We are thrilled to have a guest post today from Deb Nelson, CLiF board member and AP English teacher at Lebanon High School.

This past Friday I was picked up in the misty gray morning by my fellow board member, Jess Eakin, for our drive south to Concord where we spent the day in prison.

As many readers know, CLiF has had a program in the New Hampshire State Prison for Men for the last year that provides inmates several opportunities to stay connected to their children through books and stories. We were visiting to give one of our regular round of seminars to encourage and help the inmates to read with their kids, and allow them to browse hundreds of titles and select new children’s books they can send home, or record onto CDs and mail the recording and book home.

When Duncan told fathers that CLiF would be back in the prison for a second year, there was visible delight in their faces. These are men who look forward to the chance to continue encouraging a love of reading in their kids. One dad was willing to say in front of the others that he’s “been sharing books with my son over the past year, and it has made a big difference. He now reads all the time, and he’s the best reader in his first grade class!”

While there was an understandable reluctance to share personal information in front of the whole group, several men spoke quietly to us when they come up to browse through and then select their books. One father commented that he “started sending books home to my son. It was hard at first, but now that’s all he wants to do. On our video visits he always says ‘What are you going to read this time, Dad?’” Another commented that “the library you guys put in the family visiting room gets used a lot by guys… we do every time my family visits.”

Nationally, 70% of inmates have low literacy skills. At each CLiF seminar Duncan typically ‘tells’ a children’s book aloud to the inmates to show them that one way you can ‘read’ a book is by simply looking at the pictures, telling whatever story you wish, and engaging the child in a fun conversation. “Why did he do that? What would you do? What’s going to happen next?”

Watching incarcerated fathers listen to Duncan share a children’s book was a poignant experience. Shortly after we arrived there was a lockdown due to a disturbance somewhere in the prison. This caused the first seminar to start late and Duncan didn’t have time to model this activity with the first group. One man approached him afterwards and said, “I wish you had done the picture story thing. It was great to see it last time. That was the best thing that meant the most to me.”

Jess was hugely helpful as she has two small boys under 8 and a wealth of read-aloud experiences to share as men sought to select books. She is also a high school librarian so she could speak to the kinds of books older kids enjoy reading. Duncan encouraged the men to let us know if there are books they want us to get for future selection and one man later quietly asked, “Can you write it down for me? I can’t spell.”

At one point we were with a group of about 16 men in the closed custody unit of the prison for inmates who are locked down 23 hours per day due to fights and other prison infractions. Duncan had just spoken about the importance of children learning to love reading, and the men were taking turns picking out titles. One father had settled on two books which he was holding gently, and then he quietly asked, “how do I go about paying for these?” I reassured him that all he needed to worry about was picking the books and writing a note to his kids. We paid for the books, and we would mail them home. I also told him CLiF would return several times this year and he would have additional opportunities to choose books to send his children.

There’s little question that the fathers we worked with have been in a lot of trouble, and there’s little question that there has been anger in their pasts. The abundance of tattoos and scars on heads and necks are visual reminders as are the color-coded uniforms. Yet these men have children outside the prison walls, and they want them to make better choices with their lives.

One father said that “a few visits ago I talked with Duncan about my 17-year-old son who has anger issues like me, and he recommended the book Touching Spirit Bear about a boy who was the same way. My son really liked the book and it helped the two of us talk about a lot of stuff that we didn’t really talk about before. I’ve been sending him other books from you guys, and now we’re talking a lot more and things have changed between us, and he’s reading more too.”

These men have lost a great deal by making bad decisions, I am not unaware that some of them will never be released from prison. Yet all the men we met with have children, and all of them are fathers, even those whose children have found other homes. One such dad asked Duncan if he could “still send a book to my child if he has been adopted?”

3 responses to “Guest post: Encouraging a love of books from behind bars

  1. What a wonderful experience for everyone involved in the presentation. So exciting for Deb Nelson to be there and use the experiences with her students at LHS. I’m sure she find some very creative ways to weave the experiences in to her daily teaching. Proud to be a part of the same school district with Deb Nelson.

  2. Duncan and team–
    I ‘spect you’re on this, but I hope you can mention and provide books these guys might enjoy for themselves — easier reading YA stories? picture books to “prepare for reading to their kids”?

    1. Good idea, Ruth. We provide an onsite library in the Family Connections Center. The fathers will often get familiar with a book in the library and send a copy home so they can talk about it with their kids (or read the library copy after they’ve picked out one to send home). Touching Spirit Bear and Gary Paulsen books are perennial favorites.

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