Inmates at Berkshire County Jail use reading to reunite with their children
PITTSFIELD -- Michael Williams might be behind bars at the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction, but he never misses story time with his 3-year-old son at home.
Incarcerated just 16 days before his son was born, Williams can read the children's book "When I Close My Eyes" to his son whenever he wants. Williams' wife just has to pop in a customized DVD, and Williams appears on the screen, ready to read.
"That's huge, just knowing my son can see me when he wants," Williams said, during an interview in the library of the county jail.
One fateful decision may have separated Williams from his family, now living in Springfield. But through Families United Through the Love of Literacy, or FULL, they can be reunited through the power of reading.
Founded last year and state-funded through next year, FULL is an institution-based program designed to bridge the gap between incarcerated parents at the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction and their children.
Through the three-step, three-week program, FULL co-founders Ty Allan Jackson and Eddie Taylor work with inmates to build up their confidence until they're comfortable reading a copy of "When I Close My Eyes" on camera.
That recording is packaged onto a custom DVD that's sent home to the inmate's children, along with a custom copy of "When I Close My Eyes" and a T-shirt. Jackson authored the children's book with illustrator Jonathan Shears.
"We're allowing them one of the greatest opportunities they may never had: That's a chance to connect with their children and the process of breaking the cycle of incarceration," said Taylor, the vice president of operations and co-founder of Big Head Books Publishing in Pittsfield.
Taylor and Jackson teamed up for FULL after meeting last year. Taylor had the idea for the program after mentoring youth whose parents were incarcerated. With the support of state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, Taylor and Jackson are looking to expand FULL into nearby Franklin and Hampden counties, and eventually, across the globe.
According to the Department of Justice, two-thirds of children who can't read proficiently before fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Seventy-five percent of juveniles who go through the jail system are functionally illiterate.
"That just goes to show that if you do not empower your children with literacy by the time they're in the fourth grade, chances are they're going to end up here," Jackson said during a visit to the Berkshire County jail. "To go in such an opposite direction and promote literacy to incarcerated parents is something that's so unique and so powerful and so different and really outside-of-the-box thinking."
Sixty inmates have gone through the program before being released, said Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas N. Bowler, who oversees the jail. Fifty of them have not been back behind bars.
"It can be a very emotional process, but the program has a lot of depth and a great deal [of] family interaction and bringing families closer together," Bowler said.
Inmates read a handful of Jackson's published books, but only "When I Close My Eyes," a picture book about the power of imagination, is read on camera and sent to children, and always ends with a personal message to the children from their parent. The ending of "When I Close My Eyes" was changed after inmates provided feedback, Jackson said.
When inmate Paul Keele recorded his reading of "When I Close My Eyes," it was for his three children -- ages 4, 5 and 6 -- now living in Florida.
Incarcerated for 11 months, Keele was heavily involved in his children's lives, he said, before being locked up.
"It made my kids feel like there was this piece of me there," Keele said. "As for reading, it's something for me to take away from places or bad times. So for my kids, I want them to be able to read. So if they're feeling down, they got something else they can do and bring in to their lives that can make them feel better."
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