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How reading behind bars links dads with kids at HMP Oakwood

By Heather Large | Crime | Published:

A video project being run at HMP Oakwood is helping fathers who are in jail to read to their children at bedtime – and may be reducing reoffending.

A view from the inside at HMP Oakwood at Featherstone

Bedtime stories are the cornerstone of many a childhood.

Young ones around the world spend every evening huddled in their parents’ arms, absorbing the stories that will stay with them for a lifetime.

And as well as helping them learn to read, this time also fosters bonds between children and their mums and dads.

So when a parent is in prison, their innocent children can find that they are missing out on an important part of their youth.

HMP Oakwood is in Featherstone, north of Wolverhampton

Now one prison is hoping to help fathers re-connect with their families from inside jail, and make it easier for youngsters struggling to cope with the loss of a parent.

At HMP Oakwood in Featherstone, a collaboration between the Storybook Dads charity and G4S, is helping dads feel closer to their children through the intimate act of reading picture books.

It began in June last year when staff in the library at the UK’s largest prison recorded the first video of a prisoner reading a story.

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Since then more than 500 videos have been filmed in front of a colourful Gruffalo mural painted by the prisoners.

'Children are the forgotten victims'

Footage of the story is then sent to Sharon Berry and her team from Storybook Dads to be edited into DVDs with images from the children’s books before being sent back to HMP Oakwood, where they are distributed to prisoners’ families.

“Experience has shown me just how much this means to the prisoners and the children,” says Sharon. “Children are the forgotten victims of crime.

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Lindsey Robbins in front of the colourful Gruffalo mural

“They haven’t done anything wrong and they can suffer as well. If you can nurture the ties while prisoners are incarcerated, they’re much more likely to be able to reintegrate and lead a crime-free life.

“Oakwood are consistently sending lots of stories. They send stories every week, and they have lots of takers. It’s very nerve-wracking, being filmed, but they’re able to give them the right encouragement and support,” she adds.

Audio recordings had been made before, but videos have become the most popular way for fathers to reach out to their families on the outside.

As with many families in the wider world, the work of Julia Donaldson plays a substantial role in these bedtime stories.

The Gruffalo, Monkey Puzzle, The Smartest Giant In Town and The Snail And The Whale are all in the collection, as are Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You and Sarah Courtauld’s On A Pirate Ship.

Emotion

HMP Oakwood’s library supervisor Lindsey Robbins is a passionate supporter of Storybook Dads, which has been operating for more than 16 years and now runs in more than 100 prisons across the UK.

“It’s been amazing,” she says.

“There’s a lot of emotion when the lads come to watch the DVDs back. When they come and watch them before we send them out to their family, nine times out of 10 it really hits them. You see it in their face.

“‘This is why I’ll stay out, for my kids’, they tell me. It’s a lovely feeling to know you’re there to help,” she adds.

As well as stories, fathers can record birthday messages and there are plans for special Christmas videos.

Lindsey believes the scheme, which has spread by word of mouth, has many benefits for both the prisoners and their children.

“Personally I think it’s got absolutely huge benefits for dads,” she continues. “The kids have done nothing wrong and they don’t know what’s happened.

“Some of the lads have babies that have just been born, or they are three, four or five and don’t realise what’s happened – it gives them that bond.

“The kids can grow up seeing their dad and hearing their dad, it’s almost like they are on CBeebies.

“We speak to the lads on a dads basis, not a prisoners basis and says their child is the reason they stay out of prison and look after them.

Lindsey, who works for Staffordshire County Council adds: “A lot of lads have left Oakwood and have done Storybook Dads and I’ve not heard they’ve come back.

“We know that to keep our residents out of trouble and on the right path when they get out that they have to encourage the families to be more active.”

Prisoners have also spoken of the benefits of the scheme and what it means to them to be able to record a message.

One participant who filmed a video at HMP Oakwood for his young daughter said: “To be able to keep the extra close bond I have with my youngest daughter has really helped me get through this very difficult time in our lives. Personally, they have helped me more than I can say.”

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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