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Jun 09, 2014 | Carol E. Barnwell

Mother and Child Reunion: Recording Program Benefits Incarcerated and Children


“I love this program. All prisons should have it,” said Wilhelmenia Howard, warden of the Plane-Henley State Jail Complex in Dayton, Texas. 


Howard was speaking about the Women’s Storybook Project (WSP), which is celebrating 10 years of volunteer service to connect children with their incarcerated mothers through literature. Volunteers travel to Texas women’s prisons to record offenders reading books to their children along with short messages. The recordings and new books are then mailed to the children.  


Judith Dullnig, a member of St. Mark’s, Austin, is executive director of WSP. She explained that the idea for the storybook project originated with Lutheran Social Services in Chicago 20 years ago. After some research and groundwork, Dullnig founded the program in the Diocese of Texas through St. Mark’s. In 2003, five volunteers carried four tape recorders, and 25 new books, tapes and padded mailers to the Hilltop facility in Gatesville, Texas, and the Women’s Storybook Project was born. In 2005, it became associated with Austin Community Foundation and has continued to grow. 


Between 1977 and 2004, the increase in female offenders in the U.S. grew by 757 percent. In the last 10 years, WSP increased their service from one to six prisons and now mails out more than 350 books and recordings each week around the United States. More than 200 women from different churches and synagogues volunteer in Gatesville and the Plane/Henley facilities near Dayton, Texas. 


Dullnig gets a lot of response from children and their caregivers. One letter from a grateful grandmother showered blessings on the program and its volunteers. “Just to see my grandchildren’s eyes light up, the smile on their face [when they] hear their mommy reading a story to them


… This is such a blessing … If you could only imagine how happy these two boys were to receive this gift. … [They] listen to mommy’s voice every night before they go to bed. It gives us something to hold on to. Thank you, thank you.”


Cameron’s note captures the heart of the program simply and perfectly:
 “Dear Whoever gets this note: please let my mom, Gina, keep reading the books on tape. One more thing: I love hearing her voice.” Another child wrote: “When she reads to me she’s closer. I miss my mom a lot and this helps me remember her. I like to hear her voice.” 


Fifty-eight percent of children with incarcerated parents are under 10 years of age. 


Both the warden and volunteers agree that just because a woman is in prison doesn’t mean she feels any different about her children. 


Debby said, “It makes me feel good to read to my children.”  


Desiree thanked volunteers last fall while a documentary was being made of the program: “I read Each Little Bird That Sings to my daughter because they had a chorus and I sung to her. I just want to thank all you ladies.”


But the project, focused on the child, also has major benefits for the mothers. 


Long-time volunteer Ellie Chaikind noticed a very quiet inmate “become a different person” after mentoring other inmates in the program. “We noticed and she noticed,” Chaikind said. “It’s one of the fringe benefits. Moms connect with their kids and moms connect with themselves.” 


“A lot of times [the children] cannot come to visit,” the warden said. “But they can hear their mother’s voice even though mother is here trying to change her behavior.” The program helps to increase the mothers’ self esteem, she explained, which improves overall life in the prison. 


Natasha, one of the inmates, agreed that there is a change in perspective for inmates. “[WSP] is something that helps mothers bond with their children and some of them have never had that, ever,” she said. 


Through tears, Holly agreed: “It’s helping me bond with my son. He doesn’t know where I am and I worry about him forgetting about me.” 


Another inmate added, “Even though I’m away, even though I’ve made mistakes, it doesn’t change how I feel about my kids.” 


In a group gathering before the recording session, one volunteer told inmates, “We come from different walks of life and you all are here for all different kinds of reasons, but we are all mothers and that’s our bond.”


Pat Yeargain was outreach chair at St. Matthew’s, Austin, when she learned about the WSP from a friend whose synagogue sent volunteers. She brought it to the church, and today a dozen active volunteers from St. Matthew’s go twice a year to help record mothers, while Yeargain and Betsy McCraine go monthly to lead additional teams at the Mountview Unit.


Most of the offenders with whom Yeargain interacts are in prison for five years to life. Mountview also houses death row inmates, although none are in the reading program. While many have lived in a generational loop of poverty and drugs, others could be your neighbor next door, Yeargain said. 


One of the long-term goals of WSP is to help decrease the rate of recidivism. Sometimes, because of the recording program, mothers come to realize that their absence affects their children. That realization and connection may help prevent mothers from returning to prison and also lower the percentage of children whose parents have been in prison from going there, too. One out of every five children of incarcerated parents ends up in prison. 


Since its inception, Women’s Storybook Project has been the recipient of many awards. Among them, in 2006, the National Crime Prevention Council named Storybook Project as one of the top strategies in the country for faith and restorative justice. The program has received the Governor’s Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award three times. Their challenge is securing sufficient funding in order to respond to all the children who would benefit from the program, Dullnig said. 


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