by Nicole Lee Martin
I love reading. I’ve always loved reading and it has never ceased to amaze me the sorts of wonderful adventures, ideas and revelations and that can be born from a special story. I firmly believe that reading can change lives, that reading is transformative. This simple belief is why I chose a career in public librarianship. To inspire others to love books as much as I do, to foster those who may be bibliophiles if only given the right book, to spark a passion of reading in children that will hopefully linger throughout their lives, to provide the fictional voice a troubled teenager needed when they were struggling. The past four years that I have spent as a professional librarian have been wonderful, though I must admit, not always the idealistic career that I had envisioned.
Librarians help people in little ways every day, but it can be easy to forget that when you are in the midst of explaining the library’s fax machine policy to a grouchy patron who is only focused on how quickly he can leave the library. Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to embark upon a new project recently that has revived my little idealistic heart and reminded me of the transformative power of books, librarians and literacy.
I have recently had the opportunity to pilot a family literacy training course for incarcerated fathers in nearby correctional institutions that fall within my library’s service district. I can confidently say that this work so far has proven to be incredibly rewarding, difficult and inspiring. The project’s working title is currently “Reading with Dad”, though it may be renamed. The project was dreamed up well over a year ago while working on a grant proposal for library program funding with my friend and co-worker, Katie. We were both children’s librarians at the same library and wanted to do something for the children of the prison inmates. We wanted to give back to the community and in some way contribute positively to not only the inmates’ children, but their entire families, but we weren’t sure how to reach out to this group. We luckily came across a story about an amazing program that took place at Riker’s Island in New York, entitled Daddy and Me , that was providing exactly the sort of family literacy connections we were hoping to provide. This program was designed to encourage early literacy efforts for incarcerated fathers by conducting workshops for inmates on the importance of early literacy and reading aloud to children in addition to developing storytelling skills. Librarians also recorded these fathers reading their children’s favorite books and then gave the finished recordings to their children on CDs with a copy of the book. Our hearts were melting and our eyes were tearing as we imagined these children listening to their fathers voices while sharing a book at bedtime! We couldn’t believe how perfect this program was! We decided that we needed to immediately adapt this idea to fit into our grant proposal in order to start a similar outreach program. Amazingly, our grant was accepted and we received our requested $3000 from The Stocker Foundation.
If you don’t know much about the startling statistics regarding incarcerated adults in this country or the terrible implications that a parent’s incarceration can have on their family, you might be surprised at some of the data. 1.5 million people with the lowest levels of literacy are incarcerated (ProLiteracy.org). Between 1991 and midyear 2007, parents held in state and federal prisons increased by 79% (Bureau of Justice). On any given day, over 1.5 million children in this country have a parent serving a sentence in a state of federal prison (Annie E. Casey Foundation). Parental incarceration creates additional challenges for the children and families involved, including school behavior and performance problems as well as financial struggles. I could go on and on listing percentages and facts about the battles that children and families must endure when a parent is incarcerated, but I think you get the picture. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has a handy fact sheet for those short on time that you can read here outlining the challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents.
To begin our literacy classes with the inmates, we had to complete extensive paperwork, training and obtain approval for every book we planned to bring into the facilities. The most serious concern at the facilities is any sort of safety or security breach so there are very serious rules that must be followed, as well as hoops to be jumped through before you can begin. I was surprised at this, naively assuming that the prison officials would be overjoyed when a couple of librarians sauntered in proclaiming, “We want to give you new books! We want to lead literacy training workshops with the inmates! We want to record them reading to their children! When can we start?!”. It was not quite so easy and part of me was almost relieved to have more time to work on the project. I was secretly worried that I would begin the classes and would have dozens of inmates perplexed and entertained by my demeanor, my dress, my passion for sharing the importance of reading.
After nearly a year of paperwork, training, paperwork getting lost, more emails and paperwork, we finally were able to start our training. Training consisted of watching various terribly recorded videos exhibiting bad hair and even worse acting skills, telling me all about how to not be assaulted while in the state facilities. I was now afraid of being assaulted or worse during my visits, but was luckily reassured by a guard that I had nothing to worry about at the particular facility I was going to frequent. I believed him, mostly.
I’m happy to say that all of my fears proved to be unwarranted and exaggerated. Katie and I have led over 8 classes to the inmates, in addition to spending time organizing and cleaning the prison family reading rooms, and not once have I felt afraid to be there. I have felt incredibly lucky to share my knowledge and enthusiasm with these men and they in turn have shared bits and pieces of their stories with me. Each time I visit I feel that I leave with my heart a bit fuller and my eyes a bit more open.
One gentleman, an older inmate in a pre-GED class came up to Katie and myself after our first training workshop and said, “I didn’t learn to read until I was 47 and it was because I was in here.” I was so shocked and saddened by this. Of course I was aware of the very real problem of adult illiteracy, but having a face and a voice to match to the statistics was a new experience. Although the average reading and math levels of an incarcerated adult are at or below the eighth-grade level, only 9% of all prisoners with low literacy skills receive literacy training while in prison (Literacyconnects.org).
We’ve received so many compliments from the participants, ranging from applause, heartfelt “thank you’s” and hand shakes to offers to volunteer for us at our library once they are released as a way to pay us back for our work. We’ve been told our passion for the topic is clear and that what we are doing is appreciated. One young man, who must have been in his mid to late 20s, told us how he doesn’t want his 5 year old daughter listening to explicit hip-hop music because he doesn’t want her exposed to that culture at such a young age. He was genuinely concerned with what she should listen to and read, when she should be in preschool and what he can do to help her in any way he can. He broke the stereotype that I’m sure many have of the young, incarcerated young, black male.
One of our workshop sessions focuses on different types of books (wordless, rhyming, board books, etc.) and how to share them with children. At the end of the workshop, Katie and I took turns reading the book we selected for the recordings which will be sent to inmate children. “On the Night You Were Born” by Nancy Tillman was our chosen title because it doesn’t depict any certain family type, situation or ethnicity. The book’s universal message can apply to anyone and everyone, allowing the reader to personalize the sentiments surrounding the night their special child or grandchild was born into the world. We shared the story with four classes and after each reading, various inmates were staring at us with wet eyes and bitten lips, holding back tears. It was a touching moment and one which I will not soon forget. The next and final step in our project is actually recording the fathers and grandfathers (those who are permitted by the prison to participate) reading “On the Night You Were Born” and then transferring the audio to CDs which will be given or mailed to their families along with a copy of the book. I hope the packages serve as reminders to the children that they are not forgotten and just because their fathers are away in body they can be present in spirit through the power of books.