Every Friday, during a weekly book hour at a public middle school in Bergen County, N.J., a little girl picked out the same Scholastic pamphlet about Alcatraz Island. Delores Connors, the class’s reading instructor, couldn’t figure out why. What was so captivating about a defunct federal penitentiary?
When Connors asked the kids to share what they were reading, the girl’s arm shot into the air. “I really like this book,” she announced, showing her classmates a picture of a cell. “Now I know what it looks like where my dad sleeps.” Connors tensed. She didn’t want the girl to disclose too much. As the daughter of a convict (Connors’s mother was incarcerated while pregnant with her), she wanted the girl to feel dignified talking about her dad, the way other children are.
“From that moment, I began to think, ‘How many other kids don’t share?’” Connors wondered.
She teamed up with her colleague Mary Joyce Laqui to ease communication about loved ones who are locked up, launching the greeting card line Write to Matter. Inscribed with Hallmark-style messages, the notes cut past stereotypes about the incarcerated as dangerous criminals to express affection for people who’ve made a mistake. While the enterprise is still in its infancy, it could eventually provide an invaluable service to those dealing with the corrections industry, including an estimated 44 percent of black women with a family member behind bars.
“Our greeting card line came out of that need, people who need to be able to communicate with their loved ones,” Connors says. “Because when your family member or the person you love gets in trouble, you still have to show up at work. Your church member knows your son got arrested; they don’t want to mention it, but they want to say something. The cards give us access to do that.”
The schoolteachers initially stamped the cards’ front cover with their own artwork. But after meeting an artist through Fortune Society, they’re pairing with inmates (current or former) who provide photos and drawings that adorn the outsides.
At first, Connors and Laqui set up Write to Matter as a social enterprise, selling cards at a profit that could be reinvested in the company’s operations. But something felt wrong about charging a fee. Now in the process of applying for nonprofit status, the teachers send cards to whomever emails them. They’re also planning to distribute them at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal to families heading to prisons upstate and right outside Rikers Island, New York City’s troubled jail, to those about to enter the visiting room.
Despite their distance, each inmate still matters to his relations on the outside; Write to Matter’s words are making it just a little easier to say so.
Homepage photo by iStock.