The 2009-2010 MSBA Leadership Academy program gives incarcerated fathers and their children a chance to connect through recorded readings of children's books
One of the collateral consequences of the incarceration of adults is its impact on children. Approximately 1.7 million children in this country, about half of them under the age of 10, have a parent in prison. Children of the incarcerated tend to live in high-risk environments and belong to a minority group: one in 15 black children, one in 42 Latino children and one in 111 white children have a parent in prison. Analyses of data gathered from 20 cities throughout the country suggest that children of the incarcerated are at greater risk for family instability and material hardship than other similarly-situated children.
The 2009 – 2010 class of the MSBA Leadership Academy Fellows have dedicated their public service project to this vulnerable and often-neglected population of children by implementing a public service project entitled “Stories from My Father: Preserving Maryland Families Through Literacy Despite Incarceration”. The project consists of the Fellows, along with volunteers, making twice-a-month trips on Saturday mornings to the Jessup Correctional Institution (JCI) to record incarcerated fathers reading children’s books. Each book, along with an audio recording of the father reading it, is then mailed to each inmate’s children. The fathers are also given the opportunity to record a personal audio message on the recording and write a personal message inside the book. Additionally, the fathers may opt to have their book reading videotaped and have a DVD of that reading sent to the child along with the book.
“The project has a three-pronged goal,” explains Deirdre Cheek, a 2009-2010 class Leadership Academy Fellow. “The first is strengthening family bonds, the second is reducing intergenerational incarceration and the third is increasing the literacy of both the children and the parents.” Thus far, the Fellows have conducted multiple recording sessions 10-25 pre-screened fathers participating in each session. JCI Warden John Wolfe voices his appreciation of the project. “It helps strengthen the ties between inmates and their families,” he says. “These ties are important to re-entry, which is a critical issue because 90 to 95 percent of the inmates re-enter society. By helping strengthen family ties, [the project] gives inmates the motivation to do the right thing in prison and reduces recidivism.”
The “Stories from My Father” project was inspired by and modeled after similar projects, often termed “storybook projects,” which exist throughout the country in states including Texas and Illinois, as well as elsewhere in Maryland, at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown. Many storybook projects target mothers because of data indicating that the incarceration of mothers is more harmful to children than that of fathers. However, given that about 92 percent of incarcerated parents are fathers and very few of them have a regular means of both maintaining contact with and nurturing their children, this year’s Fellows have chosen to focus on fathers.
In May, as a kind of early Father’s Day celebration and a culmination of the project under the stewardship of the Academy, the Fellows plan to arrange an in-person visit between some of the fathers and their children. But while their Leadership Academy Fellowship ends in June, a number of this year’s Fellows have committed to carrying the project forward while actively seeking a non-profit organization, MSBA subcommittee or other group of good Samaritans to help them perpetuate the project.
“This project shows that you can have a big impact at a low cost,” Cheek notes. “That’s the key strength of the project and one of the reasons I hope we’ll be able to find interested parties to partner with us. It doesn’t take a lot of money or time to change a life.”
Moges Abebe, a 2009-2010 MSBA Leadership Academy Fellow, is an attorney engaged in a general practice at the Law Office of Carroll Drake, L.C., a small firm located in Waldorf, Maryland.