Every story about children and parents and what stands between them should have a storybook ending – especially when what stand between them are jail cell walls.
Once upon a time, in 2011, Betty Mensch of Rhinebeck got talking with a friend who was involved in a reading program at the Dutchess County Jail (DCJ) in Poughkeepsie. The friend, whose name is Pam Wright, mentioned that a corrections officer at the jail had asked her about a program that he’d heard about at prisons. The all-volunteer program allowed inmates to choose, read aloud and record a children’s book, which is then sent to their children on a CD.
“It sounded like such a great idea,” Mensch recalled recently. She and Wright got together and, with the financial assistance and support of the outreach committee at Rhinebeck’s Church of the Messiah, Storybook was born.
“The idea isn’t new with us,” Wright said. “The Lutheran Church actually funds a program in prisons across the state of Illinois.”
She credits Dutchess with being one of the few county jails in the country (as opposed to federal or state prisons) to provide Storybook-style programs inside its walls.
Pam Lamonica is a corrections officer at the jail in charge of workers and programs. She explained that many, though not all, of the jail’s inmates are short-timers – sometimes on their way to prison for longer stretches, but sometimes doing time on lesser charges or maybe tied up in the system, awaiting trial. The jail’s population is roughly 350 men and 60 women. The majority of Storybook’s clientele are men, she said. The place is always packed.
“A lot of people have problems with rehab programs,” Lamonica said in a tone that said that she didn’t agree. “I’ve never heard anything but positive stuff about Storybook.” Restoring the sometimes-tattered bond between parents and children can only be a good thing, she said.
Once a week, Mensch and her friend Duane Ragucci wheel a cart loaded with new and like-new donated children’s and Young Adult books into a small room at the jail. There they meet four, sometimes five inmates over the course of several hours. The inmates select a book that they like and read it aloud. Mensch and Ragucci record their readings on a donated laptop, burn a CD of the recording and eventually send it, the book and a note from the parent to the child.
The men and women who participate in the program can be mothers or fathers or grandparents, Ragucci said. Some mothers have read to unborn children they have yet to deliver.
Mensch indicates a battered-looking laptop that provides the recording. “It gives everyone – the parents or grandparents and certainly the children – a chance to connect, despite the conditions the adults are living in.”
Charles Cuevas is the corrections officer whose question to Pam Wright got Storybook launched. He has been on the job for 11 years. He has had all that time to see the effects of incarceration on the men and women at DCJ. Cuevas has a simple explanation for his involvement in the program: “I like helping people.” He figures that Storybook has provided as many as 700 imprisoned parents with the opportunity to connect with their children since the program began in 2011.
Mensch and Ragucci have to navigate expectably difficult waters at times; some inmates’ reading levels aren’t good. Many of them have never read aloud before, or in the company of strangers. Some are barely out of their own childhoods or are suffering the effects of childhoods blighted by poverty and its attendant demons. But the nervousness and embarrassment rarely lasts, they say. Soon, the wish to please and surprise a son or daughter or grandchild, to give them the gift of themselves, escapes impenetrable walls and, with any luck, finds a home in the hearts of their surprised and unsuspecting children.
At last count, 700 or so Storybook endings have escaped those jail cell walls. Seven hundred…and counting.