When Dad Lives In Jail: A Soft New German Way For Kids To Visit Prisoner Parents

Step outside...
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Katja Auer

NUREMBERG - Paul wanted glitter on his Christmas expand=1] tree ornament; at his age – six – he doesn't think glitter is too girly. His dad took in the request and patiently started applying the glitter to the wet paint of the ornament they're making together.

"What does an angel look like?" a little boy at a neighboring table asks. If there weren't bars on the windows in here this could be any normal arts and crafts workshop.

But because it isn't, Paul’s real name isn't Paul, and the dads didn't want to be identified either. Every two weeks, they have father-child group sessions, where they can talk, play and make things together. Just like a normal family. As if dad didn’t have to return to his prison cell when it's over. As if he didn't have quite a way still to go before he's served out his sentence in the Nuremberg prison.

"Normal prison visits are frightening for children, they are not suitable," says social worker Beate Wölfel of Treffpunkt, a group that helps prisoners’ families. Together with the correctional facility, they organize the father-child sessions by trying to minimize the prison-visit feel – which on this day before Christmas is especially successful: every child has received a gift, and toys litter the space.

Regular prison visits take place in a sterile environment, with visitors and prisoners sitting opposite each other. Signs of affection may only be shown if the guards generously choose to look the other way for a few seconds. Whereas in the father-child sessions, cuddling is allowed – Wölfel and her colleagues know how important this is for the children. Treffpunkt was founded 20 years ago; it was the first such group in Germany. That there is a need for the service it provides and that it is currently not being widely enough met has just been established by a study undertaken by the European COPING research project, which looked at the situation of children of incarcerated parents in four countries. Justyna Bieganski of Treffpunkt took part in that study.

"It's not about making the sentence easier for the father; it's about a child's right to his or her father," she says. About 100,000 children in Germany have an incarcerated parent. The study showed that such children have more psychological and also physical problems as compared to other kids their age. As one 11-year-old told researchers: "On the outside, we act as if everything is normal." But it isn't – "so there is more stress," the little girl said. Many kids start having problems in school, there's often too little money, and many children worry too about the strain on their mother. Then there is the secrecy. The women tell all sorts of stories, Bieganski says, rather than admit to having a partner in prison. Their fear of stigmatization keeps them silent on the subject, and the children with them.

Missing out

Paul's dad is having a serious conversation with his son. "Mommy was so sad about what you did," he tells him, and Paul promises he'll never again help himself to candy at the supermarket without paying. "I'd like to be a little more strict with him," the father says, but he doesn't have the heart to because their time together is so short. He has served a year and three months of his sentence, and still has nearly six months to go. "You miss a lot" of their growing up, he says. He also has another, younger son with his partner, with whom he has been together for 11 years. She has a much surer hand with the kids than he does, he says.

But when he plays with Paul, they look very comfortable with each other. They laugh a lot. The father chases the son around the table, then daubs some green paint on his nose. Paul thinks his dad works here. His young father, just 23, says he wants to explain the situation to Paul, "but I don't him to perceive this as a model." This is not his first time in prison: sentenced for assault, he also missed Paul's first two years. "It's nothing to be proud of," he says. When he gets out, that's it: never again, he says. Next fall, Paul starts school and he doesn't want to miss that.

"Children are capable of really forgiving," says Wölfel. In her experience, many of them are not interested in why their father is doing time. "What interests them is when he's getting out." Treffpunkt used to run a children-only group but stopped because most of the children didn't really want to share their feelings. They were too used to keeping quiet about the fact that their father was in prison, Wölfel says. The father-child group is designed to have an every-day feel about it, because not having their dad around for every-day stuff is when the children miss their fathers most, she says.

Like the 14-year-old girl who is talking to her dad about shoes. She has 17 pairs already, but claims she needs another pair urgently. Her dad is explaining that many other kids have less allowance than she does, and that anyway one can't have everything. Or that she might have to give something else up if she decides to buy the shoes. "You don't understand," the teenager tells him, "you're a man." The social worker is asked for her opinion, but there's not much she has to say about this classic parent-child discussion.

At the beginning of each session at the prison, everybody sits together and fills out a form with their three dearest wishes. Paul, who doesn't yet know how to read and in anycase thinks his dad works here, says he wants toys. But the older children put a cross next to "that Dad never has to go to jail again." As reason, they write: "because I miss him."

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]


Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos


• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.


"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.


$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.


What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️


"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."


An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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