Group helps inmate's children, families

The basketball court is Lawrence Sabir's home away from home.

"Actually my mom taught me how to shoot," he said. "She was an all-state basketball player back in her day."

Now the LaSalle Academy sophomore is on the same track. He's already a member of the varsity team.

"It's just a great experience," he said.

A great experience Sabir has because of a not-so-happy reality. A group that helps children of incarcerated parents helped him get into LaSalle. Sabir's dad has been in and out of prison since he was very young.

"He was in jail at least 5 times," Sabir said.

At first, Sabir was too young to know what was going on.

"When I was younger, I got in trouble a lot," he said. "No father to be there to put me in my place In the middle of the night, when I was younger, sometimes I would cry, 'Where's my father at?'"

New studies show children with incarcerated parents are stressed and face other obstacles.

A program called Rhode Islanders Sponsoring Education or RISE helped Sabir earn a scholarship to LaSalle. It was founded 17 years ago by two doctors affiliated with Brown University. They were working with women in prison and had a dream to use education to un-clog Rhode Island's prison pipeline.

"RISE is more relevant than ever with what we see in our communities and the rise in incarceration right now," said Jonny Skye, executive director of RISE. "I think with what we're doing and with what we're able to prove out actually with looking at our data over the last 17 years, is that we are making a difference."

The group provides mentors and education programs for children and families of the incarcerated. One of its biggest goals is to make sure kids like Sabir have the chance to make better choices than their parents.

"No child decides what family they're born into, what skin they're born into or where in the world they're born into obviously," Skye said. "They come in and have to manage the circumstances that they were dealt. Education is in fact the most protective factor that can change the course of a young person's life."

Skye says they help about 130 kids a year. It's a small number when you consider there are about 3,000 children with parents behind bars in Rhode Island. Nationwide there are an estimated 2.7 million children with a parent serving time, according to the Pew Research Center.

Despite that number there aren't many groups that help these kids.

"Currently we have a waiting list of about 100 young people that are looking for mentors and we're struggling to meet that need," Skye said. "RISE is the only organization that focuses solely on children of incarcerated parents. And actually RISE was the first organization in the U.S. to solely focus on this particular population."

The Rhode Island Department of Corrections and RISE are helping to lead the way in this field, and there are signs they're making a difference. Just take it from Sabir's oldest friend Tunde Akinjobi.

There's even a picture of the two when they were babies. A year or two after it was taken, Akinjobi's father was sent to prison.

"He's been in there since I was two," Akinjobi said.

Unlike Sabir, there was no in and out for Akinjobi's dad. He's in for life.

"I talk to my dad on the phone," Akinjobi said. "He's still a part of my life."

Last year, it looked like Akinjobi might be following in his father's footsteps. He got in trouble and kicked out of LaSalle Academy.

"I got myself into a situation where there was no good going to come out of it and I had to transfer between schools," he said.

Akinjobi's parents were very disappointed, and prison bars didn't stop his dad from setting his son straight.

"He was just furious with me," Akinjobi said.

It looked like all the work RISE did to get him into the good school would go down the drain, but the group wouldn't let that happen. It gave him a second chance. A gift many kids in his situation never get.

"That situation taught me that anybody could give up on me and they didn't," Akinjobi said. "They did the complete opposite of that. They stood by me the whole time."

"I believe every child deserves more than a second chance," Skye said. "We were able to do for Tunde is say, 'You made a mistake. It doesn't mean you're a bad human and we're not going to throw you away.'"

It's through those second chances and education that RISE believes it can make sure Akinjobi and Sabir have a better life. One both young men plan to take full advantage of.