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Words through walls
By Lynne Murray, Corrections.com News Intern
Published: 11/03/2008

1103books stack 6642495 Ask any incarcerated parent about their most difficult challenges, and they will probably mention the separation from their children. While they cannot be in touch with their kids as much as they’d like, now there is away for them to stay connected.

Thanks to a program called Words Travel, incarcerated parents can reach beyond the wire fences to participate in the nighttime ritual of reading to their children. The program, which began in 2002 through a partnership between Scholastic Books and Volunteers of America, is the first literacy program created for inmates and their children.

It is designed to establish stronger ties between parents and their children, while encouraging a love for reading.

“The prison system is a population that has typically been under served,” says Windy Lopez, director of Community Affairs at Scholastic. “Many people who are currently imprisoned were not read to as children, and Volunteers of America are finding that parents who finish the program are empowered by this to seek education.”

Participants attend classes within the prison facility to learn about different children’s literature genres, including picture books, folk tales, fairy tales, and poetry. Parents then practice reading the books aloud, usually in front of one another. As they practice, they are encouraged by their classmates to bring the story to life.

Next, parents record their voices on tape either during class time or at another set time with supervision from the staff. The recorded tapes are then sent to their children’s home. Along with a backpack and portable tape player and headset, the children also receive the book that was recorded, so they can read along as often as they like.

The program hosts reading days at the prison as well. On these days, the children not only get to visit their parent, but they also get to read together.

Some facilities hold ceremonies for those who complete the program, while others hold extended visiting hours for the parents and their children. Graduates can record another book and they can continue working with the program by helping out with new participants.

Scholastic offers a wide variety of children’s books for the program, while Volunteers of America provides a leadership team composed of staff or volunteers, who are trained in the Words Travel curriculum. The training courses are conducted weekly for about six weeks.

“There are lots of variables (including cooperation from prison staff and willingness of the inmates to learn) within the prison population and it is lots of hard work,” Lopez adds.

Sara Urrutia, a Volunteers of America project manager, says about 50 percent of men and women participate in the program.

Currently, the program is available in nine states. The first to have it were Indiana, New York, Ohio, and Washington State, all of which served as pilot sites. Their success has helped Words Travel grow.

Not everyone is ideal for the program; participants must be parents of a child between the ages of two and 10. They also cannot be serving time for a sex crime.

As the program grows, Scholastic is optimistic that it will fulfill its mission of encouraging children to love reading, and its overall goal of giving them a chance to communicate with their parents.

“It is ultimately about the children, and ensuring their futures,” Lopez says.

Related resources:

Read Sara Urrutia’s online article about the program


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  7. Rick on 01/13/2009:

    Scholastic also partnered with Turning a New Page in 2000 to create a program where inmates, who were very low or non-readers, would build fluency by reading children's books on tape for the local school district to use on a lending basis. As of 12/2008, the inmate - run lending library has over 600 titles recorded. Check out http://turninganewpage.com/currentnews.htm for the news articles about the inmates and their successes over the past 8 years. As a result of the work with the inmates, Cracking The Code was created to help struggling students in elementary schools avoid the same failure experienced by the inmates when they were in school. Reading is key to helping reduce the recidivism rate.

  8. Dazed IT/CO on 12/04/2008:

    A very good idea, however I have one question about its effectiveness. I have seen in my few short years in corrections that there are a lot of family groups that are incarecerated. The old saying "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" seems to be true. There is another program being used and purported by President Bush that would make more sense "program mentoring prisoners' children". Using the big brothers and sisters groups where the children are read to by law abiding citizens would give these children positive examples to keep them from following in their parents footsteps. One of the best ways to help individuals including inmates and their families is by good example.

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