Women's Storybook Project
Reprinted from The ECHO (TDCJ's offender newspaper)
Simple idea with big impact allows mothers to connect with children
In the early years of a child's development, it is of the utmost importance they know they are loved by their mothers. The bond between mother and child is sacred and crucial to the healthy mental and emotional development of a child. The importance of preserving this most primary of family relationships becomes even more critical when the mother is a convicted felon. One in five children with an incarcerated parent ends up in prison, according to Women's Storybook Project literature.
The nature of incarceration makes it very difficult to maintain an intimate connection. Physical barriers such as steel bars, brick walls, razor wire fences, long distance locations, restricted visitation and limited lines of communication isolate convicted mothers from society and from their children.
Fortunately, there are those who are motivated to help these Texas families overcome those barriers.
The Women's Storybook Project (WSP) helps mothers behind bars and their children stay emotionally connected in an exceptional and constructive fashion.
WSP is a non-profit organization that records incarcerated mothers reading stories and brief messages to their children, with tapes and new books mailed to their children. Founder and director of WSP, Judith Dullnig, heard about a similar program in Louisville, Ky., and was moved to start one in Texas. With assistance from A. Mooney, a social worker at TDCJ's Hilltop Unit, Dullnig designed the new program.
"Women's Storybook Project is a simple idea with big impact," Dullnig said. The biggest and most important impact is the one that it has on those for whom it was created - the children.
"From the beginning, there were stories about children taking the books and tapes to bed with them, playing the tape over and over, and bringing it with them to school for Show and Tell," she said. It has also been reported by the guardians of the children that they carry the tapes wherever they go an even talk back to them!
Response from the children is positive. One child wrote in to say, "Dear Whoever Gets This: I love hearing my mom's voice."
Another child said: "Hi! The Giving Tree was a great story. My mom reading it to me made me very happy. I am looking forward to my mom coming home soon. Thank you."
"I really was happy to receive the tape and book. It was wonderful to share this with my mom. I feel very close to her hearing her voice. Thank you for making this possible," said yet another child whose mother participated in the storybook program.
After the program was successfully implemented on the Hilltop Unit, it was implemented on the Lane Murray Unit. WSP currently exists on six of eight women's prisons -Mt. View, Woodman, Plane, Henley, Hilltop and Murray.
The heart and soul of WSP is volunteerism. WSP began in 2003 as part of the outreach program at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Austin. In those early days, WSP had only five volunteers. Today it boasts 150 volunteers representing all faiths, ages and career paths -- from high school students to retirees.
Volunteers makes approximately 68 visits to the women's units per year. In addition, they carry out the duties of storing, packaging and shipping approximately 350 books and tapes each month to children around the country.
Every prospective WSP volunteer must complete mandatory TDCJ volunteer training and periodic refresher sessions as required. Also, new volunteers must be trained in WSP's recording process. They travel to various female units up to four times before completing volunteer training.
Volunteer team leaders coordinate and oversee the challenging process of recording incarcerated mothers. There must be volunteers to facilitate the recording process and adequate security staff available.
There are many payoffs for the hard work. This project provides volunteers with a way to make a difference in the lives of others, and the positive affect on the institutions where it has been implemented cannot be denied. Mothers who whish to participate in WSP must have at least 90 days of good behavior, which has yielded a decrease in disciplinary infractions.
What happens behind prison walls is just a small part of the storytelling effort. WSP is non-profit, relying primarily on monetary donations to operate; fundraisers and book drives are constant events. WSP partners with individuals, corporations, civic groups, churches and students and staff of major universities. It employs this multi-strand system to obtain new books, financial donations and other needed materials.
Everything that happens concerning Women's Storybook Project is relayed in its quarterly newsletter "Book Notes", composed of contributions from volunteers, guardians and incarcerated mothers. Whether it is in the area of fundraising, conducting a book drive, instructing others on how to properly package the books, or shipping out a high volume of books from one unit, "Book Notes" lauds the exemplary achievements of volunteers who make WSP a success.
Windham School District (WSD) partners with the storybook program at several Texas prison sites, coordinating efforts with the WSD parenting program. As a result , WSP has been honored three times as a recipient of the Governor's Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Awards: twice as a WSD Judy Byrd Award recipient, and once as a TDCJ Susan Cranford Female Offender Program Award honoree.
This award-wining effort to strengthen the bond of incarcerated parents and children is continually improving.
"Women's Storybook Project has recently received approval to update its recording equipment to CD's," Dullnig said. "We are also hoping to provide an extension of WSP to the mother and child when she reenters the community. The extension will be called Storybook @ the Center."
Passionate volunteers, a vast support network of donors, and dedicated parents are connecting children with incarcerated mothers through reading and literature. Women's Storybook Project of Texas remains a simple idea with a very big impact.
Appeared in The ECHO: Vol. 85, No. 8, October 2013
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Reprinted courtesy of The Navasota Examiner
Reporter Nicole Wilcox of the Navasota Examiner recently visited the Luther Unit for a first-hand look at Windham School District and how correctional education is helping offenders prepare for a successful life after release. Her positive report is shared below, courtesy of The Navasota Examiner.
Most residents can recall four school districts within the county - Navasota, Anderson-Shiro, Iola and Richards – but there are actually five fully operational districts in our community.
Often forgotten about, the teachers of the Windham School District don’t have bus duty, lunch duty or parent conferences. What they do have is a school surrounded by security fencing and guard towers.
The Windham School District operates within 89 different Texas Department of Criminal Justice units, including both the Luther and Pack units in Navasota. The school district’s goals, as stated by Texas Education Code 19.003, are to reduce the odds of relapse and the cost of confinement or imprisonment, increase the success of former inmates in obtaining and maintaining employment, and provide an incentive for inmates to behave in positive ways during confinement or imprisonment.
An individualized treatment plan is created for each offender, taking into account age, program availability, projected release date and varying needs of the offender. To accommodate those needs, the school district has different sections, including literacy and GED programs, career and technical education programs, and life skills programs.
“We are trying to put you in contact with jobs that will change your life,” Windham School District Superintendent Dr. Clint Carpenter said last week to a group of offenders in the vocational program of the Luther Unit.
The latest reports from the 2013-14 school year show 59,678 offenders statewide received WSD educational services. Of these offenders, 66 percent were able to attain a GED or high school diploma or showed significant gains in educational achievements. In addition to normal education classes, Windham offers offenders cognitive intervention and CHANGES programs designed to change the way they handle situations to prevent criminal behavior. CHANGES is an acronym for changing habits and achieving new goals to empower success.
“I really believe in this program,” said CHANGES teacher Victoria Koehn. “Most of them really want to change but don’t know how. When the environment is right, they really open up.”
Those entered into CHANGES are within two years of getting out of the system. It is a 14-week program that includes role- playing scenarios and a seven-step system of behavior awareness that includes saying no to drugs, civic responsibility, healthy relationship development, apologies and amends, job interview skills and being open to change.
“The healthy relationship development is a big deal,” said Koehn. “Research shows that one good relationship is enough of a motivator to stay free.”
If an offender has obtained a GED or high school diploma, they are eligible for vocational or college courses. Within the Luther Unit, a few of these courses include electrical, welding and computerized numerical computation. The computerized numerical control course deals with machining fabrication. The majority of fabrication and machining shops in the industry are moving to computerization because the machines are capable of being accurate to within 1/10000 of an inch.
“The majority of these guys are at 250 hours right now and can do the majority of the machine’s programming,” said instructor Mike Klodginksi.
The participating offenders in the computerized numerical computation course will be eligible for entry- level industry certification when they complete the minimum 600 hours of coursework and can opt for an additional 300 hours of advancement.
Electrical instructor Frank Goodman has simulated a work environment within his classroom with each student having an independent stall and project board. He is a firm believer in peer tutoring and teaches students that intrinsic motivation is self-motivation.
“I see my son in each of my students,” said Goodman. “I just want you to get paid for your knowledge.”
Like the majority of the WSD vocational classes, Goodman’s electrical course is six to nine months long, and the students are eligible for first or second year apprenticeship depending on the time put into the training.
“This was a blessing for me. I had an apprentice license before I was incarcerated. I had the opportunity to go to school, but I wouldn’t do it. This made me come to school and work on becoming a journeyman. I have an opportunity to go back to work with LECS and work for them. I am retaining the info I knew when I was working,” said offender Antonio Rivera Camacho.
Everyone within WSD has a story. An overwhelming majority of the inmates talk about their families as motivation for participating. For the instructors and administrators, it is often a calling that differs from the course of their previous life.
Welding instructor Van Campbell was a 20-year member of the ironworkers union in Cincinnati before the birth of his first grandchild made him and his wife move to Texas. When asked if he would encourage anyone else to follow in his footsteps, Campbell replied, “As a teacher, yes! It is very gratifying. I’d hire any one of these guys when they leave my class.”