In New York State 105,000 children have a parent in prison or jail. Many of these children live in Brooklyn. A 2013 analysis of Department of Corrections’ data by Gothamist found three Brooklyn neighborhoods disproportionately accounting for the largest numbers of NYC justice-involved individuals: East New York, Brownsville, and Bedford Stuyvesant.
Literacy: A Way Of Connecting Justice-Involved Families
Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) aims to serve the needs of its patrons. Based on the large number that have involvement with the criminal justice system, Nick Higgins, Director of Outreach, and Story Bellows, Chief Innovation and Policy Officer, undertook targeted programming to help families stay connected to loved ones in jail or prison. Justice involvement brings disconnection to families and BPL thought it could serve as a bridge between families and jails/prisons through literacy.
The TeleStory program is that bridge. Operating out of four borough library branches (with plans to expand to eight more), the TeleStory program offers a way for families to interact with a parent in jail via free video visitation. The video visitation is offered at 12 library branches, in friendly rooms filled with toys and books. Creating a positive environment for parent and child to interact is important, as kids often experience shame as a result of having a parent in jail.
TeleStory identifies program participants through its mobile library service, in use at 6 NYC-based jails. When an inmate borrows a book to read, they can sign themselves and their family up for the program.
Trained library staff can offer suggestions on age-appropriate reading material so parents can pick books that interest kids of any age. Books are available in multiple languages. The simple act of reading a book together offers a stress-free activity that builds kids’ developing vocabularies and that offers parents a way to be good role models while they are behind bars.
Expansion To Upstate Prisons
TeleStory uses books as a rehabilitative tool. But for the benefits to be fully realized, prolonged and sustained exposure to books and access to visitation services is key. When inmates are transferred from NYC jails to upstate prisons where the TeleStory programs are not in place, there can be a drop off in participation.
To ensure TeleStory is available to anyone who wants to participate in the program, BPL has partnered with the Osborne Association, a non-profit providing family support to incarcerated individuals in upstate prisons. Osborne offers video visitation services in three upstate prisons.
A Model For Other Libraries
The TeleStory model speaks to the relevance of libraries in solving large problems affecting urban communities. Most of the families that use the service are low-income with limited resources for transportation, etc.
Through TeleStory the library becomes a critical link for the incarcerated to their families and their community. When an incarcerated individual is released, the library is a place they can return to and find support services for getting a job, completing a GED course, enrolling in higher educational institutions, or learning English. In this way, TeleStory is also a valuable re-entry tool that provides wrap-around services the formerly incarcerated need for a successful transition.
Libraries across New York and in other states have taken notice. The TeleStory staff will soon meet with the Director of Albany’s Public Library system to discuss ways of implementing the same program upstate.
A Tool For Curbing Recidivism
TeleStory comes at pivotal moment in criminal justice reform. Society is just starting to understand the collateral damage mass incarceration inflicts on families. It is also coming to realize cycling people in and out of jail/prison is not a long-term solution to solving problems whose roots lie in poverty, disconnection, and hopelessness.
Innovative new programs like TeleStory that focus on repairing severed ties to family and community are our best hope for reducing the prison population and giving children of the incarcerated a chance for a different life.
If you are interested in learning more about BPL’s TeleStory program, click here.