Arkansas kids enjoy storybook time with this program for incarcerated parents
In libraries across the country there are stories of mice and cookies, long-haired princesses and a very hungry caterpillar.
But in Arkansas, thousands of children don’t curl up with a parent in bed and listen to a bedtime story. Instead, they will listen to a recording of a family member reading them a story. It’s because 16% of Arkansas children currently have or have had a parent or guardian incarcerated – the highest percentage in the nation.
“Families serve a shared sentence with their incarcerated loved ones, so we try to facilitate, if not break, this cycle,” Denise Chai, Outreach Director for The Arkansas Storybook Projecttold NationSwell.
Arkansas’ Storybook Project saw a place to bridge the literacy and family bonding gap for children with incarcerated family members. Four times a year, the nonprofit brings books, tape recorders and volunteers to five of Arkansas’ correctional facilities.
There, individuals can record a message and read a book for their family members. Grandmothers will read stories to their grandchildren, fathers will read to their daughters and uncles will have the chance to read to their nephews.
“It’s a little piece of parenting at home with them,” Chai said.
In 2019, The Storybook Project of Arkansas reached 1,793 children. Children ranged from infants to high schoolers, and readers included aunts, grandmothers, and older siblings.
Maintaining a connection with incarcerated family members can be a challenge. Prisons are not designed for children, and it can cost families time and money to visit the facilities. Meanwhile, video conferencing and phone calls can quickly become a financial burden on families.
But with Storybook, parents can participate in the lives of their children.
“For the person who reads to their children, it’s an opportunity to nurture their children, to play a part in their children’s lives, to be there when they’re not really there,” Chai said. . “As they read a book to their children, it’s an opportunity to be a good role model.”
Moreover, this continued connection can be one of the keys to success after prison. Studies show that when released individuals have family support, social integration is easier and they have a better chance of finding employment and financial stability. A study published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography found that incarcerated people who stayed in touch with their families throughout were less likely to reconvict.
Jan Schmittou is one of the volunteers behind the audio recorder. Schmittou, who has volunteered for more than a year, has seen fathers moved to tears and listened to mothers read their favorite fairy tales to their children.
Schmittou’s first visit was to the unit in Wrightsville. Schmittou went through metal detectors, heavy doors and through the cement plant.
“Once you get past all that, the reality is that the people there aren’t too different from you or me,” she told NationSwell.
The non-profit organization was started 21 years ago by founder Pat Oplinger and a few volunteers. He worked with people incarcerated in two correctional facilities until 2019, when he expanded to three more.
Chai said the expansion is part of an effort to deepen the work they do. Along with working in more settings, the nonprofit has begun motivating individuals to “do a little more emotional homework” by sharing lessons and more impactful words of encouragement with their children, a Chai said. More recently, they incorporated a bookmark program where family members can create a bookmark to send to their children.
“We’re a very simple program, but we always try to do a little more with what we do and have a little more impact,” she said.
The Storybook Project of Arkansas isn’t the only organization to embrace this idea. Groups like the Texas Women’s Storybook Project and Seattle Public Library Read to Me Programhave similar goals of keeping families connected.
“It’s such a reassuring and loving message about how much they are cared for and missed even though the person is physically absent from their life,” Chai said.
After: For prisoners, reading is more than a hobby, it’s a way to change their lives