Author of the Month
Jan Walker
[September 2006]
Chosen by reviewer Beverly Rowe, MyShelf.Com


    For nearly two decades, Jan Walker entered the medium and maximum security prisons where she taught convicted felons. These men and women were parents and family members though they were incarcerated robbers, murderers, and sexual and drug offenders. She helped them to cope with the realities of their situations and coached them on being responsible, caring and involved parents.

Jan became an advocate for the children of these prisoners, and worked to try to make the world a better place for them. She conducted controversial classes on how to parent from a distance, and was the coordinator of a pioneering program on personal and social responsibility to help these families deal with the prejudice and isolation they experienced in the communities and schools.

I chose Jan Walker as Author of the Month because of her selfless contributions to society, and wonderful sensitivity as a writer. I have great respect and admiration for this lady. Her middle grade story about one of these children, An Inmate's Daughter, touched me deeply. Jan has also written textbooks for use in the prisons for teaching how to parent from a distance, and has spoken to many groups, trying to increase awareness about the problems these kids face.

I asked Jan about her career in the prison network and her writing. Here is what we talked about:


Interview

Bev: Jan, I just finished reading An Inmate's Daughter. I guess the plight of the children of inmates is something we, who are not involved with them, really don't consider. The book really opened my eyes. Tell us about developing the plot and characters in this book.

Jan: I learned early in my 18 year career that incarcerated parents love their children, but that they are often ashamed of their choices that led to prison. Many of them made up stories about being away in school or working too far from home to be with the children, and then sent letters to a distant friend or relative to mail. The stories prevented the parent/child relationship from growing and modeled lying rather than honesty. I taught students simple ways to explain prison to their children ... "I broke an adult rule or law. Prison is my consequence. It's not your fault."

Of course, children often asked, "What rule or law," and they needed to understand the concept of consequences that follow behaviors. We worked on age-appropriate answers to help students grow beyond saying, "I did something bad." Young children need very simple explanations; older children and adolescents need truths without blood and gore descriptions. For instance, one incarcerated dad explained to his four year old daughter that he and his friends got in a fight with another group and one man died. He didn't want to say "murder" or even "homicide". He explained that when someone dies, the prison sentence is very long. He then told her how many birthdays she would have before he came home. He was lucky: his wife brought his children to visit at least twice a month.

I taught incarcerated women first, and then moved to McNeil Island Corrections Center, a medium custody men's prison, where men enrolled in parenting and family classes or came by my classroom or office for advice. For many, the biggest struggle was in balancing what they learned about positive parenting with the conflicts they had with their children's primary caregivers. They were quick to learn concepts, but they had little experience as the parent who copes with children all day, every day.

In An Inmate's Daughter, the conflict between Jenna's incarcerated Dad and her mom who is in reality living the existence of a single parent who feels burdened by her responsibilities, sets up much of Jenna's struggle. Jenna is caught in the dilemma almost all children of incarcerated parents experience. She's a young teen who wants a life similar to other children her age, but our culture makes that almost impossible. That's the story I wanted to tell.

Bev: Why did you go from teaching post high school students to teaching adult felons in a prison environment?

Jan: When the state legislature mandated that all prison education would be handled by community colleges rather than local high schools, the dean of my community college program asked me to set up a Home and Family program at the women's prison. I had a strong background in parenting and family studies plus an additional skill needed for the population at that time ... I'm an accomplished seamstress, and the women's prison had offered sewing classes and wanted to maintain them.

I said I'd go "inside" for one year. As I wrote in the memoir of my prison teaching career, I continued saying I'd do one more year for another 17 years. The population intrigued me. They were women like me who'd endured serious problems in their lives and made horrible choices to counter those problems. They needed so much ... basic education, family education, job skills training, medical and dental care, emotional counseling. Once there, I couldn't walk away.

 

Bev: How long have you been involved with educating adult felons about family values?

Jan: I started teaching at the women's prison in Washington state in 1979. In a sense, I've never stopped, though I have retired. One of my published works written just for incarcerated parents, Parenting From A Distance: Your Rights and Responsibilities, was reissued last December and is still a popular book in state and federal prisons.

 

Bev: When did you first become interested in the plight of the children of felons?

Jan: Quite possibly my first day inside when my first students ... Moms much like me ... started talking about their children. Children in foster care; moms facing termination of parental rights so the children could be placed for adoption even though most of those children were beyond adoptable age; children living with grandparents who loved them but felt too old to start rearing children again; children with the inmates' sisters who had their own to rear; children who came to visit their moms inside and who sobbed and clung when they had to leave; new babies born to incarcerated moms and then handed over to a foster mom 24 or 48 hours after their birth. Those foster moms are wonderful, but those babies need time to bond with their birth moms.

 

Bev: An Inmate's Daughter really brings out the value of honesty in dealing with these children. It has to be difficult to hold one's head up when society considers a child's Mom or Dad "bad," so what about honesty in dealing with the teachers, friends, and people that touch the children's lives on a daily basis?

Jan: Teachers, friends, all who touch these children's lives, need help with children of incarcerated parents. I recently spoke with sixth graders who were reading An Inmate's Daughter, and I have a collection of their stories and comments. I've written an article for teachers based on some of those stories. One girl said she keeps her feelings about her incarcerated dad inside until she gets mad, and then she does something horrible, like break things. She tried not to get soft and cry. She hardly ever does her homework.

Another girl, now in foster care, said she feels terrible because her dad was "... the parent who took care of her and paid the bills and did everything ..." and now he's in prison and she won't see him until she's 21. She's "too bored" to do her school work. (Boredom generally masks both anger and fear.)

One boy said he's "Pissed off mad." In all, 18 sixth graders in one middle school wrote stories about a parent (sometimes both parents) in prison. Their teachers report all 18 are doing poorly in school, both with assignments and with social skills development.

 

Bev: How can these inmates, both Dads and Moms, remain active in their families, to be parents even though they are incarcerated, and not able to deal with their children's everyday life?

Jan: They must do all they can through letters, phone calls and visits (if they're permitted) to learn about their children's daily lives. They must learn how to talk with their children about school and what they're studying. They need to ask about TV programs the children watch and watch the same programs so they discuss the values portrayed in those programs. They need to talk about food and nutrition, ask the children to tell them what they ate during the last 24 hours (Twenty-four hour dietary recall), and they must be willing to tell the children the truth about their own dietary intake. (Inmates like to complain about the food ... they need to get beyond that and talk about the nutrients, and examine their own habits. If they're spending money at the prison store on sodas, chips and candy, they need to think about what they're doing to their own health.)

Incarcerated parents need to learn how to talk to their children about life. I taught inmate moms and dads how to talk to their children about lying, cheating, stealing; about gangs and street life; about sex and hormones. Being in prison doesn't relieve parents of their responsibilities. If they're fortunate enough to be in touch with their children, they need to accept the tough tasks, not just demand visits and phone calls.

 

Bev: One of your books, Parenting From a Distance, Your Rights and Responsibilities, was written to use as a text for your prison classes. Is this text still in use in the Washington prison system? How about other states?

Jan: The book has been widely used across the country and in Canada since 1986. I just revised it late last year and began distributing it again in January of this year. It is available from my website, and should soon be available from a distributor who sells other titles to correctional education programs.

I am also the author of Dancing To The Concertina's Tune: A Prison Teacher's Memoir, available from the University Press of New England or online at Amazon. The coiled barbed wire that tops prison fences is called Razor Wire Concertina, and is designed to shred human flesh to ribbons. The book's premise is that all who enter prison are impacted by the environment and, as a teacher, I danced as fast as I could.

 

Bev: You are the president of the Peninsula Writers' Association, and conduct workshops for writers? Tell us about that.

Jan: I've just become past president, though I will remain active in the association. As an association, we have held several writers' conferences and workshops, and hosted many well known writers in our small community. As a presenter, I often conduct "Write From Life" workshops where I teach concepts that apply to both fiction and memoir, and that cover many basics of good writing. Most writers develop stories that grow out of incidents we've experienced. Our memories may be flawed, but those that continually come back to us were stored because of their emotional impact at the time. Draw on the emotions that accompanied those incidents, and learn how to perfect the writing craft. Then, share the stories with others who will recognize the emotions in their own experiences.

 

Bev: Are you retired from teaching now? Do you plan to write other books based on your experiences in the prison environment?

Jan: I am retired and I write full time. My memoir mentioned above recounts my experiences inside prisons and gives readers an honest look at inmates, correctional staff, and some of the programs available. Though I am focusing on writing fiction, I am also continuing to write and speak for the rights of children of incarcerated parents.

 

Bev: What is your current writing project?

Jan: I am currently writing a novel about a fifteen year old boy hitchhiking from Oregon to Washington to find his mother who is doing time at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. His mother is trying to horn in on the story to tell her side of why she's in prison and why she wasn't there for her son. I know how the story ends, but the adventures and mishaps along the way have yet to be resolved.

 

Bev: Do you have any advice for people that would like to become involved with helping the children of felons? Are there any organizations they could contact?

Jan: The children need and deserve respect and support from all of us, and especially need those with time and energy to volunteer in their behalf. Anyone interested might begin by checking with Boys and Girls Clubs, their local churches, and the volunteer coordinator at nearby prisons and jails.

Family and Corrections Network (www.fcnetwork.org) can lead you to many organizations who work with inmate families.

Many state legislatures are beginning to examine the issue of children of incarcerated parents. The need is growing. There are currently over 2 million children with a parent in prison or jail, and those numbers increase every day. Without intervention from all of us (from the legislature to every individual), many of these children will one day be incarcerated themselves.

 

Bev: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share with us?

Jan: I wrote a chapter in my memoir about sex offenders I taught. Most of those who took parenting classes were court ordered to do so because they would one day return to their families. In that chapter, I stated that in Washington state criminal code there are sixteen (16) classifications of crimes in the "Sex Offenses" title, and there are three other classifications that deal with sex-related crimes.

Not all "sex offenders" are level three, or most likely to re-offend. When you learn a sex offender is moving into your neighborhood or near your children's or grandchildren's schools, take time to learn more about the offender's crime. In my experience and opinion, the following information is most crucial: Was he (she) a one-time offender? Did he complete educational, vocational and therapy programs while in prison? Does he have family support?

In my opinion, if the answer to those three questions is Yes, the offender has a reasonable chance to become a functioning member of society and deserves the chance.

Be informed. Please don't overreact without reason.


Review

An Inmate's Daughter
By by Jan Walker
Illustrated by Herb Leonhard

Raven Publishing
February 2006
0-9714161-9-2
Trade paperback
Children/Fiction - Grade 5-8

Reviewed: 2006
Buy it at Amazon

Reviewed by Beverly J. Rowe, MyShelf.com

More than two million children in the United States must deal with the stigma of an incarcerated parent. These children need help to cope with the problems they encounter, but few receive this assistance. Jan Walker tackles the problem head-on in this book. Since there are children in every school with an incarcerated parent, this book should be in every school library.
The story tells about thirteen-year old Jenna MacDonald, whose father is in prison for murder. Mom's "don't tell" rule requires that Jenna and her brother fabricate stories about their dad. Jenna, her brother, and her mother have moved in with grandparents to live closer to McNeil Island where her father is incarcerated. Being half Native American contributes to Jenna's difficulty in trying to make new friends and to fit in with a group at school.

During a visit to the prison on the first day of summer vacation, Jenna dives into the water to rescue a small girl when she falls off the dock at the prison. When the Department of Corrections investigates the accident, the publicity threatens to expose the story of Jenna's dad to all her new friends at school. Jenna's mother is upset because her actions have called attention to their family, and now Jenna questions her own decision to rescue the drowning child. Why did I do such a dumb thing?

Jenna longs for a friend that she can talk to about her feelings, but when she tries to join one of the racially-mixed "in" groups, they ask questions about her family, bringing the tensions between Jenna's need for acceptance and her mother's desire for secrecy to a head.

Jan Walker's plotting and characterization skills are exceptional. You can really feel Jenna's isolation and pain. This book would be a great addition to your children's library and a wonderful family night conversation starter to help promote tolerance and acceptance in your children.


Email

Booklist -Amazon.com-

Dancing to the Concertina's Tune: A Prison Teacher's Memoir - June 2004

Parenting from a Distance: July 1987

Downloadable Curriculum as presented in Jan's classrooms:

Family Series:Child Development

Family Series:Family History

Parenting Series

2006's Honorary List

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