Educational books

Reading can connect incarcerated parents and their children

  • James Pond is the president of the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation in Tennessee.

My dad went to jail for business-related crimes when I was 14, right in the middle of teaching me to operate a shift lever. My brother was 11 and my sister was 7. Imagine learning what the accusation meant because you saw it on TV next to a picture of your father. Imagine watching police cars come into your driveway and take your father in handcuffs. Our friends have stopped coming. Our social circle has evaporated. We were publicly humiliated and emotionally confused as we tried to figure out what it all meant.

James pond

At first, we visited him every week. He asked us questions, tried to get involved and engage as a parent, but it got more difficult as life went on without him in our day to day lives. My sister grew up with dolls and my brother grew up under peer pressure. Our old cold water beds have turned into beds without mattresses, and our once heated house has turned into an empty house. We missed part of our family, and we missed part of our family growing up.

The first Christmas was depressing, dark and sad. There were no hanging stockings or decorated trees. The holidays have lost their meaning, but not the distance.

Things got worse. My mom took down a bad spiral of alcohol and a revolving door of men. After many growing pains caused by many painful arguments, I was kicked out of the house. I surfed on a couch for a while, but ended up becoming homeless. With a GPA of 1.2 and nowhere to go, a teacher noticed that the only thing that changed about me every day was one of three 1980s gig tees I was wearing in rotation.

My teacher and his love of books saved me

My high school English teacher and her love of reading saved my life. Mr. Corey welcomed me and gave me structure, boundaries and responsibilities. The most powerful thing he did was give me hope that I would read a lot. He gave me a love for classic authors and a keen sense of the power of books and how they can change you, affect you and transform your life.

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Mr. Corey gave me a copy of “Moby Dick” when I left for the Marine Corps. He told me to read it when the time was right. I read it while aboard the USS Blue Ridge in the South China Sea. It changed me. I realized, unlike Captain Ahab, that I didn’t want to carry my anger and negativity. I needed to let him go or he would consume me. I would need to accept the trials and learn from them instead of looking for someone or something else to blame.

A thought from the book that has always marked me: “All men live surrounded by lines of whales. All are born with the halter around the neck; but it is only when caught in the rapid and sudden turn of death that mortals realize the silent, subtle and omnipresent perils of life.

Volunteer Andrea Romero packs books to send to children at the Women's Storybook Project office in Westlake, TX on December 21, 2021. The Women's Storybook Project helps women in prison make audio recordings of themselves reading books to their children.  In Tennessee, the Governor's Early Literacy Foundation has partnered with the Women Ablaze Storybook Program to connect incarcerated parents and their children through reading.

The perils of life can strike us all, at any age, at any stage of life, often in unexpected ways. They linger, wrapped around our necks, waiting for some twist or bad luck to grip them.

I felt this tightness at a young age. Now, at 53, I am a United States Navy veteran, husband, father of three grown children, grandfather of two wild toddlers, avid reader, and Chairman of the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation, whose mission is to strengthen early literacy in Tennessee.

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When my dad got out of prison he didn’t know how to parent again because of the years of being disconnected from our lives, education, and growing into adulthood. Although we have a great relationship now, we had nothing to bridge the gap behind bars. Books became a comfort, and reading gave me a different perspective on the future.

Women Ablaze Storybook Program

That’s why, at the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation, we’ve partnered with the Women Ablaze Storybook Program to connect incarcerated parents and their children through reading. In the program, Women Ablaze records an incarcerated parent reading a book, then sends the book and recording to their children. With the help of Amazon and Scholastic, we are providing home libraries to 158 participating children and donating over 700 books to the program.

A note from a former recipient hangs on the wall of the Women's Storybook Project office in Westlake, Texas.

Tennessee is tied with five other states for the third highest prevalence of parental incarceration, with 1 in 10 children having lived with a parent or guardian who has served their sentence. Seven percent of all American children have had a parent in jail or jail. Research shows that the trauma of being separated from a parent can increase children’s mental health issues and limit their academic success, and children of incarcerated parents are at greater risk of dropping out of school. Family instability can contribute to a decline in reading skills, and children who cannot read well by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out than proficient readers.

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The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2016 report, “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities,” recommends ways in which communities can better support children whose parents are in prison or in prison, including offering mentoring and other programs Studies show that participating in family literacy programs helps keep families together and increases a parent’s chances of staying home once they are is released from prison.

The gift of reading not only gives children a better future, but it can also provide comfort and safety during a difficult time. Book link. Bridge of books. Books are being built.

Families get together during the holidays, but many are still far apart. Reading can keep families together when they are apart. It’s more than books; it is the future of some of our most vulnerable children.

James Pond is the president of the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation in Tennessee.