For 21 years, volunteers from The Storybook Project of Arkansas have traveled to the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) facilities in Newport, Arkansas, with the primary intention of helping inmates stay connected with their families through reading stories.
Four times a year, inmates from the McPherson unit for women and the Grimes unit for men are allowed to reach out to the children and grandchildren they left behind in the very intimate way of reading aloud to them.
The Process is Simple
Volunteers who have been vetted through the ADC bring crates of new books into the prisons - books that are suitable for toddlers through high school age readers.
Approved inmates select a book, and Storybook volunteers record the inmate reading the story to the youngsters in their family. The books and recordings are then packed up and sent to the children.
“Our motto was - and is - ‘keeping families connected through reading,’ ” said project founder Pat Oplinger of Cherokee Village. She started Storybook in 1997 with a few other volunteers from a local church. The original purpose, she said, “was to raise the literacy level of both inmates and their children, thus raising education and self confidence levels and family unity.”
“We [also] wanted to establish a connection between imprisoned parents and their children,” she said.
Watching It Unfold
In the beginning, Oplinger said it was a challenge to overcome the security concerns of bringing crates of books, recorders, batteries, pens, mailing envelopes and forms to fill out into the prisons each visit. But the prison chaplains have become strong advocates and liaisons. They believe the program improves morale, and they have worked to make the process run smoothly through the years.
Tom Bradshaw is the head chaplain at the Grimes Unit. He said it has been gratifying to watch the project unfold and realize how it blesses the men by giving them a chance to regain a position of leadership in their family.
“The men who request this opportunity do so with a sense of responsibility for their children -- something we rarely see except when they also have the opportunity to have their children in visitation,” he said.
“It is rewarding to watch them during this process, beginning with the application to participate and ending with the completion of the recording.”
Nicole Lang is the chaplain at the McPherson Unit.
“The Storybook Project has a huge positive impact,” Lang said. “It keeps the women connected to the people they left behind, when they may not be able to spend time with their children on the phone or in visitation. It reminds the children that they haven’t been forgotten when they receive a keepsake for all time. This is really important.”
The Storybook Project has big benefits for inmates, too, she said.
“The women have a sense of peace when they connect with their children,” said Lang. “Anything we can do to connect them to the outside and thinking about going home and restoring those relationships is positive. It will affect recidivism.”
The blessings don’t stop with the prisoners, however. Volunteers say they receive just as much or more than they bring.
“When I hear a mom say, ‘Honey, I’m going to read you this book for your birthday,’ I realize how much Storybook Project means,” said volunteer Denise Chai.
According to the ADC, as of 2013 (the last year for which the data is available) the recidivism rate for inmates released on parole was 56.5% over three years. But studies have consistently found that prisoners who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates, as reported by Prison Legal News.
"Only 50 percent of the 'no contact' inmates complete their first years on parole without being arrested, while 70 percent of those with three visitors were 'arrest free' during this period."
Bonds are built and strengthened when those who are incarcerated are allowed to tell their children how much they love and miss them. And the children hear the voices of their parents, grandparents and other close relatives speak those words of love and care - and then that familiar voice reading a story to them.
“This is a real opportunity for that crucial and rare communication between these family members that many times has my reader and me in tears,” said Storybook board member Nancy Jeffery. “And when they sing to their kids, oh my. That really gets me.”
Letting the Feelings Flow
Inmates are allowed to give a brief message to their loved ones at the beginning and end of each short recording. Their thoughts and wishes are the same as any other parent or grandparent:
“When you get lonely, just play this tape and read the book - and I’ll be there,” said one inmate.
“Listen to this at night,” said another, “and it’ll bring me close to you. Stay strong; I miss you.”
And another: “One of my favorite things in life is to remember how I laughed with you kids,” he said. “So enjoy this book. Laugh a lot, boys.”
Inmates are often viewed by society as the outcasts, the forgotten, the lowest of the low. Volunteers say this is a chance for the people outside and the people inside to find their common ground. A love of family and a realization that parents - even those parents who’ve made mistakes - can be role models.
“As a retired kindergarten-first grade teacher and a lover of children’s books, I want children to learn by example the joy, the importance and the power of reading,” said Storybook board member Jodie Reagan. “And parents are the best and first example for them.”
Board President Carolyn Morgan has been traveling to Newport for 17 years. She said she felt drawn to “do something for people who are someone’s son or daughter, sister or brother - who made a mistake.”
“It’s a simple act to let them know that someone cared,” she added.
Through the years, more than 7,800 Arkansas inmates have read to more than 12,800 children in Arkansas and 21 other states across the country. Family members who read are parents, grandparents, stepparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and close family friends. (The children who receive the book must be on the inmates’ approved visitation list.) The project is funded completely by donations and manned by volunteer hours. With the recently acquired tax exempt status, Storybook’s donations now supply excellent quality, new and classic children's books. Donations also help meet the rising cost of postage.
Most of the volunteers travel from Sharp, Pulaski, Independence, Craighead and Fulton counties to do the actual recordings, but several dedicated people from Cherokee Village, Ark., handle the final steps of matching the CDs with the books, packing them up and mailing them off to the children.
Inmates shared their experiences with Storybook volunteers, either at the time of the recording or later in written letters.
“I’m here for 40 years,” one wrote. “My crime took place when my son was 4 years old. I haven’t seen my son since the day I was taken to jail ... but because of you I got to read my son a book like I used to do when I was home. May God bless each and every one of you and your families.”
“Thanks to all of you, my nephews will not forget their Auntie and her voice,” she wrote. “My family in Kentucky did receive the book and tape. God bless you all.”
Chaplain Bradshaw said he can see the benefits clearly.
“It is a rare time for some of the inmates, and a frequent time for others [who take advantage of the opportunity every time Storybook goes to the prison].
“But all respond in the same way - that is, a sense of responsibility for their child.”