Parenting While Incarcerated: NYPL Program Serves Hundreds Per Year

By Kendra Ralston
August 14, 2015

While The New York Public Library offers a wealth of services for young and old, its Correctional Services Department is quietly, steadfastly, and admirably reaching out within and strengthening our communities. Aside from delivering a range of library programs and services to five city jails, Correctional Services offers a special program called Daddy & Me (and at Rosie's, the one city jail that houses women, Mommy & Me). In this program, incarcerated parents participate in early literacy workshops followed by a session where they create a recording of themselves reading a book aloud for their child. Through recording these stories and participating with library services, these men not only develop a stronger bond with their child, they also create a relationship with the library—one that sometimes even flourishes post-incarceration.

The Library's Daddy & Me program currently takes place at all NYC Department of Correction (DOC) facilities and one Federal prison. With a three-day session in 10 facilities and 15 fathers per class, sometimes two times a month, the Daddy & Me program reaches close to 200 men per year. In order to enter into the program, parents must have at least one child under the age of 10, and they must commit to coming to the workshop all three days.

After the introductions, the program begins with conversations about early literacy. Correctional Services staff and children librarians from the branches establishes a group discussion covering a variety of topics such as the importance of reading to children, demonstrations of what a children’s storytime is like at local libraries, and the impact of research behind early childhood literacy development. Reading and interacting with children at a young age is crucial: According to The National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, "infants and children who are conversed with, read to, and otherwise engaged in lots of verbal interaction show somewhat more advanced linguistic skills than children who are not as verbally engaged by their caregivers." Ultimately, NYPL uses these resources, such as American Library Association's, "Every Child Ready to Read" to instill the importance—the necessity—of early childhood literacy.

Toward the end of the session, both the staff and the fathers sing childhood songs and nursery rhymes together as a group, developing and strengthening a bond as the men recreate and delve into their own childhood memories. 

The Hungry Caterpillar

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

It's important to note that one in 28 school age children in the U.S. has an incarcerated parent and one in nine for black children. One of the challenges that arises during the second day of discussion is how to be present in a child's life while being incarcerated. On the second day, to broach this topic, staff show Sesame Street’s bilingual (English/Spanish) initiative, Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration. This series includes a toolkit for families dealing with incarceration. After getting to know one another and building trust among the group, Library staff initiate discussion by breaking the participants into smaller groups to discuss bigger issues surrounding parenting while incarcerated. Interestingly, staff have noted that in breaking into these groups, older fathers with older children tend to gravitate toward younger fathers with younger children, mentoring and sharing their past experiences. By being part of a more intimate environment, these men have a safe place to share, explore, and create relationships centered around their common identity as parents. At the end of the day, the fathers select books—read-aloud books provided by Library Services—they want to read for their recording and are given time to read through them to rehearse for the final session. 

The final day of the program consists of the fathers recording their story for their child. The children librarians are paired with the dads, as one-by-one, in a quiet, private space in the jail (nearly impossible to find!), they record their stories —along with messages of love and encouragement—to their children. Many fathers look to the librarian that they are paired with for advice on how to make the recording personal and exciting for their kids. With the librarian's guidance, this often leads to dads roaring like lions or rapping the ABCs into the audio recorder. After two days of building trust and breaking down formidable emotional walls, the men were able to use their storybooks as a starting point for a conversation with their children, and they began to build a relationship with them through reading. Ultimately, the book simply served as a tool to create an experience around reading that children will carry with them for life.

"…Thank you for giving me the opportunity to unite with my kids in a heartwarming way they will remember for the rest of their lives. The books and recordings were a priceless gift that money can't buy…(T)hank you for all you've done to help those that are in these situations."

--Letter from a program participant to Library Staff

A week or so after this workshop, the Library collaborates with the DOC facilities to have an extended visit for the incarcerated fathers and their families—known fondly as Family Day—to celebrate reading and spending time together. The fathers also give their child their recording along with the book they read. Having this small get-together with the families provides a brief reprieve from their current circumstances and allows the families to have meaningful interactions. 

Goodnight Moon

Goodnight Moon

At Family Day, staff typically have one of the dads volunteer to read his book out loud to the group. The kids always love this, the father reading beams with pride, and it overall beautifully illustrates how such a program comes together and why. For those few minutes, corrections officers, captains (and often times, even higher up staff from the DOC uniformed and civilian staff), library staff, and all of the families focus on one individual incarcerated parent reading a book. One staff member I spoke with, who currently teaches at the Library's Out-of-School Time programs at a local branch, mentioned attending this program to one of her students. Immediately, his eyes lit up: "I remember the Library had a party for us!" Not only was this student accelerating in her particular program, he also had fond memories of the Daddy & Me program when he participated as a child. Even from this interaction alone, she discovered how profoundly the Library had impacted—and continues to impact—his childhood.

From my experience working with Correctional Services and my interactions with staff members on this team, I've discovered that the return on this investment with participating in this program and similar initiatives is extraordinary. Lauren Restivo, the former coordinator of the Library's Daddy & Me program, emphasized, "As parents in jail, these men have the weight of the world on them. Whatever you can do is more than what's being offered to them. Even if it's showing them 'how to have an instructive phone call with your child,' offering any type of service is not only incredibly rewarding, it also shows the dads that they aren't alone."

More Resources

Interested in participating with your local library? Many organizations are already working with jails and starting programs like Daddy & Me. If you would like to collaborate with your local jail system, try reaching out to re-entry organizations, which already work with justice-involved parents. In NYC, these organizations include STRIVE for Success and Midtown Community Court, but similar organizations exist nationwide.