Why Do Storybook Programs Matter?
Maintaining contact with supportive family members during incarceration can help increase success after release. Studies show that prison inmates who had more contact with their families and who reported positive relationships overall are less likely to be re-incarcerated. Fostering positive family connections during incarceration is especially important in Arkansas, where the recidivism rate is 56.5%.
The staggering incarceration rate in the US has received much national and international attention. Meanwhile, Arkansas has one of the highest incarceration rates in the US, with 900 residents out of 100,000 population locked up compared to 698 for the US as a whole. Counting state and federal prisons, local jails and youth involuntary commitment, a total of 26,000 people are behind bars in Arkansas.
Up to 70% of U.S. inmates are functionally illiterate, and more than 800,000 state and federal inmates have children. One in 28 children in the U.S. have a parent behind bars, a total of 2.7 million.
Children are Paying the Price
The collateral impact of mass incarceration on children and families has been devastating. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the number of children who had lost a parent or guardian at one point to incarceration had grown by 632,000 nationally in four years.
Arkansas has the highest percentage of children who have a parent or guardian who is or was incarcerated, amounting to 16% of children or 109,999 children in 2015-16. This was almost double the national average. Even compared to children in neighboring states such as Missouri (8.6%) and Mississippi (10.7%), Arkansas youth are at far higher risk of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).
Children of incarcerated parents experience higher rates of mental health and behavioral health issues, poorer eating and sleeping habits than their peers, and are more likely to be victims of abuse and human trafficking. These children are also more likely to become entangled in juvenile and adult incarceration.
Women are one of the fastest-growing prison populations in the US, and Arkansas is no exception. In 2018, women accounted for 8% of total inmates in the Arkansas Department of Corrections, yet for The Storybook Project, as many as four out of five of our readers are incarcerated mothers and sometimes grandmothers.
The reason that women are eager Storybook readers is not difficult to understand. According to a study released by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition last year, over 81% of incarcerated women they polled were mothers. 49% reported that they never see their children, while 27% said they see their kids once a year.
Storybook programs help incarcerated people rewrite their own lives by reconnecting with the families and their lives in the "free world," while at least mentally and temporarily unplugging from the harshness of prison life. As Sharon Berry, the founder of Storybook Dads in the UK describes, reading a book to their children enabled men to get in touch with that dad side of themselves and briefly shed their protective macho image. She saw many prisoners break down as they tried to record short personal messages to introduce their stories.