He screamed. He jumped up and down. And then the 11-year-old unashamedly cried as he inserted the ear buds of his new MP3 player and heard his father’s voice.
“It was like having his father right there,” says Angela* of her grandson Tony whom she cares for while his dad—her son—serves time in prison. Tony has never been able to visit his dad in the five years he’s been locked away at Glades Correctional Institution in southern Florida.
But now, here was Dad’s voice in his ear, reading him a story about Noah and the Ark—just as if they were nestled on the living room couch together. As his father read the words, Tony followed along in the brightly illustrated book that came with the MP3 player.
“Tony adores his father,” says Angela. But “his father hurt him, you know what I mean?” she adds, referring to the criminal behavior that led to the child’s loss of his dad. “Their relationship is much better now.”
“And that’s our goal,” says Elizabeth Coldren, Prison Fellowship field director for South Florida. “Reconciliation, healing, and bridging the gap” that prison creates.
Books that Build Bonds and Brainpower
Thanks to Storybook Dads, a Prison Fellowship program introduced at Glades C.I. less than a year ago, inmate dads are strengthening connections with their children—and even strengthening their academic skills in the process.
Participating inmate dads, currently about 15, are allowed to do up to six recordings per child over time. They read books—or segments of books (they’re given a 30-minute limit)—appropriate to their children’s ages.
But even before they get to that first recording, the dads have some work to do.
“This is partly a literacy project,” Elizabeth explains. So once he has chosen a book from a prepared list, the dad has to study it himself. A former teacher, Elizabeth has prepared worksheets for each book, which prod the inmates to define new vocabulary words, look for main themes, answer questions related to reading comprehension, think of Bible verses that may relate to the book’s message, and ponder applications to their own lives and their relationship with their children. Each inmate dad also receives a paperback dictionary and a composition book.
“Some of the inmates don’t have that high a reading level, so I make the comprehension questions pretty simple, just to make sure they’re going through the whole book,” says Elizabeth. Among the application questions, she always asks how they can use the book’s theme to start a discussion with their child.
Not all of the books have distinctly religious content—like Noah and the Ark. But all have a theme that encourages positive character and healthy choices. Elizabeth pulled together a list of about 20 titles after spending hours perusing books in the children and teen sections of a local bookstore. One of her personal favorites is Tale of the Poisonous Yuck Bugs, which shows the damage inflicted by insults and name-calling, and the healing that kindness and compliments can bring.
Inmates are encouraged to practice their reading before recording day, because once they get started, there’s limited time for “re-takes.” Elizabeth tells the men up front, “Some of you have a harder time reading than others do, but don’t feel ashamed and don’t worry about it.” She encourages the men to work together in teams so they can help one another. The chapel library gives them space to read and work on their study questions.
Some of the inmates take their “rehearsal time” very seriously, says Raeanne Hance, Prison Fellowship executive director for all of Florida and Georgia—and the one who first had the vision for the Storybook initiative. She recalls one imprisoned dad who faithfully practiced his story-telling skills—deftly switching voices as he switched characters—until his bunkmate finally begged “enough!”
Drawing Out the Caring Father
The program helps the inmates “take responsibility as a dad to influence their children in a positive way,” says Elizabeth. It’s very powerful, she adds, when they “understand they have that influence.” In addition to the book reading, the dads can record a personal introductory message to their child. And some who feel even more creative have written their own poems or short stories to read.
The recordings coax out feelings long held in check in the macho world of prison. “I’ve seen guys break down and cry,” says Elizabeth. “I would guess that none of them have ever sat and read to their children before.”
The sobs are sensitively edited out—along with prolonged hesitations, coughs, or stumblings—by a team of inmates handpicked by prison officials and trained by a media professional brought in by Prison Fellowship. He also installed all the editing and mixing software the recorders need to do their work, as a corrections officer watches over them.
“That was a miracle itself,” says Raeanne, “getting approval to bring in portable recording equipment and a laptop computer”—materials routinely banned in this highly secured environment. But prison officials have rallied in support of this program that can help reconcile families and perhaps even help change the culture of the prison. Last year Glades was designated as one of four “faith- and character-based institutions” in Florida, offering programming for inmates committed to “inner transformation” and “personal growth.”
All of the recording materials, MP3 players, and books are funded through donations raised by Prison Fellowship.
Connecting Churches and Families
Other groups have organized storybook programs for prisoners, but what sets Prison Fellowship’s apart, says Elizabeth, is the “church component.” After volunteers download the recordings to MP3 players, representatives of local churches deliver the players and books to the children—opening the door to an ongoing relationship.
“It’s pretty strategic that we have the inmates do six recordings—one or two at a time—because that gives the church the opportunity to have several connections with the family,” Elizabeth explains. Church volunteers “deliver the MP3 player, then a month later they pick it up again so we can download the next one or two recordings. Then they take it back to the family. Then they pick it up again, then they take it back again.”
The church selected to make the deliveries is usually within five miles of the family’s home—“close enough that they can become part of the church if they don’t already have one of their own.”
The children’s caregivers, who must give permission for the children to receive the gifts from their dads, may also ask for a particular church to deliver them. Angela requested that Tony’s items be delivered by the church her other son pastors. “Even my son the pastor cried,” she says, when he heard his incarcerated brother reading the story of Noah’s Ark. “He said, ‘I haven’t heard his voice for such a long time.’ ”
Other caregivers have praised the impact of Storybook Dads. One told of a two-year-old who sat enraptured by his father’s recording. When Dad said, “I love you son,” the child responded, “I love you, too, Daddy!”
One 14-year-old received his dad’s recording of the book Good and Evil. As part of his preparation for standardized school tests, his mother encouraged him to read two or three pages of the book each night while listening to his father’s recitation. It’s helping her son improve his reading skills, the mom says.
Eventually, Mom adds, she would like to listen to the recording, too. But for now, her son is “hogging it” all to himself. Some gifts are just too precious to be shared right away.
Raeanne and prison officials are now making plans to expand the program into two more Florida prisons, including one for women—as Storybook Moms.
Tony’s grandmother Angela has become an avid promoter. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful program,” she lauds. “It’s been so positive on Tony’s life. I recommend it highly to anyone.”
Recently Tony received a second recording from his dad—a book called Jonah and the Whale. People question why he wears his ear buds so much. He’s got a simple answer.
“I’m listening to my father’s voice.”
*Names of child and grandmother have been changed to protect their privacy.