When an officer behind the tinted bulletproof glass pressed a button, the second heavy steel door closed with a reverberating clang. Deb and I descended a wide metal grill stairway and entered the New Hampshire State Prison for Men (NHSPM), home to 1,600 inmates. Coils of razor wire and periodic guard posts encircled the perimeter, and a chill wind swept through the central courtyard.

Deb Nelson is an AP English teacher from Lebanon, NH, and the newest member of CLiF’s Board of Directors. Recently she and I spent seven hours in NHSPM as part of CLiF’s Children of Prison Inmates program.

We gave four presentations to a total of 135 inmates about the significant positive impact that sharing books regularly can have on their children’s development, and ways to make reading fun and easy even if the parent is not a strong reader. Nationally, 70% of prison inmates have low literacy skills, and their children are at very high risk of following in their footsteps.

Thanks to a grant from the Florence V. Burden Foundation, over the next year CLiF will provide NHSPM and another prison in Rutland, VT with

  • a children’s book library for the family visiting room
  • special storytelling events and book giveaways for inmates and their kids during Father’s Day and other holidays
  • literacy seminars designed to encourage and help inmates share books and stories with their children
  • and many new children’s books the inmates can mail home to their kids, or  read and record to CD and mail both the book and recording home.

Since CLiF started its prison program ten years ago, I’ve found almost all the inmates who attend CLiF events are attentive and interested in trying to do something positive for their children. It’s common for more than half of the inmates to shake my hand and thank me warmly for coming to talk with them and bringing books that they can send to their kids.

I spend much of my time at CLiF telling stories to scads of children and giving periodic presentations to groups of adults. But nothing is quite as surreal as standing before a room full of large, generously tattooed inmates in a well-guarded facility, extolling the virtues of Timothy Tunny Swallowed a Bunny and Sheep in a Jeep.

During one of the NHSPM seminars I said to the inmates: “If you don’t mind, I’m going to pretend you’re a group of kids, and I’ll read a few pages of a story so you can witness some of the techniques we discussed.”

I grabbed My Friend Rabbit, a cute story aimed at two- to six-year-olds about a rabbit who gets a toy plane stuck in a tree and creates a ladder of animals to help him get it down.

I read aloud five pages of the 20-page tale, closed the book, completed the seminar, and then told the first row of inmates they could come up to select books for their children. Deb and I helped inmates find the right titles. We heard many comments like this: “My daughter is twelve but I’m not sure what’s she into. I haven’t seen her for a few years. Do you have any suggestions for books?”

Suddenly someone called, “Mr. Duncan. Mr. Duncan!” Several inmates in the second and third rows were waving me over.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Well,” they said eagerly, “What happened in the rest of the story?”

So, pretending I had 40 six-year-olds in front of me, I read My Friend Rabbit from start to finish in that dark, echoing cement room. The inmates laughed, asked questions, and offered crazy ideas just like any other group of young kids I’ve ever met. And, transported by the power of a story, for a few moments those inmates might have felt like they were kids again, too.

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