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Reading To Prisoners

Susan Notes:

You're never too old or too tough to be read to.

I'm pleased to mention that Vermont also has Camp Agape, a program that gives books to kids who attend a summer camp for the children of incarcerated parents. In Vermont, there are over 2000 children with one or both parents in prison. A 2001 Senate report shows that 70% of the children of current prisoners will themselves someday be incarcerated. So church groups have joined together to operate Camp Agape, to break the cycle of "generational incarceration." Camp Agape offers a free, week-long camp experience to children aged 7-11 who have a parent who is incarcerated. It is jointly sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, the Troy Conference of the United Methodist Church and The Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ. Although I am not religious, when I heard that one goal of Camp Agape personnel is to put a free book in each child's gift backpack (which also includes a fishing pole), I got involved. This is my third year of gathering donations of wonderful new books. The people at Camp Agape send home extra books for the sibilings who don't meet age requirements for the camp itself--so books for all ages are welcome.

This year children will take home a book, a fishing pole, and a homemade quilt.

To change the world we need to improve the lives of children. A nice, new book is one place to start. This is my version of lighting a candle.

By Mary McCallum

(HOST) Working with prison inmates taught Commentator Mary McCallum a valuable lesson about the power of reading.

(McCALLUM) Seven years ago I was hired by the Community High School of Vermont to be the librarian in the state's newest prison. My background included doing research at a university library followed by years as a children's librarian in small Vermont schools. I'd never worked with prison inmates.

But I was ready for a new bump on my career path, so I left behind reading aloud to exuberant and often misbehaving children, and stepped into the world of men behind bars. My first task was to build a library for 350 inmates in the high security prison.

An administrator pointed out my new work space: an empty windowless room lined with shelves that had a desk, a whiteboard, and two electrical outlets. I was to create a library of books, not a media center filled with humming computers. I had thirty days and a budget to get the job done.

I knew a lot about picture books, chapter books for young readers, the reading habits of highly educated adults, and how to help college students do research. But I had no clue what guys in jail like to read, and I got little guidance. In the end, I turned that room into a small mirror of a public library that had something for everyone of all tastes and reading levels.

I lined the shelves with mysteries, westerns, self-help books, fantasy, poetry, drawing books, and what I like to call muscular fiction - thrillers, horror and edgy crime novels. I gave them what I thought they'd want to read but also added what I thought they should read - spirituality, politics, history, psychology, inspirational biographies and classics.

And I read to them. The first day I opened for business I asked twenty rowdy looking guys to sit down so I could read them a story. They rolled their eyes and looked at me like I was forcing them to eat dog food.

The muttering slowly abated as I read them a book about a runaway slave who learned to read and write and was whipped to shreds for teaching other slaves the alphabet. The men tipped back in their chairs with their legs splayed out and their blue and purple tattooed arms crossed over their chests. They stared at me in stony silence, belligerent and blank faced. But I had their attention.

I read with the accents of a southern slaveowner, a young black slave girl, and a runaway man. I left off in the middle of the story, and the next day those tough guys returned to listen to what happened to the defiant slave who refused to submit to his keepers.

Librarians read to kids all the time. Some married couples read aloud to one another before dropping off to sleep. But mostly we think it's something best done with children. As a librarian I've always believed that if given the opportunity, most folks would be pleased to sit back and listen to a good story.

I think you're never too old to be read to. And now I know that you're never too tough.

— Mary McCallum
Vermont Public Radio, July 6, 2010



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