Sharing books, love behind prison walls

Event aims to bring inmates, their kids closer with reading

January 27, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The children folded newspapers into hats and danced the "Hokey Pokey." Their fathers clasped the kids' tiny hands and clapped along to happy songs. Then they sat, arms around each other, and read about a trailblazer named Jackie and a resourceful spider named Charlotte.

For a few hours yesterday, the visiting room at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup was transformed into a grammar school parent-teacher day. The children were all shy smiles and nerves as they showed off their reading. Their fathers couldn't have been prouder as the youngsters enunciated long and often unfamiliar words.

And prison officials, who coordinated the event with Reading Is Fundamental, a Washington-based literacy group, took a back seat as they watched the relationships bloom.

"The real heart is, when you see a parent sitting there with a child, and you see the kid go from sitting far away to sitting closer and closer, and then eventually sitting on their parent's lap," said Stephen J. Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association and the academic coordinator for the state's Department of Education.

Yesterday's event was the third in six months at the prison, and attendance is growing. About 35 inmates showed up yesterday, up from about 20 when the program began.

Anthony Miller is becoming a RIF regular. As he waited for daughter Safont'e and son Damont'e to arrive, he shared his concerns about popular children's books.

"I don't like them reading gothic books," he said. "No books with guns or crime books. Mystery novels are cool, but no witchcraft, no sorcery and stuff."

Clearly, Miller isn't wild for Harry Potter. His children don't seem to mind his restrictions, though. Safont'e, a seventh-grader, says she prefers Dr. Seuss books, while her 11-year-old brother prefers basketball stories.

"Michael Jordan is my favorite book," Damont'e said, referring to a biography of the basketball star his father gave him, courtesy of RIF, at the last event. But, he added, "I've only looked at the pictures."

As Damont'e read to his father from Winnie the Pooh, Miller held him close -- partly because of the noise as his fellow inmates bellowed children's rhymes behind him and partly because he has so few chances to put his arms around his children.

On regular visiting days, the inmates say, they hug their children on the way in and on the way out. In between is an hour -- often an awkward one -- when the inmates don't know quite what to ask and the children often don't know how to answer.

Inmates say they like the RIF event because it's relaxed and allows them more contact with their children. And questions about Jackie Robinson and Michael Jordan replace those awkward pauses.

"It really breaks down that wall of tension," said RIF President Carol Rasco, who attended the event along with Division of Correction Commissioner William W. Sondervan and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's husband, David Townsend.

"At times, they don't know what to talk about. But if you base it on books, plan it around books, then you have an activity to do and they start talking."

The program also motivates the inmates to read more, she said. Children can take home books after each event. The same books are available in the prison's library, so the fathers can read along with their children and even make assignments.

For the 30-year-old Miller, who is in his 11th year of a 20-year sentence, the event has another benefit. For a few hours, he says, he feels like a father.

When Damont'e gets his snack, Miller learns his son likes oatmeal snaps but won't eat chocolate cookies or sticky buns. He never knew that; when he left, his children were babies.

"Sometimes it puts me in awe. I like to see the small things."

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