A Castlemaine-based group is keeping prisoners in central Victoria connected to their families, and opening up new possibilities in the meantime.
A parent reading their child a bedtime story is not unusual.
But it is more unusual when that parent is in prison.
A central Victorian group is making that a possibility for prisoners in the region and their families.
Friends of Castlemaine Library (FOCAL) run programs called Read Along Dads and Read Along Mums, through which prisoners and their children can read together while being apart.
Under the program, participating inmates at Loddon, Middleton and Tarrengower prisons choose a book they want to share with their child. Program facilitator Lisa D'Onofrio visits the prisons and records the participants reading their chosen books aloud, then takes the audio and edits it into a cohesive package.
This audio is put on CD, decorated with a cover designed by the prisoner, and sent, along with the copy of the book, to the prisoner's child, grandchild or other young relative.
The child can then play the CD and hear the voice of their mother or father as they read the book.
The program began eight years ago, during the National Year of Reading in 2012.
FOCAL wanted to do something special to mark the occasion, and the group's then-treasurer Ann McAlpin came across a charity in the United Kingdom called Storybook Dads, which recorded stories and messages from parents in prison for their children.
The Castlemaine group approached Loddon Prison with this concept and they gave it a shot, intending to run it for just three months.
"When the first three months were up, the prisoners and the staff said, 'Gee it's going well'... and we thought, 'Well, we can't stop'," FOCAL's Denise Jepson said.
The success of the program saw it expand to the women's prison Tarrengower, near Maldon, and last year Port Phillip Prison approached the group last year for assistance in setting up a similar program there.
FOCAL now handles some of the logistics for the program in Port Phillip, although it is on hiatus due to the pandemic.
The group also fields calls from other people around the country, asking for advice on how they can establish similar initiatives in prisons near them.
The most important role of Read Along Dads and Mums is its potential to nurture good relationships between parents and children, even when they are physically separated through incarceration.
"The main [benefit] is just to maintain or establish a connection with the child. That's the major one," Ms D'Onofrio said.
"The other one is... it promotes literacy for both the child and the prisoner.
"Sometimes it gets them interested in books, it gets them onto another path.
"I run other classes there too, via FOCAL, we do creative writing and book group, so sometimes it serves as a funnel into those classes, and sometimes it serves as a funnel into more formal classes, as in TAFE classes."
Illiteracy rates among prison inmates is high and low educational attainment is common; a recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report found Year 9 was the highest level reached for one in three prisoners. But illiteracy is not a barrier to participation in the program.
For those who cannot read well, Ms D'Onofrio will read out a line and they will repeat it; she will then edit her voice from the final recording that goes to the child.
"There are ways around it if you've got low literacy or you can't read at all," she said.
One prisoner, Chris (not his real name) found the program had boosted his own literacy skills.
"I learned how to read, how to read a lot better than when I first started, I couldn't read then but reading has improved heaps," he told Ms D'Onofrio.
Ms D'Onofrio said the program benefited the whole family.
"It's something dads can do from inside the prison, because how they parent is very limited," Ms D'Onofrio said.
"It gives them an avenue to at least contribute something to their child in terms of entertainment and education."
Maintaining connections to family is vital for those in custody - people with more support on the outside are less likely to reoffend once released.
The program is very popular among the prisons' inmates and has become even more so since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which put a stop to visits and many programs within prisons.
In the past six months FOCAL has sent out 223 recordings, up from 152 (about the average) in the six months prior.
Ms D'Onofrio said it was "wonderful" to be able to continue offering the program.
"I know there were some kids who really appreciated having something in the post, because of course they were... stuck at home and there was not much that they could do, so when they received their books, they were very excited because it was something new and a present from Dad," she said.
Ms D'Onofrio visits the prisons fortnightly to record, but some participants would do more if they could.
She said they carefully considered what went out to their children and spoke of one recent example.
"He chose a drawing book, an Alison Lester drawing book," she said.
"He chose that specifically, he put a lot of thought into that.
"He went off and coloured in one of the drawings as well... His reasoning was, 'I chose this one specifically because when I'm out, I'll have something to do with her, and so we can draw together, and that way we don't really have to talk, she might not want to talk to me, because she hasn't had that much contact with me in the last three years'.
"He had thought about that: this is a good way to spend time with her, and something they could do together."
Inmates have expressed gratitude for their participation in the program and how it has helped them.
"It has given me confidence in many ways, such as writing letters to loved ones, expressing my feelings and also my spelling," one wrote in a letter.
"I have now found that I look forward to my Read Along Dads program, I take grate [sic] pride in decorating the CD covers and now I am thriving off my confidence to read a book, with enthusiasm. Which I was never able to do prior.
"This has assisted me with my growing relationship between myself and my kids."
To keep up-to-date with the program, visit its Facebook page.
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