Stories beyond bars: Family literacy in prisons

As we mark World Book Day, Lisa Krolak highlights the transformative potential of providing incarcerated parents with the opportunity to practice literacy skills while bonding with their children

© Storybook Dads

What better way to engage a non-reading, hard-nut prisoner who lacks parenting skills and has lost contact with his kids than getting him to read Cinderella? Sharon Berry, Storybook Dads

Many prisoners are also parents, meaning that countless children worldwide are growing up with the stigma and trauma of a parent behind bars. For children forced into isolation at home by the COVID-19 pandemic, this absence can feel even more acute. Imprisoned parents also struggle with separation, particularly as they are currently not allowed to see their families in most countries. Not being able to stay in touch with their children and families can have a very negative effect on their mental health.

Programmes are needed that provide opportunities for incarcerated parents to maintain strong family connections, enabling them to play an active role in the education, learning and development of their children. Often, such programmes offer crucial learning support to prisoners, who are more likely than the rest of society to have had limited educational experience, and to have difficulties with reading and writing.

Prison libraries and literacy services provided by community organizations can play an important role in minimizing the negative impact of incarceration on families, particularly on children. They can provide family literacy activities during family visits or support incarcerated parents in reading with and for their children. The transformative nature of such interventions is highlighted in the following examples.

The UK charity Storybook Dads helps imprisoned parents to keep in touch with their children by enabling them to record a bedtime story and message on a CD or DVD, which is then sent to their child. Mistakes and background noises are removed in the editing process, then music and sound are added to enhance the listening experience for the children. The team supports prisoners who are less confident readers, and non-readers are also enabled to take part.

The scheme currently operates in more than 100 men’s and women’s prisons and youth offender facilities across the country, generating between 5,000 and 6,000 stories a year, and reaching an estimated 17,000 beneficiaries. It has been adopted in other prisons around the world. In addition to recording stories for their children, participants have the opportunity to receive training and work experience in audio/visual editing – skills useful in finding employment on release. Since the start of the programme in 2002, more than 600 prisoners have been trained as editors.

A second example comes from Australia, where, in 2017 and 2018, Save the Children facilitated several face-to-face playgroups for children (0– 5 years old) and their mother and incarcerated father, in close cooperation with the local library and a community organization. The sessions were child-centred and included ‘baby rhyme time’, story time and craft activities.

Librarian Morgan Yasbincek, from Shire of Mundaring Library, said that the programme had enabled families under ‘unthinkable pressure’ to find ‘new ways to hold meaningful relationship together’. Prisoners described the sessions as the most positive time of their incarceration.

‘The two hours of playgroup is time spent in a culture altogether different to prison culture,’ Ms Yasbincek said. ‘We are families and facilitators sharing songs and stories, morning tea and play time with children. It is a safe, fun space in which children can connect with their parents. I can’t think of a stronger motivation not to re-offend than the understanding of what might be possible for the future of the children.’ The local library also sometimes provides the children with books to take home at the end of the session.

These two programmes highlight the difference parents can make by promoting a love of books and literacy development in their children. Both demonstrate the rehabilitative importance of maintaining links with family members and the benefit of giving children the foundations of literacy through stories and nursery rhymes, while enhancing parenting skills and strengthening the links between prisoners and their children.

Many such programmes are currently paused due to strict restrictions on entering prisons because of COVID-19. However, it is important that during these difficult days we keep in mind the needs of prisoners and their families and acknowledge their unique challenges. As things begin to return to normal, prisons and prison authorities should support creative attempts to foster family literacy in the prison environment. Strengthening the bond between incarcerated parents and their children significantly reduces recidivism as children are a significant motivational factor for positive change and good life choices. This will be more important than ever for prisoners struggling to restore family connections once COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed.

Lisa Krolak is the UIL Library’s Chief Librarian. This blog is based on information collected for UIL Policy Brief 11, How prison libraries support rehabilitation efforts (UIL, May 2020) and the UIL publication, Books beyond Bars: The transformative potential of prison libraries (UIL, August 2019).

9 thoughts on “Stories beyond bars: Family literacy in prisons

  1. After reading this blog, all I can think of is wow! To see that family literacy programs are being offered to incarcerated parents is quite remarkable and something that I did not realize was happening in places. I currently teach in a rural area where I have taught and continue teaching students who have one or even both parents in prison. It is genuinely heartbreaking to see the repercussions these children have to take on due to their parents’ shortcomings. Many of them lack home support and literacy experiences, and unfortunately, it has a negative impact on their learning within the classroom setting. Some of our students dealing with these issues are being raised by their grandparents, who try to incorporate literacy as much as possible but still struggle. However, having the idea to incorporate a family literacy program seems to be a terrific way to help students continue to receive support and a connection with their parent(s) while helping them with literacy. Like you mentioned, not only does it help parents and their children stay connected, but it also offers the parents a chance to learn themselves and potentially be trained and ready once they join the outside world again. The program is truly setting these incarcerated parents and their children up for success. I love the idea of parents being able to record themselves reading a children’s book to their child. I take for granted that I can read to my daughters every night, and I attribute much of their knowledge and eagerness to read to our daily reading time. All children need to have these literacy experiences even when their parents cannot be present. Adding these literacy activities into their home, even if they are not actually present, creates a literacy environment and opens doors for parents to participate in their child’s education.

    • Dear Sarah,
      I am very glad to see that this blog inspired you! It is truly amazing and also touching to see the impact of creative literacy and cultural programmes, run by NGOs, community workers and prison staff, including prison librarians. Unfortunately many of these programmes are still suspended due to COVID-19, but it is always good to share good practices. For example, the idea to record incarcerated parents reading bedtime stories to their children has been already copied in other countries.
      Thank you for your message and interest in the topic!

  2. This was absolutely the best blog I have read so far! After reading this blog I was literally in tears. This reminded me so much of my childhood. My father was incarcerated much of my childhood. The only way we kept in touch was via letters. Of course, I was young, so my mom read much of it to me until I was able to read them myself. I cannot recall one time in my life where my father read a book to me. I can only imagine the type of bond we would have had if there were a literacy program at his prison. My father is a great man who simply made bad choices. Prisons are filled with parents, who ended up on the wrong side of the law. This does not mean in any way they are a bad parent. This literacy program is an excellent way to keep families connected and to increase literacy among the children and those individuals incarcerated. When parents are allowed to read aloud to their children, it can stimulate their imagination and expand their understanding of the world. These read alouds also helps the children develop listening skills. Even if the child can read, it is equally beneficial that families read aloud together. This is a great way to strengthen the bond between the parent and the child. The read aloud can help to expand the child’s vocabulary. The idea of having parents able to read to their children while in prison is a great way to create a literacy environment.
    Additionally, I believe this is a great way to rehabilitate many individuals who are incarcerated. Some inmates may never get the chance to come home to their children, so why not allow them the opportunity to least connect with literacy. I am a firm believer that books have the power to rehabilitate. Even if we take away the reading to children aspect, imagine how much crime can decrease in prisons if those inmates could dive into books. Books have the power of taking you away from your current environment.

    • Dear LaQundia Tuff,
      Thank you for sharing your personal story! And obviously I agree with all that you have said.
      Wishing you all the best!

  3. I enjoyed reading this blog post as I can relate to the experiences of this post. I grew up with a father who was incarcerated for the majority of my life. I can attest to the stigma and trauma of growing up with a parent in prison. I can imagine the additional challenges of those that are currently incarcerated, their families, and children. Those challenges must be much more difficult with all surrounding COVID-19. I did not visit my father as my family did not feel that prisons were a place for children. However, a program like this may have offered a different perspective and an opportunity for my sister and me to spend time with our father. As mentioned in the post, there are many benefits to literacy programs like this. What I liked the most and felt was the most beneficial is that the prisoners would receive learning support and an opportunity to learn a new skill that could be used upon release. Imagine the number of people who developed a love for reading by simply creating sharable literacy moments with their children and receiving the help and support they deserved! A positive change in attitude towards reading could change their lives and that of their families for the better. Prison literacy programs like this one can help promote literacy and reading within the home. If the readings are done regularly, it can help shape the children’s attitude towards reading and encourage them to read with their parents as reading models. Overall, I think literacy programs should be implemented in as many facilities as possible as there are many great benefits for the children and their parent(s). I hope that these programs resume soon as these programs may be the only way for some parents to spend time and be active in their children’s educational lives.

    • Dear Tamelia Hall,
      Yes, you raise an important point: Family literacy programs can be an opportunity to bring children to prison and meet with their incarcerated parent, particularly – like in your case – when the families think that prisons are no place for children. It is very important for me to read your personal stories as it shows the importance of not just having books in prisons, but also offering literacy (family) programmes.
      I wish you all the best!

  4. I truly enjoyed reading about the literacy programs offered to families with incarcerated family members. Millions of children across the United States have experience with an incarcerated parent and programs such as the one’s mentioned in the article could be beneficial to them. The lack of physical presence can be both, educationally and financially detrimental to our students. Many of them are impoverished, which means they live in parts of the country where they do not have the best opportunities. We also know research shows that family involvement is a big indicator into how successful students become. The incarcerated parent is already working at a deficit. By allowing them to be a part of their child’s academic life, you give them a chance to raise their child in a way they didn’t deem possible. They are able to be in their child’s life in a truly tangible way. We know literacy development starts at birth, we know that literacy rich routines and activities best serve those high risk families, and we know that incarcerated persons can also benefit from these programs. I believe that the non-violent offenders who participate in these programs should be able to use it to fast track their time back into their homes. Otherwise, what are we doing this for? It’s nice to talk about the programs in place to ensure families can stay connected, but the best connection is keeping those families together. I would love for these programs to be gateways to early probation for the men and women who clearly want to be there for their families. One idea I had would be to tie the work they do with the literacy program with their actual sentence. Showing that they want to be a part of their family and the growth of their children should directly correlate with they prison stay. After all, the best thing for these families is to reunite them in the healthiest terms.

    • Dear Ladee S.,
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
      Have you heard about the “Remission for Reading” project in Brazil? Inmates can get four days off their sentence, up to twelve times a year, when they read a book and write an essay about it. Yes, I like your idea to encourage inmates to participate in (family) literacy programmes by giving an incentive, for example (more) time with their families or reduction of their sentence to reunite them with their families as soon as possible. We should do everything to break the cycle of (educational) disadvantage in families with incarcerated parents.
      I wish you all the best!

  5. I have experienced how teaching children who have problems with the law in correctional institutions (LAPAS) provides them with non-formal education. they have the same rights to obtain education and skills as children who are studying at school. Until now, education is needed among them to study, read, count and write with the assistance of tutors. The family and the state really have great hopes for them to become useful children in the family and community environment.

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