Healthy You Healthy Hennepin

Kris reading a children's book

Books behind bars

November 2015

It’s a rainy October day when we visit Kris at the Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility (ACF). The meeting room has a linoleum floor, white brick walls, and is devoid of decoration. Wearing a grey sweatshirt and blue pants emblazoned with “ACF,” Kris sits at a lone table. Her black hair falls nearly to her waist and her neck is tattooed with “Native.” She is 39 years old.

When asked why she’s here, Kris admits that one factor is a decade-long substance abuse issue. Until recently, “I was shooting up heroin every day,” she says. But now she’s receiving chemical dependency treatment.

She also received a crash course in books through “Read to Me,” a family literacy program for ACF residents that's facilitated by Hennepin County librarians. The program, which is funded by Friends of the Hennepin County Library, teaches residents about the benefits of reading aloud to their children.

Kris has never visited a public library or taken her children to one. Nor does Kris recall her own parents reading aloud to her as a child. But “Read to Me” is motivating her to establish new patterns.

During three, hour-long “Read to Me” sessions, Kris learned that reading aloud to children leads to stronger parent-child bonds and increased school readiness. Her “Read to Me” instructor also modeled read-aloud techniques. Then Kris recorded a book on CD to send home to her children and grandchild. 

Reading in prison counters the forces of isolation, abandonment, and dehumanization by serving as an opening to other people, ideas, and the world outside the prison.
Megan Sweeney, author of Reading is my Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons

10,000

Estimated number

of children

in Minnesota

with a parent

in prison or jail

Hennepin County hopes that Kris becomes part of a national read-aloud trend. In 2003, a landmark study found that, by age three, children from professional-class families had been exposed to 30 million more words than children from less affluent families, giving the children who heard more words a distinct academic advantage. In 2014, a follow-up study from Stanford revealed that vocabulary gaps emerge as early as 18 months. These and other findings prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue a policy in 2014, asking its members to advocate for reading aloud to children from infancy through Kindergarten.

Since its inception, “Read to Me” has served more than 1,000 parents and 2,500 children, and program evaluations remain positive. In 2013, 94 percent of graduates said they had or would take their children to the library for family programs, compared to 58 percent before the program. Similarly, 83 percent of graduates said they had or would get books from the library, compared to 68 percent pre-program.

Read to Me books and CD
Kris' Read to Me certificate
Dan Marcou facilitates Read to Me

 

“Read to Me” received a National Association of Counties Achievement Award in 1999 and the American Library Association’s Marshall Cavendish Excellence in Library Programming in 2005. Daniel Marcou, who facilitates the library’s outreach efforts to incarcerated residents, reads daily to his own toddler at home. He brings a photo of himself doing just that when he talks to dads at the ACF. “Reading to children is just as important for dads as for moms,” he says.

In November, Kris graduated from chemical dependency treatment and was released from the ACF. “I want to hold on to my [treatment] certificate and sobriety,” she told us. “I’ve missed out on a big part of my kids’ lives because of drugs. I don’t want them to get a phone call saying that I died from an overdose.” And, she adds, “I told my 23-year-old daughter that she needs to get a library card.”

For more information about the Read to Me program, contact Daniel Marcou at dmarcou@hclib.org

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