DAYTON – It was a moms’ gabfest, and each of the young mothers had a yarn to share about her children’s encounters with the written word.
One kid scored a scholastic slam-dunk with a book report on a mom-recommended title. Another, too young to read, cutely flipped a book’s pages as she listened to the recorded story. Still another, only 10 months old, solemnly digested the text of a mother-bestowed gift volume by eating it.
Shared over coffee or on a park bench, such tales of triumph and travail might be the quotidian stuff of modern motherhood. But for these women, inmates at Dayton’s Lucile Plane State Jail, the stories were tinged with poignancy. For them, they were affirmations that their long-distance efforts to nurture youngsters from the stark confines of a barbwire-encircled prison were hitting home.
The inmate moms – most with relatively short sentences – are participants in the Women’s Storybook Project of Texas, a volunteer-led program in which each can reach out to her child or children by reading stories aloud into a recorder. The resultant compact discs and the books then are mailed to the youngsters, some of whom only rarely have visited their mothers behind bars.
The recordings often contain brief personal messages. “Read the rest of the book and tell me how it ends,” one mother admonished her son in a pre-Christmas recording session. “Forgive me. I’m working to be a better mom, sister and daughter. I couldn’t ask for a better son.” Then she wept.
“Once I heard a mother tell her kid to brush his teeth,” said program founder and executive director Judith Dullnig, a former fund-raiser for Austin non-profits. “One of the most important things is for children to hear their mothers’ voices, to hear them say, ‘I love you.'”
The Texas program, which started in 2003 at a Gatesville women’s prison under the auspices of an Austin Episcopal church, is based on pioneering efforts of a Chicago Lutheran social service organization. The program now operates in six of Texas’ nine women’s prisons.
Last year, the project served almost 1,300 incarcerated mothers and 2,600 children. About 2,100 books were distributed in 2014; about 24,000 since the program’s inception.
“This is a very powerful program,” added Wynona Montgomery, a retired Baytown school teacher and administrator who coordinates recording sessions at the Plane and Henley prisons north of Dayton.
State prison spokesman Jason Clark agreed. “We understand the importance of offenders maintaining family ties,” he said, noting that such relationships enhance the probability that the women, once released, will become productive members of society.
On one recent December afternoon, approximately three dozen white-uniformed women filed into a jail classroom to record their Christmas season offering. Scattered on tables was an array of children’s literature, ranging from “Never Ask a Dinosaur to Dinner” and “If you Take a Moose to School” to “Kristallnacht: The Night of Broken Glass,” a grim account of Nazi persecution of Jews.
‘Be a mother. Just a mother’
The program provides recorded stories and books to children from infancy to age 12. Each mother participates in the program for three months.
“Just pretend that they’re by your side,” Storybook team leader Cathy Foster told the women as the program got under way. “If you stumble over a word, it’s all right. You’re their mother. Encourage them to write a book report. This is one time you can be a mother. Just a mother.”
Tiffany Lauderdale, 33, of Lufkin, serving time for engaging in organized criminal activity, credit card abuse and endangerment of a child, chose Lewis Carroll’s ebullient poem, “Jabberocky,” for her 12-year-old daughter, the eldest of her four children.
“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” she read, then added the verbal postscript: “I love you. I miss you. Write me a letter. Read to your little brothers. Merry Christmas.”
Then she made a smooching sound – “Mwhaaa!” – a long-distance kiss.
“She reads way beyond her grade level,” Lauderdale said. “She’s been reading since 3. She loves to read.”
Through her Storybook recordings, Lauderdale has tried to introduce her children to “older authors.” Other stories have included “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
“I wanted to keep these stories alive for them,” she said. “I miss them every day. I think of them all the time. I love them.”
Women yearn for children
Jessica Ramirez, 32, of Houston, serving a sentence for debit card fraud, chose Esphyr Slobodkina’s “Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business,” for her 10-year-old daughter, one of three children.
“This one is different,” she said, launching into a gleeful recitation of the child’s accomplishments in scholastics, volleyball and choir. “She’s very smart and talented. They’re all very good at school.”
Keyerra Williams, 23, of Houston, doing time for aggravated robbery, chose for her 10-month-old son a story about a small blue truck that comes to the aid of a bigger, ill-mannered truck that has become mired in the mud.
“I saw him just this morning,” she said of her son, who lives with his father. “He’s teething right now, so he’s kind of fussy. Normally he smiles. He’s a happy baby. He drools all over the place. I miss him more than anything.”
The women’s yearning for their absent children was palpable, but, nonetheless, their spirits seemed high. The classroom, with its smiley-faced posters encouraging students to excel, could have come from any school in Texas. But the reality of prison never was far away.
On several occasions, a guard entered the classroom to conduct rollcall.
Montgomery, who has worked in the program about six years, said she never had visited a prison before she joined Storybook.
“There are surprises,” she said. “One of the things that hit me through the years was how very normal these women are. They could be walking down the street and you would have had no idea that they had been incarcerated. They’re articulate. They are very good readers. They’re educated.
“They’ve just made some mistakes in life.”