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Bedtime stories from prison

Posted: 
Friday, 31 Jan 2020

Bedtime stories are a time for parents to bond with their children and share the magic of imagination but, for some people, this nightly ritual isn’t possible.

On any given day, there are around 23,000 young New Zealanders living with one or more parent in prison.

When a parent goes to prison, the children left behind have an uncertain future. As well as the possibility of less family resources or a change of school or caregiver, they can also experience a sense of shame and stigma. A recently launched children’s book, Stardust, explores the emotions that come with having a parent in prison.

None of this is the fault of the child and, regardless of what the parent has done, they remain an important part of that child’s life.  Keeping them connected is important, but for a variety of reasons, including the cost of travel when the prison is far away, some children are unable to see their parents regularly.

Through the simple act of story-reading, below are two programmes that are helping to maintain connections between children and their imprisoned parents, while also increasing literacy:

Bedtime stories programme

Arohata Women’s Prison Bedtime Stories programme involves a team of volunteers visiting the prison with a range of books that prisoners can select for their child.

An audio technician records the prisoner reading the book aloud and creates a CD, which is sent with the picture book to the child. The child is then able to read the book along with their parent’s voice.

The women choose from a selection of around 200 books.

“We chat about their children or their grandchildren or their nieces and nephews, what ages they are, and we then help direct them to books the children might like,” says coordinator Kerryn Palmer

“The kids get a brand new book as a gift, plus they get to hear their relative reading it. The idea is that they can get into a routine and they’ve got a connection with their parent or their grandparent while they’re in prison.”

“Keeping that connection going is so important. Because there are few women’s prisons, quite often we find the children are far away, and could be at the other end of New Zealand, so it’s not like you can even visit on a very regular basis.”

The programme also supports  literacy, communication, creativity and performance which all help build confidence.  Above all, it’s about its positive impact on both the women and the children, demonstrated by the following feedback from one of the women involved: 

“The absolute joy of being able to read a bedtime story to my grandchildren while I am here is beyond words. My daughter told me there were smiles from ear to ear when they heard my voice. This is such a great heart-warming experience and allows to keep connected in such a great way.

Find out more about the bedtime stories programme

Dads and books

Manawatū’s Dads & Books programme is run by Prisoners Aid & Rehabilitation Society (PARS) volunteers, and encourages fathers to write books for their children. As well as writing a storyline, fathers illustrate the picture books, which are then printed and bound before being sent to the child.

PARS Service Manager Adie Transom says the programme was established by volunteers with a background in education, to help fathers maintain contact with their children while in prison.

“It’s more than just the children, the whole family seems to benefit hugely from it,” she says. “We also use the time to build prosocial skills.”

At the end of the Dads & Books programme, fathers are videotaped reading their story, similar to the Bedtime Stories programme. The video is then sent along with the book so the child can see and hear their father reading to them.

The programme takes five weeks to complete. Adie tells the story of one young father who told volunteers how creating a book for his children helped him realise he never wanted to return to prison after his release.

“He’d just assumed up until then that would be his life, he’d be in and out of prison as a patched gang member. At his graduation at the end of the programme he said, ‘I love my gang, but I love my kids more’, so there was a really significant change there.”

Find out more about Dad’s and books programme

These programmes are helping to keep a sense of family and a sense of togetherness. Research shows that if people in prison maintain a good connection with their family then their rehabilitation is greater and they’re less likely to reoffend.

Listen to RNZ Insight report about child-centred prison visits aimed at building and maintaining positive relationships between fathers and their children