Brown County Jail launches reading program to connect incarcerated parents with their children

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The Brown County Jail is the most recent of Wisconsin’s 12 counties to launch a reading program that connects incarcerated parents with their children.

The “Making Reading Memories” project is a partnership between the counties and Literacy Link – a program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Division of Extension. Literacy Link works with prisons, libraries and family serving agencies to provide literacy opportunities for children who have a parent or caregiver involved in correctional systems.

Through Making Reading Memories, interested incarcerated parents take a course explaining the program and the importance of reading to children. Individuals are eligible to participate as long as they are legally able to be in contact with their children.

Next, parents choose an age-appropriate book from the selection available to them and record their reading of the story. Once their recording is viewed and approved by the prison administration, the recording and a copy of the book are sent to their child, as long as the child’s caregiver allows the child to view the video.

Eight parents from Brown County Jail have participated in the program so far this summer, and about 80 in total have expressed interest in joining.

Captain Heidi Michel helped facilitate the program at the prison and said it is good to see parents excited about the program and the benefits it brings to their children.

“Yes, you can have the video tours, but that, I think, is a bit more personal,” Michel said. “That’s something these kids will have.”

Michel said the program helps maintain family ties that are “taken away” when a parent is incarcerated.

Liz Lexau is the statewide coordinator for Literacy Link. She said the project helps alleviate the trauma children experience when a parent is incarcerated.

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“The trauma of separation without additional support — it can contribute to behavioral health issues and interfere with academic achievement,” Lexau said. “We know that these stable relationships help protect children from the harmful effects of excessive stress.”

Lexau said one in 14 children in the United States has had a parent incarcerated at some point in their life. Programs like Making Reading Memories have a beneficial impact on this huge population, she said.

Literacy Link recently received feedback from carers whose children have received books and recordings through the program. A carer said her son watched the recording of his parent reading a story over and over.

“He actually watched it four times in a row the first time,” the carer said in his comment. “He was able to memorize most of the book the last time he looked at it. He holds the book close to him, as a comfort even now that (their parents) are no longer in prison.”

Lexau said Literacy Link has distributed more than 5,000 books to Wisconsin children whose parents have been involved in the justice system, as well as to agencies and prisons where those children visit. A Wisconsin Idea Collaborative Grant pays for the books and the cost to send them to the children.

The program not only has a positive impact on the children, Lexau said, but also on the parents who participate. She said that on average, these parents are more confident reading aloud to children and have a better understanding of the importance of reading and maintaining a connection with children.

The Wisconsin Idea Collaborative Grant also includes partnering with UW-Madison researchers, Lexau said, so they can further study the effects of Making Reading Memories.

Lexau said the research will also help develop a plan to replicate this reading program in more Wisconsin counties.

“That combination of strengthening family relationships and developing those important literary skills — that’s what kept me involved in this work,” she said.

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