. Eventually he got permission from the warden to research and develop a proposal for such a program. Using surveys among the inmate population, the prison library, and information culled from outside sources such as social agencies and churches, he developed a curriculum and an eight-week course — some men took it several times.

“The immediate impact was that we had created a sacred space in the prison environment to talk about these very vulnerable issues,” Anderson says. 

Joan Blount, who retired from Wayne State University in 2011, has worked in child and parenting development since 1965. Her career has included stints at Detroit Public Schools and the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute’s Healthier Urban Families. When Anderson was preparing to leave prison, he was training other prisoners to maintain the program. They needed a community sponsor for Parenting From Prison at the Mound Correctional Facility where he had been moved. 

“When I saw the curriculum these men had developed, and knowing none of them were educated,” Blount says, “I thought that if they could do this much, I certainly wanted to help them. I volunteered as an adviser and support to them. … I would give background to the theory and science behind it.”

The curriculum Anderson and others developed emphasized communication. Just to stay in contact with your family is a big effort. Telephone calls are expensive, visits are few, and strictly regulated — sometimes prisons are far from where the family lives. Writing letters becomes the backbone of communications. We’re talking about men for whom writing may not be a strong skill.

“The first thing they addressed was communications, letters of apology to their children and the caregivers,” Blount says. “These letters of apology were read to the class and critiqued. … You have to accept responsibility for what you did.”

And these letters didn’t get sent out until the class agreed that it was ready. Many times, problems communicating with a child are complicated because the other parent is angry at the inmate and is blocking access to the child. 

“You have to accept the responsibility,” Blount says. “What you do is change yourself, and another person might respond positively to the changes in you.”

Another aspect of the program included the inmate knowing about community resources outside of prison, so that when there were problems with a child or niece or nephew, the inmate could tell the family where to turn for help. The program also covered things like discipline, managing behavior, education, aspirations, and relationships. 

Children on the outside have their own problems. Issues of abandonment, lack of support (material and psychological), lack of familiarity with the incarcerated parent, shame, and being led astray by others. Communication with incarcerated parents who have transformed themselves alleviates some of that. 

Jeanine Spencer, president of the Field Street Block Club on the east side, has worked with families of incarcerated people in her neighborhood. She cites the case of a young man who got a life sentence at age 16. His son has not ever known his father as anything but a prisoner. However they were able to have a relationship. 

“We’ve kept them in contact ever since he’s been in prison,” says Spencer. “The son is studying to be a doctor. He says the communication had a dramatic effect. He knew prison is a place he did not want to go.” 

Anderson has been out of prison for two-and-a-half years and completed probation. Maintaining a relationship with his family and others helped ease the transition when he re-entered the community. Many people, particularly those who have done long stints, have no support system when they get out of prison. 

However, Parenting From Prison is no longer operating. Jackson State Prison has been shut down, and the Mound facility no longer houses prisoners. Anderson keeps in contact with some friends he has at other facilities who are still incarcerated. 

He’s trying to revive the program from the outside. One thing he’s done is begin networking with Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending, a nonprofit working to reduce the social and economic cost of mass incarceration. 

He’s also started a leatherworking business as part of the Field Street New Work Collective. I wear one of his belts.

It’s never too late to start a garden: Keep Growing Detroit is holding its distribution of transplants and seeds to be planted in late July or early August for harvesting up until Thanksgiving. Things like carrots, beets, radishes, spinach, scallions and broccoli. Distribution is July 17 and 19, at the Plum Street Market Garden, across from the MGM Grand parking ramp. Call 313-757-2535. 

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