On bookshelves across the country, there are stories about mice and cookies, princesses with long hair and a very hungry caterpillar.
But in Arkansas, thousands of children won’t curl up with a parent in bed and listen to a bedtime story. Instead, they’ll listen to a recording of a family member reading them a story. That’s because 16% of children in Arkansas currently or previously have had a parent or guardian incarcerated — the highest percentage in the nation.
“Families serve a shared sentence with their incarcerated loved ones, so we’re trying to ease, if not break, that cycle,” Denise Chai, the director of outreach for The Storybook Project of Arkansas, told NationSwell.
The Storybook Project of Arkansas saw a place to bridge the gap in both literacy and family connection for children with incarcerated family members. Four times a year, the nonprofit brings books, tape recorders and volunteers into five of Arkansas’ correctional facilities.
There, individuals can record a message and read a book for their family members. Grandmothers will read stories to their grandchildren, fathers will read to their daughters and uncles have the chance to read to their nephews.
“It’s a little piece of the parent at home with them,” Chai said.
In 2019, The Storybook Project of Arkansas reached 1,793 children. The children ranged from infants to high schoolers, and the readers have included aunts, grandmothers and older siblings.
Keeping a connection with incarcerated family members can be a challenge. Prisons aren’t designed for children, and it can cost families time and money to visit facilities. Meanwhile, video conferences and phone calls can quickly become a financial burden on families.
But with Storybook, the parents can partake in their children’s’ lives.
“For the person who’s reading to their children, it’s an opportunity to parent their kids, to play a role in their children’s lives, to be present when they’re not really present,” Chai said. “As they are reading a book to their children, it’s an opportunity to be a good role model.”
Additionally, that continued connection can be one of the keys to success after prison. Studies show that when released individuals have family support, social integration is easier and they’re more likely to find a job and financial stability. A study published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography found that incarcerated individuals who remained in contact with their family throughout were less likely to reconvict.
Jan Schmittou is one volunteer behind the audio recorder. Schmittou, who has served as a volunteer for over a year, has watched fathers moved to tears and listened to mothers read their favorite fairytales to their children.
Schmittou’s first visit was to the Wrightsville Unit. Schmittou went through the metal detectors, heavy doors and walked through the cement facility.
“Once you get past all of that, the reality is the people there aren’t too much different from you or I,” she told NationSwell.
The nonprofit was launched 21 years ago by founder Pat Oplinger and a few volunteers. It worked with incarcerated individuals in two correctional facilities until 2019, when it expanded to three more.
Chai said that expansion is part of an effort to deepen the work they’re doing. Beyond working in more facilities, the nonprofit has started motivating individuals to “do a little more emotional homework” by sharing more impactful lessons and words of encouragement with their children, Chai said. Most recently, they incorporated a bookmark program where family members can create a bookmark to send to their children.
“We’re a really simple program but we’re always trying to do just a little bit more with what we do and have a little bit more impact,” she said.
The Storybook Project of Arkansas isn’t the only organization to adopt this idea. Groups, like the Women’s Storybook Project of Texas and The Seattle Public Library’s Read to Me Program, have similar goals of keeping families connected.
“It’s such a reassuring and loving message about how much they’re cared for and missed even though the person is physically absent from their lives,” Chai said.