The visiting room in the New Hampshire State Prison for Men (NHSPM) can be an intimidating place. The walls are cement. Metal doors close with a heart-stopping clang. Tables and chairs are bolted to the floor. Guards are scattered around the room, radios squawking.
But even this sobering space cannot withstand the power of the most cleansing, uplifting force of all — children’s laughter.
That magical sound echoed throughout the room recently as children and other family members visited loved ones incarcerated at the 140-year-old Concord facility reminiscent of the prison in The Shawshank Redemption. By the time I arrived families had been together for more than an hour, and their happy cacophony was a heartwarming sound.
My visit was part of CLiF’s Children of Prison Inmates (COPI) program. In this program we conduct regular seminars with inmates to help them become more successful sharing books with their children, we let inmates send new books home to their kids, and we hold gatherings at the prison with children and families together. These events, called ‘Family Fun Days,’ include special food, decorations, games, storytelling by a CLiF presenter, and the ability for each child to select two new books of their choice to keep. I had come on this visit to tell stories at our most recent Family Fun Day.
I first visited this prison 15 years ago, but ever since CLiF began a long-term partnership with the facility in 2014, I and many other CLiF presenters have been visiting six times each year, and we’ve worked with many hundreds of inmates, and had the pleasure of watching some of their children grow up.
Many inmates have attended between 10 and 20 CLiF seminars or Family Fun Days over the past 5 years, and their kids now possess small libraries of new books at home. Men tell us their children are learning to read using the CLiF books. Others report that sending new children’s books home to their kids has opened up a new and rich avenue of connection and discussion that had been lacking in the past. A recent CLiF survey revealed that 91% of the inmates felt the COPI program helped their children become more interested in books and reading, and 98% reported that the program helped strengthen the connection between the inmates and their children.
I wandered around the echoing room saying hello to the families. The men grinned from ear to ear, soaking up the time with their children and family members Iike a dusty garden absorbs a summer rain. I knew almost all the inmates, and I recognized most of the kids. During a momentary lull in the joyful fracas I announced that it was time for a story followed by a book giveaway. Almost all the families gathered in a corner of the room that had been decorated with banners and streamers, and that featured two tables covered in hundreds of new children’s books.
Children crawled into fathers’ laps and I began to spin the tale of Mirette on the High Wire, the story of an intrepid French girl more than a century ago who unexpectedly became a tight rope walker. You could see how content the children and dads were to be close together, sharing this warm experience in an otherwise cold venue. When the tale reached its happy conclusion, each child jumped up and selected two new books to keep from the wide-ranging CLiF collection. The fathers had fun commenting on books they remembered from their childhoods.
When the day was done, the games were played, the books were selected, and the goodies eaten, even the guards were smiling. That’s the power of children’s laughter, regardless of where it may appear.