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Vogel: CLiF And Prisons

A recent study concluded that about 85% of children who become juvenile offenders are functionally illiterate. Low literacy rates are particularly high for the children of inmates.Twelve years ago the Children’s Literacy Foundation, or CLiF, decided that in addition to schools, libraries and shelters they wanted to bring literacy programming and new children’s books into prisons in Vermont and New Hampshire. The idea was to support and encourage inmates to share books regularly with their children.

One thing I admire about the best nonprofit organizations is their willingness to take on the toughest challenges with creativity and determination. CLiF’s Children of Inmates program wonderfully illustrates these traits.

It took CLiF two years before a warden allowed them to work in his prison. But word soon spread, and CLiF has since worked in all 17 prisons in Vermont and New Hampshire.

An even bigger challenge stems from the fact that 70% of inmates in the United States are functionally illiterate. Prisoners often ask, how can I share books with my child if I’m not a strong reader? Through family storytelling events in the prisons and regular seminars with inmates CLiF helps prisoners overcome such hurdles with techniques such as using their own words and telling stories from the pictures.

CLiF also provides on-site libraries, recording equipment, and hundreds of new children’s books so prisoners can record stories and send the recordings and the books home to their children.

The success of CLiF’s Children of Inmates program is best described anecdotally. Many inmates now report that when they have phone calls with their families the first thing the kids want to talk about are the books the inmate sent home. One prisoner talked about how his son now reads all the time and says “he’s the best reader in his first grade class.” As a prison official observed, when inmates learned CLiF’s program would be back in their prison for a second year there was visible delight in their faces.

CLiF’s mission is not about prison reform. CLiF developed this program because more than half the prisoners in the United States have children. These children are at great risk of growing up with few books and low literacy skills.

Duncan McDougall, CLiF’s founder and Director, believes that encouraging parents to model a love of reading, giving a child high-quality books, and keeping families connected through literacy can change the direction of a child’s life, and in this case, reduce the odds that a child will follow in the footsteps of an incarcerated parent.