Prisoners are falling over themselves to get their hands on a very unusual item — for a surprisingly profound reason. Picture: Mark Stewart
Prisoners are falling over themselves to get their hands on a very unusual item — for a surprisingly profound reason. Picture: Mark Stewart

Bizarre item prisoners are obsessed with

On a wintry day in central Victoria, Lisa D'Onofrio is tucked up inside a sunny modern building, a treasure trove of books spread out on the table before her.

Today's selection includes stories by much-loved children's authors Mem Fox, David Walliams and a smattering of Roald Dahl classics, but Peppa Pig is undoubtedly the most requested title for this morning's session.

You could be forgiven for thinking Lisa, a literacy consultant, is preparing to welcome enthusiastic little bookworms to her portable-library lair.

But today, Lisa D'Onofrio's clients are some of Victoria's most hardened criminals, men and women who've committed unspeakable crimes, and her mini-library is actually set up inside some of Victoria's most notorious prisons.

Here she will facilitate Read Along Dads or Read Along Mums, a unique program that helps prisoners connect and reconnect with their families, while building literacy skills vital to their successful reintegration into society.

Lisa D'Onofrio reading Peppa Pig with an unidentified inmate at the Middleton prison in Castlemaine, northwest Victoria. Picture: Joe Castro
Lisa D'Onofrio reading Peppa Pig with an unidentified inmate at the Middleton prison in Castlemaine, northwest Victoria. Picture: Joe Castro

A VOICE FROM BEHIND BARS

The concept of Read Along is simple, prisoners chose a bedtime story for their children and are recorded by Lisa reading it, a CD of the prisoner's narration of the book is then posted out to their families along with a copy of the book. As the children turn the pages, they can hear the voice of their missing parent reading the story.

"It's a very simple idea but it has a profound impact, not just on the prisoners but their families too," Lisa says. "It's all about maintaining a connection, it's a gentle, non-confrontational way for the prisoners to maintain or build a relationship with a child while they are in jail, and a wonderful way for the children to maintain a positive relationship with their absent parent."

SHAME, GUILT AND ISOLATION

The first of the programs, Read Along Dads, began seven years ago in country Victoria. It was established by an energetic rural community group Friends of Castlemaine Library (FOCAL) who were inspired by successful UK program Storybook Dads.

Storybook Dads was created in response to research that found the children of prisoners were three times more prone to mental health problems and failure at school than their peers, suffering feelings of shame, guilt and isolation because of their parent's imprisonment.

In the UK, the highly awarded program has reported that 97 per cent of child recipients of a book worried less, and prisoners and their children established better family relationships.

Friends of Castlemaine Library are proactively involved with social justice campaigns and with a number of Victoria's biggest prisons in the region, they were inspired to develop their own program which is now being replicated in other states too.

Coincidentally at the time, literary consultant Lisa D'Onofrio has just made a sea change from the UK to Australia, settling in Castlemaine. She was well aware of the Storybook Dads program having worked in similar programs with vulnerable people in the UK. She didn't hesitate to volunteer.

Lisa spends her time helping hardened criminals stay connected to their children on the outside. Picture: Joe Castro
Lisa spends her time helping hardened criminals stay connected to their children on the outside. Picture: Joe Castro

To date, more than 600 Victorian prisoners have participated, recording almost 1300 books and the program has been extended into some women's prisons too with the establishment of Read Along Mums.

In Victoria, the program runs under the supervision of the Department of Justice and Community Safety at Loddon and Middleton medium-security prisons for men and Tarrengower, a minimum-security prison farm for women.

It is funded by the government but fully delivered by the Friends of Castlemaine Library.

"It's very rewarding, I've had so many stories read to me over the years I can quote books backwards," Lisa says.

"It's been lovely, very moving at times. It's a very intimate situation - it may be the first time someone has done anything like this and people get very emotional and it leads them to talk about their children and their relationship with their children, how they miss them.

"I have had feedback from the children via the prisoners, the kids love them."

'IT'S LIKE BEING THERE FOR HER'

Peter* joined the program at Loddon prison to connect with his daughter who was six years old when he entered the prison system. He records little messages for her at the end of each story which she can then play at any time.

"It's like being there for her," he says, "I get feedback from my family when they've read the books, they play the CDs in the car and it's made my support network stronger."

Peter who was semiliterate before joining the program, now also reads stories for his nieces and nephews so they get to know him too.

"That's helped reduce their shyness when they come to visit me," he says, "and it has forced me to learn to read and write."

The Victorian prisons Lisa works in. Picture: Joe Castro
The Victorian prisons Lisa works in. Picture: Joe Castro

Although Lisa is often working alone inside the prison, she says she has never once felt unsafe or worried for her personal safety, despite the fact the prisoners she works alongside have committed serious crimes.

READING WITH MURDERERS

She doesn't ask about their past or judge, focusing instead on how each story can sow the seeds of a positive future, but she often finds the men will voluntarily open up to her.

"Sometimes they'll share information with me about what they're inside for, sometimes they don't and I don't ask, I just treat everyone equally regardless," she says. "I don't think about what crime they have committed - it's not why I'm there and it's not really relevant to what we are doing.

"We get all sorts, I see the whole gamut, from murderers to very low-level offenders. The only group I don't see are sex offenders who are not allowed to make recordings for children.

"Often the prisoners are midway on their journey through prison, and focusing on rehabilitation.

"I've never felt afraid or had any concerns with going into the prison, no issues whatsoever. I've never once felt disrespected or uncomfortable in any way, it's actually a very rewarding and enjoyable experience."

DIFFICULT CIRCUMSTANCES

It is equally as enjoyable for the prisoners and a productive use of the long hours behind bars. Recently a prisoner told Lisa he wanted to stay in that particular jail for the duration of his sentence, rather than be moved to a minimum-security facility where the program doesn't run.

"It had been so important to him in maintaining his relationship with his sons that he didn't want to go to a lower security prison, he wanted to serve his whole term in there so he could continue the program," she says.

"That was lovely to hear. I've heard many things over the years and it's always a privilege when someone feels they can share with you and in a small way help keep a human connection going during very difficult circumstances."

At the beginning of each session, Lisa and the prisoner will work together to choose a book suitable for the child who will receive it, they then design and create a special cover for the CD encouraging art therapy and creativity, then record the prisoner reading the story.

The prisoners will chat in a group about the book they've chosen and why.

"It's often a disparate group of men who don't know one another but have common ground in that they all have children," she says. "It's wonderful to hear them chatting about books and I like it when one will say, 'You should choose this book it's really funny …'

"They design a CD cover themselves, so they get quite creative and they will take the book away, have a good practice reading, then come and see me the next week when I record them reading it."

Despite working with violent offenders, Lisa has never felt unsafe and loves her job. Picture: Joe Castro
Despite working with violent offenders, Lisa has never felt unsafe and loves her job. Picture: Joe Castro

On occasion, Lisa has discovered that the children's book was the very first book the prisoner has ever read.

"Some, like Peter, are quite low literacy at the beginning and I see them really develop a love for reading and an interest in learning," she says.

"It's a stepping stone to more formal literacy classes within the prison, which is wonderful. Some of them extend their own reading and really develop their own reading - some of them haven't had good educational experiences at all and this can be a spark to increase their own knowledge.

"I see the prisoners develop a broader relationship with their children too because there's something interesting and new to talk about.

"Some prisoners have shared stories of their children listening to the books over and over again, sometimes the mums or dads will play them in the car on the way to prison for a visit to get them into a good frame of mind."

MUMS ON THE INSIDE

Stacy* is an inmate at Tarrengower women's prison farm. She joined Read Along Mums to encourage her son to keep reading while she was serving time.

"Prior to coming to jail I always read to my son," she says, "I knew the importance of reading and I can continue that in jail. It has brought us closer together.

"It enables my mum (the child's grandmother) not to be as involved in his reading, it's one less task for her while she looks after him. My relationship with my son is better at visits and on the phone because we talk about the books and it encourages conversation."

Lisa says she has had grandparents in custody read to grandchildren to help form a connection, and some who will read stories for the children of friends. She notices they are now enthusiastically engaged in choosing books for the children.

"I've had grandads who might be reading a book for their first grandchild which is something they can keep forever."

Ultimately, Read Along Dads and Read Along Mums is about keeping the prisoners out of jail.

"Being able to have a positive connection with family members really helps their rehabilitation and integration, and I hope it's just one part of a big whole that can make the transition from inside to outside a little easier and hopefully keep them out of prison," Lisa says.

"There's a lot of time to think in prison and that's not always a good thing, but doing something constructive like learning makes that time productive and improves their chances of rehabilitation."

*Peter and Stacy are not their real names

FOCAL relies on donations to assist the delivery of the program.

Sue Smethurst is a freelance writer @SmethurstSue


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