Children love it when someone reads a book to them. They love funny sounds, rhyming words and silly pictures. They love the sound of their mom or dad’s voice.
Sometimes, their mom or dad can’t read to them, because they are not present in the home. Sometimes that parent is in prison.
Aunt Mary’s Storybook Project is a national program that promotes inmate parents reading to their children on audiocassette tape. Church or service groups are solicited to donate new (or gently used) books, blank audio tapes, postal packaging and postage in order to facilitate this concept in women’s and men’s prisons across the country (and beyond). Incarcerated parents pick out books, read them on a tape and either volunteers or prison workers mail them out to the children.
Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., sponsored two such events at Kentucky State Reformatory, a medium-security prison with over 1,900 men. Last October, the Jean Jane’s Missions group sponsored the event at which we distributed 57 books to men with kids from birth to 14 years old. On May 30-31 of this year, the Martha Shaw Missions group sponsored another event.
This time, we experimented with holding the event outside to see if we could attract more participants. Did we ever! Ninety-five degree heat and a sunburned scalp later, I discovered that we had distributed 191 books, meaning that 191 children received a new book and a tape.
The experiment was so successful, we ran out of books before the end of the first day. I had to scramble to find more books on Tuesday night, and found a very generous proprietor of “A Reader’s Corner” in St. Mathews, who not only helped me select boxes full of children’s books, but also gave me a very generous discount.
The men at KSR with young relatives showed up at the event to select an age appropriate book for the child. They were then scheduled to come to the educational TV studio in the school to record the book. The inmate readers recorded their book, followed by a personal message to the child.
Sometimes it is hilarious listening to burly, tattooed muscle men make animal sounds or funny voices of different characters.
Sometimes all I hear is silence, and then sounds that affirm my guess that they are composing themselves after an unexpected wave of emotion.
Seventy percent of children of incarcerated parents eventually end up facing the justice system themselves at some point in their lives. Many of these children end up doing hard time in state institutions.
In reality, though, they are doing hard time now as 12-year-olds, 7-year-olds, and even as babies. They grow up with the perception that their parent is “bad” and doesn’t care. They are often teased and feel they have to defend themselves (or their parent), sometimes in a violent way.
When they receive in the mail a book and tape of their parent reading to them, they hear another message, “Daddy/Mommy loves me; … has a happy voice; …thinks reading is cool.”
Aunt Mary’s Storybook Project is just a small pill for one huge social illness. But when we think we are merely scratching the surface, at least 191 kids are feeling a little bit better!
Virenee Chatmon, a member Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, is a professor at Kentucky Community & Technical College assigned as a literacy and adult basic education teacher at the Kentucky State Reformatory.