Volume 25, Number 3, 2003

Prisoners Read to Their Children

by Diana Reese, Correctional Library Consultant, Colorado State Library

From Minnesota to Maryland, in Alabama, Wisconsin, and Colorado, incarcerated fathers and mothers are connecting to their children through books.

While details vary from program to program, most programs have similar components. First the parents are coached on how to read a book aloud to their children. They are given ample opportunity to practice, with feedback from the librarians and trained peer coaches. When the parent is finally ready, he or she reads the selected book aloud onto an audiotape or as a videorecording. Brief opening and closing statements to the child are usually permitted. After the librarian listens to or views the recording for any hidden messages, he or she packages the book and audiotape to be mailed to the offender’s child.

The program does much more than link parents and children through literature. Offenders report that the program has been a catalyst in helping them play a more active role in their child’s life. It promotes family literacy – fathers say it has stimulated their child’s interest in reading. Some report that their children had never read a book before they received the book and tape. Some of these children have never even had a book to call their own. And some children have even gone to the local library with the home parent to obtain a library card and check out more books!

An unexpected outcome of the program has been the improved literacy of the offenders. Some of them are reading a book for the first time when they participate in this program. Without exception, the reading skills of repeat participants have increased during their participation in the project. A few illiterate offenders have even learned to read just so they could participate in the program.

The responses to questionnaires enclosed with the book and tape tell the best stories:

  • Amelia, age 5, shouted out after the tape ended, “I loved it Daddy! I really loved it!”
  • Siblings in Aurora began reading books aloud to each other after reading along with their father’s first recording.
  • One 7-year-old took the book and tape into his room every night to “be with my Dad.”
  • One little girl is keeping a library of her father’s books. Her mother now takes her to the library to get more books to read.
  • One two-year-old got so excited. “She thought her father was in the other room.”
These programs promote family literacy, link absent parents with their children, and promote the use of libraries – all across the country!

What can you do to help? Contact your local public library outreach office, jail, or state department of corrections to see if there is such a program. These programs are always in need of children’s books in near new condition or of cash donations to purchases tapes and mailing supplies.