COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have significantly impacted inmates of Greater Bendigo and Loddon prisons, further separating them from their families due to cancelled visitation.
However, an innovative reading program at the men's Middleton and women's Tarrengower facilities has helped incarcerated parents connect with their children.
The Friends of Castlemaine Library (FOCAL) has written to a parliamentary inquiry into the Victorian criminal justice system to suggest its program, which records audio-books for children read by their mums and dads, should be sent to other jails in the state.
The program began at the men's prison at Loddon in 2012 as 'Read-Along Dads', to celebrate the International Year of Reading. The group's submission to the inquiry said it helped fill the gap created by missed bedtime stories.
"The recording (on CD) was sent to the child together with the book," it stated.
"This was meant to run for no more than six months but it was so successful that we decided to obtain more funding and after a number of small grants and crowd funding we were fortunate to obtain funding from Corrections Victoria and the Victorian Legal Services Board."
Personal visits from families were not allowed during lockdown periods and one inmate remarked in a testimonial that loved ones needed a reminder the separation was only temporary.
"They all cried when they got the CD," he said. "My missus cried, my mum cried, and my daughter loved it. I told them I'm only in prison, I'm not dead."
The program has helped improve literacy rates among prisoners and has lowered recidivism.
A Monash University study found that prisoners involved in parenting classes combined with a 'Read-Along Dads' type program were 82 per cent less likely to reoffend upon release.
Further testimonials from prisoners, included in the submission, said it was part of a vital connection to home.
"Thank you for doing this course, it has been a life saver," said one prisoner. "If you don't have close family supports, and without this course, I think you are going to get more shallow and get more deep into the prison life, and you are not going to be able have shared experiences and reflect on memories with your family, so therefore you grow even more apart."
Parents were the main participants but the program was also offered to brothers, grandparents, uncles and aunts. FOCAL also delivers other literacy sessions such as book groups and creative writing.
"It is recommended that 'Read-Along Dads/Mums' be rolled out in all Victorian prisons on a permanent and properly funded basis," the submission said.
"Some prisons in Victoria have a similar program but on a small scale and not properly funded."
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