New Muppet on 'Sesame Street' has dad behind bars

Alex is a groundbreaking character that addresses a serious yet little-discussed problem among today's children.

By Jonathan Berr Jun 18, 2013 9:15AM
Video still of Alex the Muppet from Sesame Street's “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” online tool kit (© Sesame Workshop)Considering how many Americans are in incarcerated these days, surprisingly little attention is paid to their children. That's a situation "Sesame Street" is starting to address.

The beloved children's TV show has recently introduced a new blue-haired, green-nosed Muppet named Alex whose dad is in prison. Alex, who wears a hoodie, gives voice to kids who might feel that they don't otherwise have one.

It's a groundbreaking idea, and anyone worried about the effects of imprisonment on families -- and about the skyrocketing costs that taxpayers bear for maintaining prisons -- should welcome it.

As part of this effort, Sesame Street Workshop, the nonprofit that produces the show, has created the Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration program aimed at giving support to children with incarcerated parents and to their caregivers.

It and the new Muppet are also prime examples of how the children's show, which earns millions of dollars from merchandise sales, continues to reinvent itself for new generations. "Sesame Street" has also reached out to military families with parents deployed overseas.

According to the University of Pittsburgh's Office of Child Development, at least 1.7 million children had a parent in state or federal prison as of 2007. It notes that this number didn't include the millions who have a parent in a local jail and that precise numbers of children in this situation are hard to come by because "jails, corrections departments, schools, child welfare departments, and other systems do not systematically count them." Many of these children maintain their relationships with their incarcerated parents.

Not surprisingly, having an incarcerated parent increases the likelihood of children's having problems such as behavioral issues and substance abuse. By highlighting these problems while helping children with them, "Sesame Street" hopes to encourage lawmakers to create policies that will lead to fewer people going to prison and more people getting treatment.

The U.S. has had the world's highest incarceration rates since 2002, according to the Population Reference Bureau. As of 2010, the rate was 500 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, compared with an average of 100 prisoners per 100,000 citizens in peer countries. Incarceration rates are significantly higher for American blacks and Latinos than for whites.

And the costs are huge. A 2012 survey of 40 states found that prisons were a $39 billion expense in fiscal 2010. Appropriations for the federal Bureau of Prisons have risen from $3.7 billion in fiscal 2000 to $6.4 billion in fiscal 2011.

"Sesame Street's" efforts to assist the children of the incarcerated is laudable but sadly overdue. The show takes risks that for-profit media companies wouldn't dare. Can you imagine SpongeBob or Dora tackling this issue?

Follow Jonathan Berr on Twitter @jdberr.

More on moneyNOW

Jun 18, 2013 11:43AM
"Incarceration rates are significantly higher for American blacks and Latinos than for whites."  Giving everything to someone will not make them better.  Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.  50 plus years of civil rights and liberal immagration policy has not done a bit of good.
Jun 18, 2013 10:57AM
Jun 18, 2013 11:58AM
The Liberals have definitely taken over the ship..
Jun 18, 2013 11:59AM
LITTLE KID: Big Bird the police took my father away!

BIG BIRD: Hey big guy, sometimes people do things that are so bad that they are punished by being sent to a place where they have all there privileges taken away it’s called prison. It’s no fun at all. They can’t play with video games, go to the park, or even go swimming during the summer. I’m sorry, but the only way your dad is going to survive his time in prison is either to kick somebody’s **** or be somebody’s bitch.

LITTLE KID: Be somebody’s what?! I don’t understand..

BIG BIRD: Well, remember in that other episode “Parent Time” when you told me about the time you walked into your parent’s room and saw them lying in their bed kissing with no cloths on?

LITTLE KID: Yeaa, so?

BIG BIRD: Well sport, that’s what your dad has chosen to do with another man in exchange for protection against dangerous minorities and gangs. I believe it’s called the PENAL Protection Program. (Big Bird snickers)

LITTLE KID: Momma said he killed two people, how long is he going to be in there?

BIG BIRD: Ooooh, well I’ll let the Count tell you.

THE COUNT: Well Big Bird for Double Homicide let me see. I believe that’s (Spoken in the counts voice, you know the one) 1 Consecutive life Sentence, 2. Consecutive life Sentences, 3. Consecutive life Sentences!!!


in all seriousness I think this is great what they are doing.  The show rocks!

Jun 18, 2013 11:59AM

Highest rates in the world huh? So many place to start. From the free hand outs, to the for profit prison system, to locking up people smoking weed. So bad that someone saw a need for a sesame street character (I get the intent but need to understand this is not a good thing to have happen and shouldn't be considered normal, but I hope they get it right and I'm fairly confident they will come up with a decent way to present it)?

Hey DC there is a problem here, can you bother to stop stroking each other and those lining your pockets for a change and actually do something please?

Our justice system and welfare programs are both complete disasters. Completely feeding off one another and making a small group richer than ever while other groups abuse it and find no reason to try and improve their situations on their own.

I think its time

Jun 18, 2013 11:40AM
Lots of people make mistakes. This fact children must learn. We all need to learn from these mistakes and not repeat them, for if we do then we are truly stupid.
Jun 18, 2013 7:03PM
Well, well, how progressive. I can't wait for the introduction of a character who had a parent working a second job at a convenience store in order to make a better life for his or her children, but who was robbed and murdered by the biological father of Alex so that he could get his next hit of crack cocaine or meth. Of course, this particular murdering parent of Alex had never actually served as a father and positive role model for the  little guy ; he simply impregnated Alex's mother and then skipped out and  could not even be found in order to collect child support, leaving Alex to be a financial ward of the State.  Alex's dad , in most cases, can always look forward to parole, but there will be no parole for the victim's parent. They are gone forever.  Or perhaps the next character will be the child of a woman who was walking home from work who  was kidnapped and  viciously raped by Alex's" father", and she can no longer smile and laugh the way she did before the crime was committed.. There are many opportunities for the program to cover some additional unchartered territory for it's youthful audience...  I have empathy for any child who loses a parent, whether by means of disease, murder or incarceration, but , naturally, the liberal leaning Sesame Street would choose to spotlight a character whose incarcerated parent deserved his punishment, as opposed to a child of an innocent victim of a serious violent crime.  Perhaps when one of these latter new characters is introduced, they can name the child  Ifsopc  (Ignored For the Sake of Political Correctness).
Jun 18, 2013 1:10PM
Why don't they just use Elmo? His creator and voice, Kevin Clash, is a homosexual pedophile, according to the boy who filed charges last fall. Where oh where has that story gone? If Clash should end up in prison, where he belongs, his Elmo could explain how he lost his voice, so to speak.
Jun 19, 2013 9:00AM
"...anyone worried about the effects of imprisonment on families..." 
LOL, this obviously does not include the convicted family member who chose to set the events in motion.
Jun 19, 2013 7:48AM
Only from a liberal mind can trash like this be tolerated. Just like our school system, SS went from education to indoctrination.
Jun 19, 2013 7:49AM
If I had young children now, they would never be allowed to watch SS.
Jun 19, 2013 7:50PM
I applaud "Sesame Street" & The CTW for this.  I have read the comments associated with this article, and frankly, I am appalled by the majority of them.  My ex went to prison when my child was 15 months old (the crime matters not).   As my child got older, explaining where Dad was and why he couldn't live with us anymore got harder and I wish this had been around as my child grew up without a father at home but I am glad it's here now.  I understand the vitriol so many have towards parents who are incarcerated and that's fine but I would really, really love for any of you to look my child in the eye, or the child of any person who is in jail for that matter, and spew your hatred toward mine or any other child in similar circumstances.  My child will never be able to live with Mom & Dad in a traditional family & that is not my child's fault and never will be.  These children do not have the capacity to understand adult issues; all they know is Mom or Dad is gone and they need all the support they can get.
Jun 19, 2013 10:47AM
bring back Roosevelt Franklin.....
Jun 19, 2013 2:48PM

I need a shirt that says FREE ALEX'S DAD!!!

Jun 19, 2013 12:00AM
throw alex in jail too. in fact throw the creators in also. the crime? dumbing down kids. enen as a kid this show grated on me.
Jun 18, 2013 1:53PM
Good lord. Why would we need to have this on TV. I guess Bert and Earnie are really homosexual then. They have been denying that one for years. Bert and earnie will come out when the jail bird dad is identified. How lame.
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