The Cellblock on Sesame Street

Today, even Sesame Street intersects with Incarceration Boulevard.

New Character Alex on Sesame StreetThe most important thing you can learn from Alex, a new Sesame Street character with an incarcerated dad, is that he exists. While he’s not yet a regular on the show, Alex is out there on the Internet, interacting with your children via the “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” initiative, an online tool kit designed to help kids aged 3-8 deal with having parents in custody.

To some, that might sound a little scary. But fear not, Helicopters, there’s safety in numbers. One of every 28 children in the United States has a parent in prison, so Alex has a lot of friends, some of whom are already interacting with your child in real life.

WheresMom_TulsaPeopleThis is what makes Sesame Street so special, because it traditionally tackles issues head-on, literally at the 3-foot level. Because parents can’t always be there.

The show’s producers and writers (and by extension, sponsors) often address the questions children ask about a variety of subjects that confuse, confound, and anger us grownups. This time, the topic at hand is incarceration – and the reality that 2.7 million U.S. children have a mom or a dad in prison. Alex is Sesame Street’s answer to the soaring numbers of kids in America who have questions about what it means to be quarantined from the rest of society. “Coming from a Muppet, it’s almost another child telling their story to the children,” Jeanette Betancourt, vice president of outreach and educational practices at the Sesame Workshop, told NBC’s Today.

Criminal detention and life behind bars is about as dark a subject as you could ever cover with a child. I’m not a parent, so I’ve never had that conversation, but I’ve witnessed and overheard hundreds.

In visiting rooms at the various prison facilities in which I was housed during my four-year tour, it was hard to pull my eyes from the interactions between incarcerated fathers and their children. (And to say it’s not polite to stare in prison is a deadly understatement, believe me.) I witnessed everything from familiar representations of guilt, phony-baloney contrition, overwhelming love, and genuine pride to awkward reverence and equal opportunity resentment.

Much of this extends well beyond the individual child-parent bond. There are caretakers, aunts and uncles, older and younger brothers, and so forth, all of whom have an elephant in the room that needs to be addressed, who have questions that need attention from the best person to answer them: the one who doesn’t get to leave.

So bravo! Sesame Street, for showing adults how urgently we need to start educating our children  –and ourselves–  about the effects of mass incarceration. It’s a problem that won’t likely be going away any time soon.