The number of children with a father in prison increased 77 percent from 1991 to 2007, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. For many of these incarcerated fathers, maintaining healthy, positive relationships with their children is extremely difficult.
A nationally recognized University of Wisconsin Oshkosh program is taking an innovate approach to remedy that issue.
Developed by UW Oshkosh reading education professor Michelina Manzi, Breaking Barriers with Books uses children’s literature as a catalyst to enhance relationships between fathers and children.
“When a father is incarcerated, a young child loses connection with him because there is nothing left to bind them together,” Manzi said, “but if they keep communicating about the literature they are reading together, they develop a bond that stays current across the miles.”
To participate in the program, inmates must complete an application, which is screened by prison security and education staff. Also, children must be between the ages of 3 and 12 and on the inmate’s approved visitors list.
“Inmates don’t receive any special privileges for their participation — just the intrinsic value of having time with their children,” Manzi said. “They spend a lot of time with the program, and their participation shows they have total dedication to their children.”
Each five-week program consists of a weekly two-hour class, a weekly fathers’ support group run by program participants and a weekly focused hour of family visitation. During the classroom time, inmate fathers are introduced to children’s literature, learn about child development, and find out how to choose age-appropriate books to read to or with their children.
Fathers also work on their literacy skills by practicing reading the children’s books aloud; keeping journals; and writing poems, letters, and essays to and about their children.
“Even if the inmate is unable to read, they can still participate in the program, but it is up to the other participants to help them along,” Manzi said.
When it can be arranged, the fathers read to their children during prison visits. Otherwise, they record themselves reading aloud and, once reviewed and cleared by prison security, send the recordings home to their children using their own money.
At the end of each program session, participants pool their most meaningful efforts and create a book of their own writings, which can include essays and poetry written for their children as well as their reflections on the program. The book is published within the prison and is sent to the families of the participants.
Initially started at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution in 1996, Breaking Barriers with Books has continued uninterrupted for more than 14 years and has reached thousands of children since its inception. The program also continues to be emulated by other correctional facilities across the country and was recently recognized as one of the most effective family literacy programs funded by Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy in “Celebrating Family Literacy for 20 Years: Selected Case Studies 1989-2009.”