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).

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