Reading for a Change
A UNC researcher seeks to understand how incarceration impacts relationships between inmates and their children with a program that helps build family bonds
A program initiated by a UNC faculty researcher studying how incarceration affects parenting, helps build connections between inmates and their children at home.
Kyle Ward, assistant professor of Criminal Justice, and undergraduate and graduate students who volunteer for the “Reading for a Change” program, visit the Weld County jail weekly to record inmates reading children’s books. (He also runs the program at Boulder County Jail.)
Ward and the students burn the recordings to CDs and return them attached to the book to the jail for mailing to the inmates’ families, but not before administering a 15-minute survey that helps Ward and the students with their research.
Ward brought the program with him when he came to UNC as he studies how incarceration affects inmates’ parenting, their relationships with their children, and their families’ emotional and financial well-being.
UNC students participating in the program include:
Graduate students: Amanda Gowan (Criminal Justice), Alexandra Murphy (Criminal Justice), Jamie Cline (Counseling; BA-Criminal Justice)
Undergraduates: Madison Williams (senior, Criminal Justice), Nadia Rascon (junior, Anthropology)
Alumni: Jordan Yoder (MA-Criminal Justice)
“Overwhelmingly, inmates say they like the program and generally think it will positively affect the relationships with their children,” said Ward, who previously administered a similarly successful program for two years at a jail outside of Pittsburgh as he pursued his doctorate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
To be expected, Ward and his volunteers must follow strict protocol. The jail’s administrators
dictate details such as which inmates can be involved (only low-level offenders who
have jobs within the jail) and the dates and locations within the complex the interview
will take place.
In addition, students must be approved by the jail for the visits. Only five can go into the complex at a time. Only one inmate can be recorded per session. And only one book may be recorded by the inmate each session.
“Security is their number-one priority,” Ward said. “We’re coming in as a visitor in their house, and they’ve been great to work with.”
Inmates are allowed to choose from a number of books provided to the jail through book drives and donations Ward and students organize.
Ward has built the program at UNC mostly through word-of-mouth. About two dozen recordings have been completed so far. This past fall, during a kickoff meeting to recruit students, those in attendance expressed an interest to give back and apply lessons from the classrooms. Ward assured them they’d gain that experience as he intends to turn over the bulk of the work to them. In addition to the site visits, they’re tasked with transcribing interviews, learning audio software to edit and finalize recordings, and serving as a runner to return completed packages back to the jail.
While program evaluation is ongoing and lowering an inmate’s tendency to reoffend isn’t a stated outcome of the project, Ward cites research that shows “a strong paternal role can offset a trajectory of crime.”
“The goal is to build bonds between parents and children, and as an added benefit, individuals may not want to re-offend,” Ward said.
–Nate Haas ’04