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Once Upon a Time: Storybook Project maintains bonds between inmate mothers, children

An Edmonton reading program is helping incarcerated mothers maintain a bond with their children.

Reading program at the Edmonton Institution for Women has been quietly running for almost 10 years

Sherri Mousseau reads to her son, Marcus, at her apartment in Enoch. Mousseau says a reading program for incarcerated mothers kept her close to her children while she was in prison. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Sherri Mousseau was an inmate at a Nova Scotia women's prison six years ago when a sign-up sheet for a reading program caught her eye.

A team of volunteers from the Elizabeth Fry Society came to the prison every few months, arms filled with children's storybooks. Inmates could choose a book and record themselves reading out loud, adding a special message at the end if they wanted. The book and audio recording would then be given to their children or grandchildren.

Mousseau, who is originally from the Enoch Cree Nation community west of Edmonton, was serving about four years in prison for arson. She didn't want her six children to forget about her and figured the reading program would be a rare chance to connect with them.

Maybe, she thought, they'd like to connect with her, too.

She picked a book from a pile and flipped it open. She nestled herself among stuffed animals in a quiet area and started reading. She stumbled over some words and asked to record it a second time. She knew her children would hear it, so she tried to imagine she was reading to them.

She reminded herself that she'd see them again someday.

"That tape and that book brought me a little bit closer to my kids when I couldn't be at the time," she said.

2,000 books given to children in past 9 years

A similar reading program for inmates at the Edmonton Institution for Women has been quietly operating in the city for almost 10 years.

The Storybook Project is run by a team of volunteers from the Greater Edmonton Library Association. Its purpose is to encourage literacy and maintain the bond between incarcerated mothers and their children.

Volunteers arrive at the federal prison one Saturday a month with books for children of all ages. Around 25 women participate in the free program each time, and they can request specific books in advance.

Robert Munsch's Love You Forever is a favourite, as are any books about dinosaurs and princesses.

The women are told to read as if their child were there with them. Then they can record a short personal message or leave a little note in the book.

Some women will read a poem, sing a song or beat a drum. A volunteer at the institution then makes a CD, which is picked up by the program volunteers and, along with the book, is mailed to the child within a few days.

Storybook Project volunteer Alex Kotyk says it's a privilege to help women maintain relationships with their children, some who live across the country and can't easily visit.

Alex Kotyk is a volunteer with the Storybook Program. She says it's a privilege to be part of keeping incarcerated mothers in contact with their children through reading. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

"It's a very intimate experience, it's an emotional experience for them," she said. "Most times they tear up while they're reading or leaving a message for their child. So it's really meaningful, and I just find that so special that they can become so relaxed and be able to be vulnerable in a situation that they wouldn't otherwise be."

The library association has other reading programs at the Edmonton Remand Centre and the Edmonton Institution, but the Storybook Project is one of its most popular and longest-running. Organizers estimate that over 2,000 books have been given to children of inmates since the program started. Most children who receive the books range in age from infants up to six years old.

It just meant a whole lot to have that program within that system.- Jerica McDonald, former inmate librarian

Female offenders and Indigenous women, in particular, are the fastest growing population in Canada's correctional system. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of women serving federal sentences increased by almost 30 per cent.

Indigenous women are also over-represented in the federal correctional system, making up 37 per cent of all women behind bars, according to the 2016-17 annual report from the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

More than 70 per cent of women in federal prisons are mothers to children under the age of 18, according to the office's data from 2015.

Jerica McDonald was an inmate librarian at the Edmonton Institution for Women in 2016. She helped women pick books, organize sign-up sheets and co-ordinate with Storybook Project volunteers.

Most of the women incarcerated at the prison are mothers, she said. She worked with some women whose children lived outside of Canada.

"There's a lot of women in there who are mothers. They'd just be so hard on themselves," she said.

"It wasn't often that they got to speak to each other and hearing your mother's voice reading to you at night, I think that's really helpful for them.

"I think it just meant a whole lot to have that program within that system."

Storybook Project helps to connect incarcerated women to their children. 3:17

'We know it has an impact'

Glori Sharphead, a mother of five, was convicted on drug trafficking charges and incarcerated at the Edmonton Institution for Women from 2009 to 2011. She frequently participated in the Storybook Project during that period.

She considered the experience a gift to her children and an invaluable way of maintaining her connection with them.

She sent books and audio recordings to all of her children. But the experience was especially important to her oldest daughter Mariah, who was about 12 years old when Sharphead first began participating.

"She loved them so much," Sharphead said. "To this day, she loves books."

Clockwise: Glori Sharphead with her daughter, Mariah, and sons Brooks and Michael. (Supplied/Glori Sharphead)

Mariah, now 20, still has a copy of The Paper Bag Princess, one of her favourite books passed on by her mother. She keeps the book in a box and, every now and then, she'll pull it out and show her friends, Sharphead said.

Sharphead says strong relationships with her children were made easier by the continued connection she was able to maintain with them through the Storybook Project.

"You carry this baby in your womb for nine months, you have an extra special bond with your child," she said.

"It helped that bond, to stay connected. As humans we need that connection. So [I'm] definitely grateful for the Storybook program. It helped me to keep that bond together in a time when it was really the hardest time of my life."

It helped me to keep that bond together in a time when it was really the hardest time of my life.- Glori Sharphead

Encouraging literacy is one aspect of the program, volunteer Liz Fulton-Lyne said. But it's really about ensuring parents and children stay connected during what can be an isolating time for both.

While other reading programs in federal institutions in Canada do exist, Fulton-Lyne says Edmonton's Storybook Project is the only one she knows of that's run by a library association. She says volunteers are welcome, as are donations of new or very gently used books — particularly Indigenous books or those that reflect multiple cultures.

Fulton-Lyne says a long-term goal of the program is to expand into the Edmonton Institution, so fathers can also have an opportunity to maintain contact with their children through reading.

"I think if it was set up there would be a lot of interest in it. I've heard about similar programs in other prisons for men and they've been very popular. I have no doubt that it would work really well," she said.

"We know that it has an impact."

A new chapter

After finishing her prison sentence, Mousseau moved home to Enoch where she has support from her family and strong connections to her Indigenous traditions.

She lives in a small apartment filled with DVDs, children's toys, and colourful skirts and beaded moccasins that she enjoys making in her spare time. She's now a mother of seven and will turn 40 this year. She hopes to become a teacher someday and is currently upgrading her education.

"It seems like the world moves so fast," she said.

She's sitting on her couch on a sunny afternoon in February, bouncing her toddler Marcus on her knee as she waits for her daughter to finish school for the day.

His little hands grip the stiff pages of a storybook as his mother it reads aloud.

"If I kiss your eyelids, if I kiss your toes, if I kiss the top of your head where your wisp hair grows, if I kiss your fingers, if I kiss your wrists, if I kiss your littlest toes, whoops! They have already been kissed."

She closes the book and plants a kiss on her boy's cheek.

About the Author

Andrea Ross

Andrea Ross is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. andrea.ross@cbc.ca Twitter: @_rossandrea