The pandemic puts a twist on the plot of the Women’s Storybook Project

Over the past five years, more than 6,600 women in Texas prisons have recorded audio recordings of “The Invisible String,” a children’s book about the invisible ties that bind us to those we cherish, regardless of distance. Each inmate’s recording and a copy of the brightly illustrated book was sent to her children, who often live hundreds of miles away with grandmother or another guardian.

Story time together, while they’re apart.

The story of Patrice Karst has become the signature book of the Texas Women’s Storybook Project, a non-profit organization that maintains family ties strained by prison walls. Over the past two decades, incarcerated women in the program chose books they thought their children would enjoy, then recorded themselves reading the books so that their children can hear a story in their mother’s voice at any time.

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Volunteer Andrea Romero looks at a children's book sent to a child whose mother is in prison.  Due to COVID-19 restrictions, volunteers were unable to travel to state prisons to help mothers record storybooks for a year and a half.

When COVID-19 lockdowns hit Texas prisons last year, “The Invisible String” became a theme for the nonprofit itself.

For a year and a half, when visitors were barred from state prisons to help prevent the spread of the virus, volunteers were unable to meet hundreds of inmates who wanted to save books for their children. This stopped the flow of storybook recordings to children whose mothers lacked.

For example, the Women’s Storybook Project developed a pandemic plan.

“It was an opportunity to be really creative,” executive director Jill Gonzalez told me.

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Women make up a distinct minority — about 7% — of inmates in Texas prisons. But the overwhelming majority of these women – 81% – are mothers, according to a report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Two-thirds of women in Texas prisons are there for non-violent crimes. Yet a woman serving a typical sentence of nine years for a drug offense or eight years for a property crime will end up missing much of her child’s youth.

Full of studies have documented what we all know to be true: a mother’s incarceration has devastating effects on her children, who are less likely to complete high school and more likely to experience anxiety, isolation, parents as teenagers and their own time in prison.

A note from a past recipient hangs on the wall of the Women's Storybook Project office in West Lake Hills.

The Women’s Story Book Project, launched in 2003 by Judith Dullnig, aims to disrupt this prison pipeline by nurturing a connection through the books.

“We know that if a child’s parents are in jail, they’re much more likely to end up in jail themselves,” Gonzalez said. “We know that if mothers have a strong connection to their family, they are less likely to return to prison. We’re trying to help improve that relationship and make it stronger, over time, so that when mom comes home, she has a reason to stay, and the skills to stay, and she has life. ‘hope.

“We are a small project,” Gonzalez added, “but we have a very big impact.”

Which made it all the more important to maintain it during the pandemic.

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Unable to visit prisons after the COVID-19 closures began in March 2020, the storybook army of volunteers began, appropriately enough, with “The Invisible String.”

They sent copies of the book to dozens of incarcerated mothers and sent copies to their families, so they could read the story together over the phone.

Then, volunteers wrote letters to the mothers, asking them what additional books the association could send directly to the children. There would be no recordings to go with them, but at least the children would have new books to enjoy and discuss with their mothers on the phone. Stories about cars, dinosaurs, and Curious George were popular requests.

The organization also developed written activities that inmates could share with their families. For example, a mother could draw a picture of what she hopes for her child’s future. Or she can fill one side of a bookmark with a list of favorites her child could ask her about: favorite song, favorite fruit. Then she could send the items to her child so they can talk about them on their next phone call.

“Sometimes it’s hard to talk to someone you haven’t seen in a while,” Gonzalez said. Books and other activities “can help you start that conversation.”

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Finally, in October, volunteers were able to return to prisons to help inmates record new stories for their children. Due to social distancing, however, the storybook program is operating at half capacity. Instead of serving up to 22 women in each prison at a time, classes are capped at 11.

At the same time, the organizers decided that the plan to fight the pandemic was so successful that they will keep these activities and integrate them into the traditional program.

Previously, an inmate could produce one book record per child per month for four months, then had to be absent for at least four months before participating again. Now, during this downtime, inmates can use the writing activities developed during the pandemic.

The program serves 12 prisons and state prisons in Texas, with waiting lists everywhere.

“We could triple or quadruple (the scale of the program) and classes would be full,” Gonzalez said.

Adding classes would require more volunteers and, in most cases, more space or additional programming days at the prison, she said.

Anyone who has ever shared a book with a child understands how precious this story hour is.

“Your correspondence and your books have allowed the bond between me and my daughters to flourish,” an inmate wrote to the volunteers, acknowledging that the program has continued during the pandemic. “Thank you all for shining the light during this dark time.”

What a great gift indeed, helping families find that invisible string.

Grumet is the Statesman’s Metro columnist. his column, ATX in context, contains his opinions. Share yours via email at bgrumet@statesman.com or via Twitter at @bgrumet.

Give a hand

The Women’s Storybook Project welcomes volunteers to help inmates make recordings, as well as donations to help purchase or ship books. Visit storybookproject.org.

On Tuesday, volunteer coordinator Charli Krause packs books to send to children at the Women's Storybook Project office in West Lake Hills.  The project helps women in prison make audio recordings of themselves reading books to their children;  volunteers send the books and a link to the digital recordings to the children so they can hear their mother's voice while following the story.

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