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Bedtime stories, lifelong memories
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 06/16/2008

Books Stuart Little, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Amelia Bedelia, The Little Engine That Could, Nate the Great, and Swimmy. Once you start thinking about the books from your childhood it’s hard to stop, especially if you were lucky enough to have a parent or caregiver read to you. Reading to young children is one of the best things a parent can do. Children soak up new words and vocabulary, excel in school, and form lasting memories of these simple, loving moments.

Incarcerated parents don’t have this opportunity with their children. According to the Urban Institute, in the U.S. more than 40 percent of incarcerated mothers and 60 percent of imprisoned fathers do not have weekly contact with their children, making it difficult for them to maintain a strong connection with their sons or daughters.

At the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC), the story is no different. As of February 2002, 74 percent of incarcerated women and 46 percent of incarcerated men reported having children, which leaves more than 3,500 children in Rhode Island with a parent in prison. Thanks to the RIDOC Books Beyond program, this story now has a new chapter.

Through Books Beyond, inmates with minor children read and record children’s books onto cassette tapes. Volunteers help the inmate select and record the book. The tape and the book are then delivered to the children at home.

“I have three small children I don’t see often,” says RIDOC inmate Joseph Thompson. “This is my way so they can hear my voice.”

“We do a lot of reading back at home, and this experience is giving me something to take back with me to my children,” adds Joshua Gutierrez, a RIDOC inmate who has taped six books for his two sons, one of whom is autistic. “We’re a big reading family; TV is a reward in my house. We’re always reading.”

About five books are recorded each week at the six RIDOC facilities. Children can receive one book and tape every four months.

“When I’m recording, I picture myself sitting beside my child,” says Thompson, who has recorded nine books for his children. “This one book helped my daughter to understand she’s not alone and what it’s like to be in a situation without a father. My daughter says all the time, ‘Please send the tapes!’”

“One of my favorites is Where the Wild Things Are,” Gutierrez adds. “My nine-year-old loves to read that one!”

Ever since he discovered the RIDOC program, Thompson has been telling other inmates to let their children hear their voice.

“The child doesn’t fully understand why you’re not there," he says. "They think you just left, but this way I can say right to them ‘I love you.’ The love comes through. It gives me hope. I have something to look forward to, something they can always keep.”

“The tapes are always there,” says Gutierrez. “It gives you direct access to your children. It makes me feel more complete knowing I can reach out to them and that they are trying to reach out to me.”

Currently, Books Beyond has about a dozen volunteers. They help inmates choose books appropriate for their child’s age, interests, gender, and ethnicity. With some books as long as 200 pages, it’s the volunteers’ unlimited patience that has stood out among RIDOC facilities.

“I tell them as they read that they can be saying words of encouragement, saying ‘I love you,’ and describing the pictures just as if the child were sitting with them,” says Books Beyond volunteer Sarah Schneider. “I ask them to be creative and to get into the book. It’s story time really.”

The program seems to be just as rewarding for its volunteers as it is for inmates and their families. Schneider says she enjoys connecting parents to their children.

“You can tell just from the way they describe playing with their kids that this is what it’s all about,” she says. “To be able to help them communicate in any way that I can is very rewarding for me.”

Improving that communication and connection between inmates and their children is the true core of the Books Beyond program, and it’s a success story that never gets old as it is told again and again.

Related Resources:

More on the importance of reading aloud to children

Visit the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents



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