COLUMBUS, Texas — Four-year-old Mattie Zapata can’t get enough of her books on tape — because the voice is her mother, Mandi Balderas.
Balderas is locked in a prison four hours away.
“Even though I’m not there physically, I know that she’s sitting there listening to my voice, spending that time with me.”
Each month, Balderas and other selected inmates choose a story to record, then mail it home. It’s called Storybook Project, and it runs in six women’s prisons across Texas.
Sixty-four percent of incarcerated women nationwide lived with their children before prison. Storybook tries to ease the pain of separation.
Mattie was 18 months old when her mother went to prison for a DWI crash that killed the other driver, a crime of manslaughter that victimized her daughter, too.
“I was crying for Mommy,” Mattie said, “because I miss her.”
“If it wasn’t for the books, she wouldn’t be able to have the bond that we have now,” Balderas explained. “I know that means something to her, and I know that means something to me.”
Balderas acknowledges that she made a decision to drive while impaired, which led to the death of someone else. But she doesn’t want that choice to prevent her from being there for her children.
“Yes, I made a decision, but it’s not about the decision no more. It’s about how we handle the circumstances, by helping my kids the best way I can, from where I’m at.”
Balderas has four years of an eight-year sentence left. When she finally reunites with her family, she hopes her children won’t mistake her voice for a stranger’s.