Judith Dullnig is spreading a message of love and redemption, one children’s book at a time.
By Phaedra Rogers, Photo by Courtney Runn
“Don’t forget to brush your teeth.” “Happy birthday!” “I love you, baby.” “Remember to say your prayers.” The sounds of motherhood haven’t changed much throughout the course of time. In fact, if anything has changed, it’s that today, mothers can dote on and nurture their children from practically anywhere. Whether they’re living in a different city, state or, as is the case for the mothers served by Women’s Storybook Project of Texas, within the four walls of a prison, the amount of love and care remains a constant.
“A mother’s voice is a very powerful thing,” says Judith Dullnig, founder of Women’s Storybook Project of Texas, an organization that connects incarcerated mothers to their children, from infants to age 12, through reading.
Dullnig has witnessed countless experiences of the power of a mother’s voice firsthand. One she remembers vividly is the story of an 11-year-old girl who slipped into a coma because of an illness. The doctors had done all they could, Dullnig says, but the girl was still unresponsive. However, when all else failed, her mother’s voice came through. Again and again, the girl was played a recording of her mother’s voice reading a book, and to everyone’s shock, she woke up.
Few people can claim they’ve gone from selling jewelry and fine linens to helping incarcerated mothers read to their children, but that’s the trajectory Dullnig’s career took.
Dullnig was first introduced to the idea that would become the Women’s Storybook Project of Texas when she was visiting friends and working at a trunk show in Louisville, Ky.
“We were sitting at dinner when someone mentioned a program that connected mothers in prison to their children through reading,” she recalls. “I immediately knew I wanted to bring a program like that to Texas.”
Having lost her mother when she was just 8 years old, Dullnig knows what it’s like to not have a mother who could read to her.
Just like the growth of a baby, the program started out very small, eventually making big strides.
“I started with five volunteers, four voice recorders, 25 new books and one prison,” Dullnig says.
That was 15 years ago. Today, she has more than 200 volunteers who visit the prisons, record stories and messages from female inmates, then mail a new book, along with the audio recording, to their children. The day has finally come when Dullnig’s office walls are stacked with new children’s books and a long list of prisons to potentially be included in the program.
Only mothers on good behavior for at least 90 days have the opportunity to record stories. If anything changes in their status, they lose the opportunity.
Currently, in the U.S., there are more women incarcerated than ever before. While the reasons for the uptick in female inmates are complicated, it’s clear the positive effects the storybook program has on the mothers, the inmates, who earn the chance to read to their children. Wardens repeatedly share that the uplifting act spills over to other inmates, which lightens the atmosphere for everyone.
“I’ve always said that this is a simple concept with a very big impact,” Dullnig explains, adding that she often gets letters from guardians and family members, but it’s most gratifying when she hears from the children directly.
The letters are sometimes peppered with artwork and say things like, “Thank you for bringing me and my mom closer together,” and, “I want to hear more. When are the next books coming?”
It’s not unusual for Dullnig to hear about children asking to be tucked into bed with the CD player, sometimes wrapping it in a favorite blanket or putting it under a pillow. Older children have been known to take their recordings everywhere, carting them around in their backpacks. Aside from assuring children of their mothers’ love and increasing inmates’ self-esteem, there’s an underlying bonus to the project. By promoting literacy—even from inside a prison—these moms are teaching their children the importance of reading.
Dullnig is often asked about illiteracy among inmates.
“Rarely have we had a problem with illiteracy in our program,” she says. “I’ve run into a dyslexic or slow reader occasionally, but most the time, the mothers read beautifully and with expression.”
Moving forward, Dullnig says she’d like to see Women’s Storybook Project of Texas expand to all prisons in Texas.
“Just because a mom has made a bad judgment call,” she says, “doesn’t mean she loves her child any less.”
To learn more about Women’s Storybook Project of Texas, visit storybookproject.org.