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What Happens When Incarcerated Mothers Read To Their Children


Each May, with cheerful flowers and maudlin cards, we celebrate the gift of mothers. A good mom is like no one else in the world—her love is fierce yet gentle; her voice is powerful. Whether it’s firmly telling you that you had better straighten up, or softly whispering “I love you” into your ear before you fall asleep, a mother’s voice is able to cut through, to break down walls, to make you feel safe and loved.

Although this is my experience with my mother, the idea that a mother’s voice matters is not simply anecdotal. Research supports it. In 2010, the University of Wisconsin conducted a study of 7- to 12 year-old girls, who were asked to give an unexpected speech and complete a set of math problems in front of a group of strangers. After completing the panic-inducing tasks, some of them got a hug from their moms, some of them got a phone call, and some of them watched a movie. The study found that hearing a mother’s voice reduced levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increased levels of oxytocin (the love hormone) at a similar rate as receiving a hug.

Yet 150,000 children across the United States don’t know a mother’s voice as well as they know its silence. Their mothers are in prison, their voices silenced by miles, expensive call fees, and cement walls. The Women’s Storybook Project of Texas, a nonprofit organization based in Austin, seeks to give these moms their voices back.

It is dedicated to recording mothers in Texas prisons reading stories to their children, then mailing CDs of those recordings, as well as the books that correspond with them, to wherever their children live. It is a simple concept, but page by page and word by word, it is strengthening families affected by incarceration across the Lone Star State, and across the nation.

2,500 Participants Each Year

Two Saturdays each month, volunteers for the Women’s Storybook Project (or Storybook, as they call it) pile into vans and SUVs and drive a couple of hours to women’s prisons in central and eastern Texas. There, they go through prison security, unload children’s books that were donated through book drives or local Barnes and Noble stores, and set up shop, organizing books—such as “Love You Forever,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” and the project’s signature book, Patrice Karst’s “The Invisible String”—by age group.

Storybook is in seven out of the nine women’s prisons in Texas, with plans to reach them all.

They then invite incarcerated mothers in for a special afternoon, a privilege the women have earned with 90 days of good behavior. Storybook runs in four-month cycles: Inmates can record a book per child once a month for four months, then they rotate out of the program, so others have the chance to participate. (They can reapply.)

Storybook was started in 2003 by Judith Dullnig, a Texas transplant who learned about a similar initiative from friends in Kentucky. “It just tugged at my heart,” Dullnig says, and though she had no previous experience working with the incarcerated, she decided to go for it. After spending a year collaborating with a social worker and awaiting approval from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Dullnig launched Storybook at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, Texas, with five volunteers, some books she had purchased from T.J. Maxx, and a few tape recorders.

Today, Storybook is in seven out of the nine women’s prisons in Texas, with plans to reach them all. Each month, the project mails out about 350 books and CD recordings to children whose moms are inmates in Texas prisons, to wherever they might reside, from Amarillo to Laredo to Los Angeles—even to Russia.

“If you do the crime in Texas, you do the time in Texas,” says long-time volunteer Pat Yeargin, explaining Storybook’s broad scope in a real Texas drawl. Since it began, Storybook has served more than 9,000 mothers and is now averaging 2,500 participants a year. It has received three Governor’s Criminal Justice Volunteer Service awards to boot, a rare accomplishment.

‘Her Reading Means the World to Me’

After introductions and an ice-breaker question, inmates have time to select their books. Most moms know exactly what they are looking for, a book about horses for a daughter who dreams of having her own or a special story from their own childhood. “This is something I know she can carry with her,” says one participant named Lezlie, after selecting “Peter Rabbit” for her daughter Shaprecious, “plus I read it when I was little.” Others “need help picking an age-appropriate book,” says Yeargin, as it may have been a while since they have seen their children.

Most moms know exactly what they are looking for, a book about horses for a daughter who dreams of having her own or a special story from their own childhood.

Once they have made their selections, inmates pair up with volunteers and break off into quiet rooms to record. Before and after reading the story, they are allowed to record a special message. “Invariably, they’ll say, ‘I love you,” says Dullnig, but “sometimes I hear, ‘Don’t forget to brush your teeth.’” Volunteers use laptops and zip drives to record—a recent development, since the Texas Department of Criminal Justice considers both items contraband—and another set of volunteers burn the recordings onto CDs. After moms have decorated the CDs and cases and written a note in the front flap of the book, everything is placed in a mailer and sent on its way.

When asked if she has any favorite Storybook moments, Dullnig shares two of many. The first is that one woman learned to read to participate in the program. The second is that after one Storybook recording was played over and over in a hospital room, an inmate’s daughter came out of a coma. These are beautiful stories, but the program’s value can be seen again and again even in the simple thank-you notes Dullnig receives on a regular basis, which say things such as:

“I don’t get to see my mom much, so her reading to me means the world to me.”

“I really enjoyed my mom’s book. I love her voice. She used to read to me all the time.”

“Thank you for helping us be better mothers to our children. So many have just written us off.”

Together While Apart

This past summer, Lauri Arrington, a former participant in the program, wrote about her experience with the project in a blog post for The New York Times’ Motherlode: “What I remember most was an unshakable joy of knowing that as long as I was reading that book, I was Mom again. It was surreal knowing my daughter would receive and hold in her hands the very same book that I held in my hands that day. We would occupy the same space even if it was at different times.”

Storybook is an opportunity for us to tell these children, ‘Be hopeful for your mom.’

Thus something quite simple becomes something quite profound. The Women’s Storybook Project of Texas is empowering incarcerated mothers to be moms, by giving them the opportunity to do an everyday activity with their kids—read books. “These moms are pretty eager to touch their children’s lives in a positive way,” says Dugie Graham, who has been volunteering with Storybook for the past seven years. When I ask her why she volunteers, she responds: “I believe in second chances. I believe in hope,” and Storybook “is an opportunity for us to tell these children, ‘Be hopeful for your mom.’”

Having a mom in prison is heartbreaking, and children with an incarcerated parent are six to nine times more likely than others to become incarcerated themselves. Not if the Women’s Storybook Project of Texas has anything to do with it: They are a coterie of women in Austin, armed with recorders and children’s books, who are harnessing the power of a mother’s voice, inspiring hope, improving female inmates’ chances for successful reentry, and reminding children that, even if they have an incarcerated mother, they are still loved.

If you would like to give to the Women’s Storybook Project in honor of your own mom this Mother’s Day, you may do so here. A $25 donation will cover the cost of “The Invisible String,” a padded mailer, and a CD.