What Ever Works
(The Story Time Project)

By Joe Humphreys

 Lock and key: the distinguishing device of civilization and enlightenment.

Ambrose Bierce

It’s not a new idea—telling stories is as old as humanity. Yet it never fails to surprise me how small the appreciation is that reading to children fosters more than just literacy. I’ve been teaching literacy and ESL in a maximum security prison for longer than I care to think about.

It’s easier than it sounds.

The students are polite and generally well behaved. In fact, there is an adage that murderers are easier to teach than teenagers. I used to think this was a noble pursuit. However, there is an inevitable degree of frustration when you see students keep returning to gaol, as if on a treadmill.

In Australia approximately sixty percent of people in prison have been there before, housed at an exorbitant cost to the tax payer (that old economic imperative). By contrast, in the Guardian (2013), James Erwin notes that Norway has a re-offending rate of thirty percent, the lowest in Europe.

Every conference on incarceration and the concomitant issues of custodial best practice opens with versions of these statistics. They point to Scandinavia and the obvious link between education and rehabilitation, how this leads to reduced recidivism, yadda yadda yadda. These days the philosophy leans towards a desperate sounding principle of whatever works. On the face of it, at least in Australia, or at least in New South Wales, it would seem that nothing works.

Any faith I may have had in that progressive notion has been eroded by the alarming spike in the prison population. Also by some heavy-handed shifts in policy that seem to indicate a significant level of knee-jerk indifference to progressive incarceration; the oxymoron that is ‘Corrective Services’. Drug and alcohol programs, sex offender programs, violent offender therapeutic programs, giving-up-smoking programs, even educational programs are supposed to address specific criminogenic factors so as to reduce rates of re-offending. At least that’s the brief. And if they don’t work—well the nay-sayers told us so.

It must be either the food or the sex, for why else would people, the sixty percent, keep coming back? Gaol doesn’t have a lot else to recommend it. These are complex issues and I am being facetious. Such rehabilitative programs, so claim the detractors, clearly don’t work. Why bother with rehabilitation? the traditional argument goes. Scum. Throw away the key. This argument is pretty intransigent and it’s a common one. Well that mentality clearly doesn’t work either. A change in the bail laws and things go back to square one.  This philosophical squabbling is unfair. To blame recidivism on the failure of programs is like saying if only schools did their job properly in the first place, there would be no need for law enforcement.

In New South Wales, after a recent swathe of reforms, current policy is to teach literacy only to the lowest skill level, that is only to the barely literate. These are prioritised as the highest needs groups, and perhaps they are. Medium or higher level literacy is now ignored, as is art, music, ceramics, business studies, English as a second language (ESL)… to name a few of the educational programs that may have provided a modicum of self-worth for inmates. These have fallen by the wayside in recent years. Why expend revenue on ESL students when many of them are going to be deported at the end of their sentences? It’s short-sighted, bean-counting logic.

Similarly, the possibilities of tertiary study are, in this state, now a thing of the past. The voting public bemoans the cost of educating inmates, or indeed housing them. We place them in overcrowded environments in spite of all the statistics describing the risks to public health, mental illness and institutionalised violence. But then, to offer the converse view, our prisons are not as overcrowded as those in a dozen other countries, so are we really going to listen to the complaints of criminals? They should count their lucky stars.

One approach is to hand the whole box and dice over to the private sector, whose primary motivation is not rehabilitation, but profit—frankly, to American shareholders. This would appear to be the last option left at the bottom of the too-hard basket, one fraught with inherent risks. Anecdotally, it was rumoured that when Parklea prison in Sydney was privatised in 2009, within a matter of months it was awash with mobile phones and drugs. The privatisation of prisons is a whole other complex issue which I do not propose to address here.

Despite the sound of it I am trying to be optimistic.

* * *

Incarcerated students come to Education classes for a variety of reasons: because they are bored; because it is a quiet place to hide, to get away from all the rough and tumble of daily prison life. Some are genuinely keen to learn. They can see the benefits an education, however rudimentary, can have in keeping them out of gaol. Others are railroaded into ticking the key performance indictor boxes.

It strikes me as spurious to think that rehabilitation can be imposed from the outside. Yet statistics of program participation are bandied about as proof that such measures are working. Rehabilitation comes from within. It must necessarily come from a genuine, personal wish to change. There are a lot of people in gaol who do not wish to change.

There is a well-known correlation between having a parent in gaol and winding up there yourself. Picture the scenario: gaol was all right for Dad, so it can’t be that terrible. Conversely, the thought process might be: where were you Dad when I was growing up? This’ll show you two can play that game. Similarly, incarcerated fathers often leave prison after a long lagging thinking their children no longer know them. They’ve been abandoned. They’re strangers. You can see the deterministic pattern in the cycle of such family dynamics. Crime runs in families. Just ask Hollywood.

So when an idea does come along that at last makes sense then I’ll prick up my ears. When the Story Time Project came across my path, I immediately became interested in its vision. It seemed to cut through the diatribe. As I say, not a new notion. The idea, based on a British program with female prisoners, was for inmates with children to record a story book and send it home to the child. What could be simpler? The idea, as reported by Erin O’Dwyer (Bedtime Stories, SMH, 2010) was trialed in Tasmania’s Risdon prison.

One of my students saw this article and wanted to know if we could do the same in our centre. You’d think it would be a straight forward thing to do—to read a children’s book and record it. No, it took over a year to implement a policy, but hey, better late than never.

The way it works is that if an inmate has children and is a suitable candidate, they are able to participate. By ‘suitable’ the offender must fit certain criteria. For instance, the child’s guardian, usually the mother, has to agree to receive the recording. There can be no outstanding Apprehended or Domestic Violence Orders against the offender, in our case the father. There can be no history of sex offences. It’s not hard to imagine why. It could well be traumatic for a child to hear the voice of a perpetrator, even if that person is their father. This is why we rejected some suggestions from fathers wanting to read various religious tracts to their children. Nothing polemical. It’s about the kid. These guidelines are stringent.

If they satisfy these various criteria, then they are allowed to choose a suitable book appropriate to the child’s age. The books are provided either by the department or a donation. The inmates take the books away to rehearse in their cell, ironing out those hard-to-pronounce words, oh, and the tongue-twisters. They may well need help with this, which is where literacy skills are addressed. The performance requirements of Dr. Seuss are considerable, especially for someone who may never in their life have read out loud before.

When they are ready, I record them reading out loud and burn this to a CD. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid those clanging doors, which must lend a certain atmosphere to the listening experience. These are not professional productions, at least not with my level of IT ineptitude. There are the same coughs, stumbles and stutters that Dad would have made if he’d been there at home reading in person. What’s important is the sound of his voice.

I then send the CD, along with the book, home to the child so they can listen to Dad reading them a story, something that may never have happened in their lives before. Ever.

Simple, huh? The purity of an unadorned idea. It is visionary in its simplicity, dealing as much with future generations as it does with the current population of inmates. It motivates them at a profoundly personal level to rediscover a reason for staying out of gaol. Fingers crossed.

As I understand it there are only 10 people in New South Wales who deliver this program. Ten people for a population of something approaching 14,000. Some administrators believe that Story Time doesn’t really fit in with the Learning Outcomes of a vocationally based curriculum… waste of resources etcetera. However, it is tolerated as an idiosyncratic aberration. Reformation would appear to include looking for where else to save money. Dilute the milk? Ration toilet paper? The pettiness of bureaucratic response to cost cutting should come as no surprise. Yet it does.

The anecdotal evidence concerning the Story Time Project also does not fit in with a vocationally-based curriculum yet is pretty compelling. One nine-year-old child, let’s give her the alias of Sally, who lives a long way from the centre where her father is housed, was languishing at the bottom of her class. School was miserable. Her father started sending home books he’d recorded. The daughter’s phrase for it was that she was ‘going reading with daddy’. It’s hard to imagine the particular intimacy of this.

One day the child’s teacher approached the mother in the playground.

‘What’s happening at home?’ she asked.

‘Nothing,’ said Sally’s mother, alarmed. How many people knew her partner was in gaol? Equally alarming, how does the child of a murderer understand that fact in a social world?

‘No, I mean in a good way,’ said the teacher.

Something must have been happening at home because Sally’s reading had gone through the roof. In the space of three to four months, her reading skills had improved so much that she was now helping the weaker readers in the class. She was also helping her younger siblings at home.

Could this be explained by the rekindled contact with her father through the medium of books? I’m afraid I don’t know the vocational Learning Outcome for that.

Mostly it’s a win-win situation for everyone. Another inmate told me that, after playing the disk five times in a row, his five-year-old daughter ran into her room and cried for two days, finally emerging to ask: ‘Why does daddy have to do bad things?’

Something therapeutic happening as well, perhaps.

She now listens to the story, following the words in the book, over and over. A small compensation for Dad’s absence, absent through no fault of the child’s. When inmates tell me they don’t want to read a second book in case it upsets their children, I remind them: you’d probably be more worried if they didn’t cry.

It’s rare to find a quiet place in gaol. Amid all the background noise it is remarkable how even hardened crims will open up when they’re talking to their kids. I have mastered the art of silent invisibility during such moments. There is something surreal and weirdly moving in seeing a great hulk of a bruiser, tats everywhere, teeth missing, gang style haircut, saying: ‘Quack quack, said the little(slowly turning the page) —‘duck.’

They wouldn’t talk in this infantile way in front of the other bruisers, but it’s their kid, right, so the motivation is high. Besides, they’re laughing. It’s fun. The book gives them permission to play, to interact with their child, albeit from a distance, to step outside of their heads for a moment.

Earlier this inmate had said, ‘But my son’s only seven months old. He won’t understand.’

‘He’ll understand all right,’ I told him.

‘You sure? He can’t even speak English yet.’

And the report that came back was that the kid was fairly jumping out of his skin with excitement at hearing his father’s voice.

Some kids play the CD over and over until the mothers are driven spare by the constant repetition of Dad’s drone.

‘Quack quack, said the little duck.’Ad infinitum.

They beg their partners for another story CD, if only for the sake of variety.

I have now recorded hundreds of books for children aged seven months to thirteen years. Any older becomes unwieldy but, in general, the age of the child makes no difference. They all seem to respond.

Another of my students continues to read books that are below the age of his children’s capabilities. This is partly because he doesn’t want them to grow up too quickly in his absence, something he’s going to have to reconcile. Also, the point is not about the story, it’s about the human contact of hearing a father’s voice, of being acknowledged.

* * *

The conservative and historical argument is that inmates are in gaol to be punished. This is, after all, Australia’s oldest industry, and we are very good at it, even though research in Finland has long concluded that punishment doesn’t stop re-offending.

It’s an emotive issue. Why should offenders have the privilege of being able to read to their kids when perhaps their victims do not? This is a valid point and one can appreciate the anger of the argument. One can even understand the resurgence of the primal cry for capital punishment that lurks not too far beneath the surface. An eye for an eye is still a powerful principle. It all depends on what sort of society we see ourselves as inhabiting.

It is separation from society that’s supposed to be the punishment. That is, the judgment society has deemed fit for particular offences. I’m not above feeling queasy: You did what! But I don’t see it as my role to pass judgment on those inmates in my class. That job is left to the professionals. They have already been judged by a judge no less. Do the crime, do the time, the adage goes in pokey.

But the children did nothing wrong. They’re still innocent, yet swept up as collateral damage by this broad punitive brush.

The closest I come to judgment is ambivalence. To continue to vilify inmates, after the gavel has come down, as so many in the media and the community are wont to do, seems a waste of energy. Energy that might be better spent lobbying the legislators, for what ever side of the fence you come down on. For when they are released, as surely most of them shall be, many people seek to continue the punishment beyond what society says is appropriate.

Whether or not we think that is enough punishment is another matter. One of the custodial officers at my centre said, if he had his way, he wouldn’t even give inmates a chair. If they want to sit then they should sit on the cement.

Ultimately judgment is the terrible, unwanted province of the victims and their families, not the outraged shock-jocks and politicians.

For in due course most prisoners shall get out. Do we want them to be released as embittered, alienated loners, ostracized from their family and community? If their children too are alienated, then it is easy to see the patterns of behaviour that repeat down the line. Recidivism across the generations. Who serves to benefit from that?

It makes you wonder about the efficacy of some of the offender services and programs in addressing the criminogenic risk factors outlined on the Level of Service Inventory. Huh? What’s that? That’s the esoteric gobbledygook of policy. Probably necessary, because that’s the sort of society we live in, right? The dominant discourse.

Then again, we could do nothing. Throw away the key. That would be cheaper, which seems so critical. Whether it has any effect on recidivism is yet to be established, but then, whatever works.

I agree that reading stories to children is probably not going to be the universal panacea to address the malaise of recidivism. The Story Time Project merely adds one thin layer of diversity to the quagmire of tactics already employed to address the out-of-control growth in the prison population.

In a rather modest way, it hopes to play a part in disrupting a vicious cycle by establishing and maintaining links between father and child.  It’s just one small trick with the idealistic aim of affecting change.

Give them a chair. It doesn’t have to be a comfortable one. Let them make the reparations to those they have hurt, including their own families, unclouded by resentment, aware of the losses they have inflicted.

Sometimes the most humane and effective ideas are the simplest.