This month, Best Start for Families, who run the family reading project Story Sacks inside London prisons, have written a guest blog for us:
Give a Book came to our rescue just in time. The budget for buying books had dried up (we had been reduced to buying books from Poundland!) and Story Sacks projects, it goes without saying, need books. Best Start for Families (BSF), currently funded by the London Borough of Camden, has been working with parents and families in prisons for over 20 years and set up the Story Sack project at a men’s category B prison in 2016.
A story sack session takes place every holiday and half term. Each session focuses on a particular book. Recent stories have included The Ginger Bread Man, The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffer and Good Little Wolf by Nadia Shireen.
On a story sack day we, a family learning tutor and a group of four trained volunteers, meet with a small group (our target is 15) of prisoner fathers. We start by taking turns at reading the story together. We know from statistics that many prisoners struggle with literacy, so we do not force anyone to read but, usually, even those who find reading difficult have a go. We talk a little about the story, the illustrations, do they think their children will enjoy it? We then set about making activities and games to support the text. Last half-term we all made a board game but because the majority of fathers had never played a board game we had to divide the class up into smaller groups and actually play a game. There was much laughter. The dads then had to make two sets of cards, one positive which included comments such as, “you helped your little brother get dressed – move forward three spaces” and one negative with comments such as, “you pushed your friend in the playground – move back two spaces”.The making of the cards gave fathers the opportunity to personalise the comments to their own children’s situation. Significantly, out of the group of seven fathers only two were able to write the cards themselves and one of those required each word to be spelled out for him.
Other activities fathers make include story wheels to help children retell stories, matching games, puppets (yes we have managed to get all fathers sewing), sequencing cards and story props. Father also spend time personalising and decorating fabric bags in which to put the book and activities. Fathers often comment on how much they appreciate having time away from the wing in a quieter environment where they can think about their children and reflect on wich games and activities would appeal to them. “This gives me time to think about them, how they are changing and what I can do to help them. It’s not easy being a dad in here.”
In the afternoon the fathers are joined by their children and an adult family member. The aim is for the families to read the book together, play the games they made in the morning and take part in further activities which need team work involving adults and children. As in any situation some families ensure that their children are engaged with them throughout the visit, whilst others need support from the BSF team to ensure that they focus on enjoying themselves as families.
“These sessions make us feel like a real family doing things together even though he is in here,” was a recent comment made by a mother.
Although the sessions are aimed at families with three to eight-year-old children we often also have new first-time fathers of babies. We try to provide activities relevant to this group such as making a mobile and emphasise the importance of sharing books even with tiny babies. An amazed father recently made the following comment about his three-month-old son, “You won’t believe this but I’m sure he was listening to me read and liked it.” Others simply enjoy the pleasure of holding their child in a quieter environment than the busy visits’ hall, “I just wanted to cuddle my baby (nine-week-old). It was beautiful. And I gave him the book, I wrote his name in it. It’s his first book. I made him a game too.”
At Christmas, a difficult time for families affected by imprisonment, Give a Book provided books for each prisoner attending the Christmas Family Day to give to their child. Several families spent time during the visit reading their book together. The books were gratefully received and in some cases with a great deal of surprise as apparent by the following comment made by a primary school aged child, “Can we really take the book home?” A seven-year-old boy announced to his family, “When I grow up I want to read all the books.” The following comment made by a prisoner about the books he was able to give his children captures the gratitude felt by so many families, “What an amazing gift. God bless you.”