Messages of love: Incarcerated dads record audiobooks for their children at High Desert SP

Jerry Diaz records with Connie Davis at HDSP.

Jerry Diaz records with Connie Davis at HDSP.

Father2Child Literacy Project expanding through Innovative Grant Program

Photos and story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications

The soothing sound of a parent’s voice is a source of comfort for children throughout the world, and one organization is helping children whose parents are in prison continue to find that comfort.

Now in its fifth year, the Father2Child Literacy Project works with fathers in California prisons to record books on CDs for their children to listen to. The CDs and accompanying books are sent to the children, along with a message from the father. The goal of the program is to support family connectedness, comfort children, and enable fathers to be active in encouraging their children to read.

The fathers peruse the book selection.

The fathers peruse the book selection.

“At the heart, it’s a literacy program,” said Karen McDaniel, founder of Place4Grace, the organization that operates Father2Child. “But what we really try to help them understand is it’s also about the comfort and care of your child.”

On a recent trip to Susanville, McDaniel and a small team recorded more than 200 hours of audio from 194 inmates at High Desert State Prison. As one group of men filed into a classroom to prepare to record, McDaniel calmed their nerves by explaining the process and assuring them nobody would be judging their book choices or recordings. They began browsing the available books, organized by subject, age category and language, each father intent on choosing the perfect book for his child.

“Sometimes when they come in and see the books, the expression on their face is very childlike and almost overwhelmed, because they’re seeing things that were never a part of their childhood,” McDaniel said. “Had their parent been reading to them and sending positive messages, the likelihood of them being here certainly would have been a lot less.”

The men record the books in private sessions with Place4Grace team members, and are welcome to record a short opening and closing message. Ulysses Ocampo read for his 7-year-old daughter, sharing a message with her about how it’s important to stay in school and keep reading.

“She’s out there in the world right now without me, struggling,” he said. “So whatever I can do, I do it for her so when she grows up, she can be a smart woman. She can learn, she can be smart, and she will be a really good woman who I will be proud of.”

Place4Grace’s mentor agency is Hope House in Washington, D.C., which reconnects children with their incarcerated fathers via numerous programs. Their research shows that families who participate in the Father2Child Literacy Project report an 86 percent increase in the likelihood of the child to read and to increase their love of reading.

Sutina Green helps Jordan Wallman select the perfect book to send to his children.

Sutina Green helps Jordan Wallman select the perfect book to send to his children.

“The point is, if you’ve left a child behind who you love and care for, we want you reading to them,” McDaniel told the dads at HDSP as they prepared to read. “Because we don’t want them ever to come here or to any prison, right?” The men nodded emphatically. “One of the single biggest things you can do to make sure they never come here is to make sure they’re doing well in school – they’re reading well, they’re doing well in school and they know they are loved and connected to you.”

The program is also about repairing broken connections and strengthening strained ones. Sending a book to a child can be a way to reignite a relationship, and fathers are welcome to record for their children of all ages.

“Sometime the fathers do this to reach out to their kids, or to reach out to their kids for the first time after a long period of absence,” said Sutina Green, who helps facilitate the recordings.

Interest in the program is growing. Over the course of three previous trips to HDSP, Place4Grace recorded 194 men. On their fourth trip, they had more than 200 fathers scheduled to record. All told, more than 1,000 children have been impacted by the HDSP program alone. Through CDCR’s Innovative Grant Program, recordings are also happening at Ironwood and Chuckawalla Valley State Prisons, and this year will expand to Kern Valley State Prison, California Correctional Institution, Valley State Prison and California City Correctional Facility. The program provides CDCR funding for successful programs already operating in California prisons, enabling them to expand to “underserved” prisons, which are less accessible to volunteers.

Because only a few men can record at a time, McDaniel leads a discussion with the rest of the group who is not recording. Topics range from the importance of rehabilitative programs and preparing for parole suitability hearings to answering questions about law and policy changes and how they will affect incarcerated people.

Library Technical Assistant Connie Davis helps dads pick out the perfect book.

Library Technical Assistant Connie Davis helps dads pick out the perfect book.

Connie Davis, a library technical assistant and self-help sponsor at HDSP, organizes the men beforehand, scheduling who is going to record. She said she has heard from the men afterward how important the program is to them, as an additional way to stay connected to their children and for the information they receive during the group portion.

“I know they’re getting the benefit of it,” she said. “I know they are. When they leave, they’re so thankful and they’re so grateful and happy.”

Derrick Brown chose to read a book to his nephews called “Knock Knock.” Daniel Beaty’s illustrated book is written from the perspective of a young boy whose father goes to prison, and details the child’s feelings about his dad not being there for important life events. Ultimately, the father writes to his son, sharing how he will be involved in his life and will always love him, no matter what. Brown said that message was one he felt was important to share with his nephews.

“They’re boys, and they need their father, and their father is not there,” he said. “I feel like I can change, and love them, and help prevent them from coming to prison.”

Karen McDaniel helps the men choose books to read to their children.

Karen McDaniel helps the men choose books to read to their children.

 

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10 Responses

  1. Megan Smith Tuesday, August 9, 2016 / 3:40 pm

    It would be nice if Michigan allowed this program. It would greatly benefit my husband and our children.

  2. Kc Monday, August 8, 2016 / 11:00 pm

    This sounds so amazing for my children when are you heading back to High Dessert? This would be such a blessing to our children and would apprecicate greatly to be a part of this amazing program please countiune to do great things like this to help families cope through these hard times apart sincerely one parent on one side of the wall

  3. Carol Hinds Thursday, July 28, 2016 / 7:44 am

    This is a beautiful program and has served as a model for a second stage program recently developed exclusively at CSP~SAC which focuses on adolescent and young adult children of inmates. Our Inmate Family Council was so inspired by the Father2Child concept that we wondered what could be done at our prison to include inmates who have adolescent children at home. We felt that this age group was very vulnerable and needed support. Our Warden was supportive of this idea and asked the Education Dept to take on this challenge. The Librarian took on the project, wrote a proposal which was approved, and the program was created. The premise is much the same as Father2Child. However, 2 sets of each book were needed. In our program, a new version of the book is mailed home to the child, and one copy remains at the prison for the next use. New ones are replenished as necessary. The Librarian reached out to our Inmate Family Council for book donations which were unanimously approved. The program is up and running, she has a list of inmates going through the approval process at all times and has been able to add to the book lists by surveying the inmates and their families to make sure that the selections appeal to everyone. We wouldn’t have this program if not for the excellent model of Father2Child and the wonderful support of our Warden and the Education Department at CSP~SAC. They are all a cut above, and have helped many grateful inmates and families stay connected because of this vision. This program is exclusive to CSP~SAC. However, other prisons may be able to use this as a model in order to create and implement the same successful outreach for their inmates and families.

  4. Elizabeth Wednesday, July 27, 2016 / 12:31 pm

    What an awesome program for the children. Thumbs up.

  5. alexis seese Tuesday, July 26, 2016 / 2:37 pm

    I would love to see this brought to PVSP!

  6. Debbie Sunday, July 24, 2016 / 4:36 pm

    Great program. When my daughter visits with her children my son reads to them in the visiting room. With this program my son’s nephews can have the joy of listening to their uncle at home anytime they want. They replay the tape often.

  7. cheryle Friday, July 22, 2016 / 12:06 pm

    As children we are taught to learn from our mistakes and other’s mistakes. This is a wonderful program to stay in a child’s life. Even if your dad is in prison, this will help him change too.

  8. Christine Marshall CATC Friday, July 22, 2016 / 9:09 am

    Great Idea!

  9. Barbara Friday, July 22, 2016 / 8:53 am

    This is a wonderful program. Children need to know they are loved and remembered even if they are not close by to their dads.

    Thank you,

    Barbara

  10. A father Friday, July 22, 2016 / 8:44 am

    Beautiful program, thanks for writing this one up

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