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For Father’s Day, SC inmates record bedtime stories for their children

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For Father’s Day, SC inmates record bedtime stories for their children

Jun 14, 2024 | 4:57 pm ET
By Skylar Laird
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For Father’s Day, SC inmates record bedtime stories for their children
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An inmate reads the bedtime story "Thank You, God, for Everything" at the Manning Reentry/Work Release Center on Friday, June 14, 2024. (Skylar Laird/SC Daily Gazette)

COLUMBIA — Huddled over a table in a quiet room, a father reads a bedtime story to his child about using his talents to change the world.

The child won’t hear the story right away.

The man is an inmate with the South Carolina Department of Corrections at Manning Reentry/Work Release Center in Columbia. Ahead of Father’s Day, he and two other incarcerated fathers recorded their voices Friday reading books, which the prisons agency will then send to their children, so they can hear their fathers reading to them every night.

Since the program, known as Riley Readers, started in 2016, more than 550 incarcerated fathers and mothers have recorded themselves reading to their children.

The books can seem almost magical to children — like their parent is truly reading beside them — as the recording aligns with each page. As the child flips a page, the parent’s voice reads that page. The parent can also add personal additions, such as describing the illustrations on that page.

“It’s a great blessing,” said Billy, the Manning inmate. (The SC Daily Gazette agreed to follow Corrections policy and not release identifying details about the inmate.)

For Father’s Day, SC inmates record bedtime stories for their children
An inmate signs a recordable book to send to his son on Friday, June 14, 2024. (Skylar Laird/SC Daily Gazette)

Billy spends most of his free time reading books, and he wants to encourage that same love of stories in his 7-year-old son, Forrest. That’s why he volunteered for the program, available to parents in the state’s prisons without any disciplinary actions in the past six months.

A recent $25,000 grant from the state Department of Social Services expands the program, allowing the department to buy more books instead of relying on donations.

That way, parents with multiple children will be able to record a book for each child, instead of choosing just one for all of their children to share. And incarcerated grandparents will be allowed to record books for their grandchildren, said department spokeswoman Chrysti Shain.

Inmates can talk to their children over the phone or see them during visitation hours, but providing books allows them to connect to their child every day, said Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling.

“It’s a daily reminder, saying ‘I love you,'” Stirling said.

Of the five available books, Billy chose to read “You Can Change the World,” because that seemed like a good message to pass along to his child, he said.

“I’ll not only be able to share something with my son but hopefully start him on a lifetime of reading,” Billy said.

When he gets out of prison, he said, he’s looking forward to doing “all the typical dad stuff” with his son: Camping, fishing and getting to know one another after years apart.

For Father’s Day, SC inmates record bedtime stories for their children
Inmates had five books to choose from to record bedtime stories for their children Friday, June 14, 2024. (Skylar Laird/SC Daily Gazette)

In the meantime, he saw a book as a way to “share a moment with him,” Billy said.

That connection is essential to creating foundations for a relationship when the parent gets out of prison and sees his children consistently, said Karriem Edwards, president of the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families, a nonprofit dedicated to helping fathers connect with their families.

While relationships with both parents are important, studies have indicated that children who are close with their fathers are more likely to go to college or get a stable job out of high school and are less likely to spend time in jail, according to nonprofit The Fatherhood Project.

“This is really going to make a positive impact on these children’s lives,” Edwards said.

Davis Wash was 19 when her father went to prison, so she was old enough to understand what was happening. Still, not being allowed to see her dad outside a prison visitation room was difficult, especially for her teenage brothers, the now-23-year-old said.

At the same time, she realized she and her brothers were lucky: Some children waiting alongside her family never met their fathers before they were behind bars. Now Wash works for Proverbs229, a Charlotte-based nonprofit that helps reunite children with their incarcerated parents. She said it’s important for children to have some sort of token from their parent, such as a book with their voice in it.

“Not having your father and mother at home every night, you can’t sleep the same,” Wash said.