A bedtime story from prison: Rebooted program closes gap for incarcerated mothers

1 / 7
A bedtime story from prison: Rebooted program closes gap for incarcerated mothers

A program that lets incarcerated mothers record bedtime stories for their children, has restarted after a three-year hiatus to the delight of a former prisoner who used the service.

When Jodi-Lynn Joseph was released from federal prison, it had been about 18 months since she saw her young daughter. The few chances they had to speak while she was incarcerated in 2012 were as brief and limited as conversations with toddlers go.

Upon her release, Joseph was apprehensive about their reunion and how her absence affected their relationship.

"My biggest fear was that she would think that I just left her," the Saint John woman said.

The anxiety melted away when they first saw each other again at a halfway house. Joseph remembered her daughter running and jumping into her arms.

But another surprise awaited her at home.

"When I got out after 18 months of being inside and went into her room, all my pictures in the photo album were out of the photo album and all over the room," she said with a smile.

The bond remained strong, and Joseph has a group of women from Saint John to thank for preserving that connection — a connection sustained in part by a cassette.

Read Aloud program

The Elizabeth Fry Society of Saint John has rebooted the Mother/Child Read Aloud program, a service Joseph said is vital for incarcerated mothers. The service attempts to maintain some of the closeness found in reading a bedtime story.

A group of volunteers load up a van with books, cassettes and recording equipment and travel to the Nova Institution for Women, a federal corrections centre in Truro, N.S.

Incarcerated mothers, grandmothers and godmothers are then encouraged to record three children's books at no cost. Books and audio are also sent to the child.

The books are new and offered at varying reading levels and for francophone and Indigenous children as well.

"This is an amazing program for their children," said Denise Durette, past president of the society.

"When you cannot read a story to your child present, this program [makes] a connection."

In the early morning of Jan. 27, Durette and Judy Murphy, the society's executive director, loaded a dozen bins filled with about 50 books each into a rental van.

They were headed to Truro for their second trip since restarting the program in November 2017.

Another trip is scheduled for March, where mothers at the prison will be given the equipment and privacy to record their voices.

Joseph said they're able to record a brief message as well — the only communication some mothers have with their children for the duration of their sentence, she said.

"It was one of the few things that people had to look forward to in there," Joseph said, adding the interruption in service would have cut off communication altogether for some mothers.

On Jan. 29 at the society's office in Waterloo Village, volunteers prepared dozens of packages to be sent to families that week. Packages have been sent across Canada and even to the United States and Europe.

It only takes a few days to create and ship the recordings, but Joseph said the audiobook can be a child's keepsake for years.

Program halted

The Read Aloud program was founded by the late Marianna Stack, a former president of the Saint John Elizabeth Fry chapter, in 2000 at the provincial correctional centre in Saint John before moving to the federal institute.

In 2014, the Correctional Service of Canada application process changed, which slowed the program's renewal. The change was followed by Stack's unexpected death in 2015, which setback the process again.

Once they completed the application, the prison had already re-allocated funds for the program elsewhere.

"We were back to square one," Murphy said.

The society eventually re-applied and Nova approved funding for three sessions between last November and this March. Murphy said they plan to continue the program, if the outside funding is available.

The bulk of their supplies is gathered through donations.

Ensuring the program continues is key to helping the roughly 26,000 Canadian children whose mothers are incarcerated, Murphy said.

Seventy per cent of women in prisons are mothers of children 18 years and younger, she said.

"We know there's a divide between children who are read to and children who are not in terms of literacy development. I think anything we can do to increase that connection is for the better," Murphy said.

"What brings women very often to prison is a way for them to look after themselves and their family. That's their only choice. By committing an offence then they end up in prison."

Joseph said her troubles with drugs landed her in prison on two separate occasions — once in 2002 and again in 2012.

Her past transgressions haven't gone away, either. She's due back in court in March for charges from years past, she said.

If she ends up back behind bars, Joseph said she hopes the program will be there for her and her now eight-year-old daughter.

"For her to hear my voice reassured her that I'm not gone," Joseph said.

The society hopes to see continued growth in similar programs across the country. They also hope to expand their regional service to offer more resources to caregivers looking after the children.