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Ubiñas: For 11-year-old South Philly girl, a prison visit means everything

It was hard to miss Zaniyah Ruffin in the crowd at the State Correctional Institution in Chester. She was the only kid there, and she was, well, adorable.

It was hard to miss Zaniyah Ruffin in the crowd at the State Correctional Institution in Chester.

She was the only kid there, and she was, well, adorable.

The shy, bespectacled 11-year-old from South Philly sat patiently with her mother, Tyra Herrington, as they waited Wednesday for a TEDx event about the impact of incarceration on children and families. Her stepfather was performing, and she was excited.

Without realizing it, Zaniyah was representing the 81,096 children who have a parent in a Pennsylvania state prison.

If that isn't startling enough, another number on a poster inside the jail's artificially cheery family room put it another way: That 81,096 figure is 12,696 more than the seating capacity of Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

I've written about prisoners and their families for years, and that still blew my mind. It should everyone's.

Even before we were escorted through the prison to the event in the gym, the children's drawings that hung on the concrete walls starkly illustrated that impact.

"I want to play ball in the park with daddy," read one stick figure drawing.

"I miss daddy," read another that showed a little boy fishing with his father.

And yet another: "What I miss most about my Dad is hanging out with him."

This was the fourth TEDx event inside a Pennsylvania state prison. In 2014, a group of women known as the Lady Lifers inside Muncy Prison sang about their experiences. Their powerful song has been viewed on various sites more than a million times, and if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it:

Wednesday's event included many powerful messages, including a heartbreaking performance by Ryu Paul Snyder, who sang about the effect his parents' incarcerations had on him and his siblings. He was shuttled through 10 foster homes, and now, at 29, he's a second-generation inmate.

Zaniyah's stepdad, Quran Herrington, who is in prison for a parole violation for an earlier assault conviction, spoke of a painful telephone conversation he had with three of his children, including his 12-year-old daughter.

"When are you coming home?" she asked him, in tears. "I need you."

That simple yet searing declaration was at the heart of the day's performances.

It's clear that the toll on these families is painfully emotional.

But it is also financial - for kids, who are more likely to grow up in poverty with an incarcerated parent; for families, and for the community at large. America spends about $80 billion incarcerating 2.4 million people.

Another performer, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, whose own father had once been incarcerated, brought that figure home.

We spend about $10,000 to $14,000 per kid per year to educate children in the state's public education system, DePasquale told the crowd. By comparison, he said, we spend close to $40,000 per inmate per year.

"As taxpayers, where would you like to spend the money?" he asked the crowd. "Up front, giving kids a shot? Or on the back end, where you're not sure what you're going to get?"

The choice seems obvious, yet our prisons are still full.

"I start with a question," said Chad Dion Lassiter, one of the performers, and president of the Black Men at Penn School of Social Work. "How do we become so adjusted to injustice?"

During a break, I asked Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel how to take the message and inspiration inside that room to the outside, how to convince those who still don't realize how far-reaching the consequences are of imprisoning people without the programs and support to succeed inside and out of prisons.

"It's important to tell the stories in as many ways as possible," Wetzel said. "Through numbers, through stories, through voices of the imprisoned, and those left behind."

Voices that not only need to be heard, but amplified.

When I talked to Zaniyah, she often paused and looked at her mother for encouragement before shyly whispering answers I could barely hear.

But when I asked her what's hardest about visiting her stepfather in prison, she didn't hesitate.

"Saying goodbye."