Prisoners in the UK Were Given a Children's Book and a Microphone and Told to Start Reading...

Incarcerated parents in the United Kingdom are connecting with their children through reading bedtime stories. Storybook Dads and their women’s prison counterpart, Storybook Mums, are providing a way for parents in prison to stay in touch with their children, even while they are away from home. The organization helps parents to make audio recordings of themselves reading a book to their kids.

The group got their start in 2002 while founder Sharon Berry was volunteering at a prison. As Barry gave of her time she was struck with “how difficult it was for imprisoned parents to keep in touch with their children.” She started recording inmates reading at the prison and editing the recordings at her home to help bridge this gap. The program was well received and Berry expanded her work to a second prison to help inmates there as well. Her efforts “proved so popular that the Governor gave her a prison cell to work from and allowed her to employ a couple of prisoners to help with the editing.” The program became a charity in 2003 after their services were requested at even more prisons.

In 2015 the group reached 14,995 children of inmates with their projects. They offer their services in 100 prisons across the UK. The program has grown over the years to include the original CDs and now DVDs, “Read Along with Dad and Me” and “My Dad” projects.

This video shows the Storybook Dads programs in action:

To create a CD, inmates work with the group’s team to record themselves reading a children’s book for their own child. The team helps so that parents can listen and parrot the words for their kids and read, even if they are not a strong reader. Editors then take out any mistakes or background noises and add in music and sound effects. According to their website, “Most of the work is done by trained prisoners who gain useful skills and experience… which can help with resettlement upon release.” Parents have the option of creating a DVD instead of a CD at some prisons. Puppets are used to create the DVDs and kids get an opportunity to see their parent’s face as they hear his or her voice.

The “Read Along with Dad Project” began in the same way as the CDs with the recording and editing process. DVD editors then add the book’s pages to a video. They sync the parent’s reading to match the turning of pages so that kids can follow along on the right page as their parent reads.

Here is a sample of how the “Read Along with Dad” videos look when they are finished:

The “Me and My Dad Project” allows prisoners “to create personalized gifts for their children or relative.” Some of the gifts inmates can choose to create include “Memory books, comics, craft DVDs, calendars and reward charts.” Parents are taught important computer skills as they create these special projects with their children. A lifelong keepsake is created, literacy skills are promoted, and practical job skills are learned along the way.

In the U.S. there are similar programs in individual states, but nothing as widespread as Storybook Dads. In New Hampshire and Vermont the Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLIF)  “[provides] free and inspiring literacy programs and brand-new books to low-income, at-risk, and rural children up to age 12.” While children of the incarcerated are not the only focus of CLIF, they do work with parents in prison as one of their strategic demographics. The group helps to furnish children’s books in prison visiting rooms, gives books to children to take home after visiting their parent in jail, teaches literacy seminars, and helps to create audio recordings.

In New York, the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., funds a similar program for inmates in the area. Twice a month the group totes in boxes of children’s books and takes over a spare room in the jail. Inmates are allowed to read one book for each child in their household and then “the recording and the book, with a personalized message written inside, are mailed” to their children.

A similar program is run in Alabama through a group called Aid to Inmate Mothers (AIM). Once a month volunteers help mothers create a DVD recording to send to their children. Books for this program “are donated by local churches, businesses, organizations, and individuals.” Over 350 Alabama children receive these packages. Moms often chose to also include “a message or song to personalize the recording for their child.”

Opportunities exist with each of these organizations for you to get involved. Donating money helps each of these programs continue to function. Many of these groups also take donations of new or gently used children’s books that inmates can share with their children. Other groups have opportunities for volunteering to help prisoners assemble their recordings and special projects. Take advantage of these unique opportunities to include your kids as you help promote literacy and provide a growing bond for other children and their parents.