A reading initiative is helping imprisoned mums stay connected to their children. They share their tales with Cloe Willetts.
It’s a chilly Thursday morning as a woman towing suitcases filled with children’s books stands outside the barbed-wire gates at Arohata Women’s Prison, waiting to be let inside and through the security screening. The visitor is Kerryn Palmer, director of Bedtime Stories, a volunteer programme run at the correctional facility in Tawa, just north of Wellington, which helps mothers in jail connect with their children through reading.
Today, like every fortnight, a handful of prisoners will meet with volunteers in a room beside the prison library, where they’ll choose from an array of picture and chapter books to read aloud in front of a microphone, set up by a Bedtime Stories technician. From there, the mums’ recordings will be downloaded onto a CD and sent with the book to their children, who can listen to the comforting audio tale and read along with their mothers at nighttime.
For prisoners Brenda-Lee, 35, and Ana, 33, who met in Arohata’s drug treatment unit, Bedtime Stories means their little ones know they’re not forgotten. It also enables the women to connect with other mothers and, for a couple of hours, escape into thoughts and conversations about the children they love and miss.
“Talking about our children is a hard thing. For all the wrongs we’ve done, these innocent babies are paying for it, and the only time I’ll allow myself to think about them is when I’m doing Bedtime Stories,” says Ana, who is mum to an 11-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. “It’s just really hard to sit there and think about them missing out because of our mistakes. It’s too much to handle.”
Ana has been in jail for the past two years on fraud and drug possession charges; she started out in Auckland Woman’s Prison before being transferred to Arohata in November last year. It’s not the first time she has been incarcerated, having spent time in jail in Australia, where she was arrested and charged with commercial drug possession while living on the Gold Coast.
Raised in Papamoa as an only from a loving family, Ana moved across the ditch with her mother and then-three-year-old son to escape an abusive relationship.
“I got caught up with the wrong people and saw how lucrative the drug stuff was, and ended up going out with the kingpin of drugs on the Gold Coast. It all went downhill pretty fast from there. Although my son had everything he wanted, he never really had my time,” she shares. “Now, when I read him these books in prison, I think about how I never read to him back then. I’d say to play with his toys in his room while I was in the lounge doing my stuff.
“I’ve learnt that kids want quality time, not all the possessions,” she adds. “And now I’m here, taking even more time away from them, which is pretty sad.”
Ana’s son currently lives with her mother a half hours’ drive from Tawa, on the Kāpiti Coast, but her daughter, who was born in Australia, lives overseas. “After I was arrested in Australia, I got bail and was awaiting my sentencing when I fell pregnant with her,” says the qualified hairdresser, whose mother visits her at Arohata every weekend.
“When my girl was six months old, I ended up getting deported from Australia, and because her dad was also in prison, she went to live with her great-aunty; she’s in really good care. I eventually want to get a stable home so my kids can come and see me, and I won’t be out partying or moving around all the time.”
Every two weeks, Ana attends the Bedtime Stories sessions to pick a book for recording, adding in a personalised message for her children each time. At the moment, it’s the only connection she has with her little girl, who Ana likes to send stories to about Aotearoa, or written in te reo, so she knows where her mum is.
“I send her stories so she hears my voice, and my son also loves hearing my voice and the books, which he’s reading,” says Ana, who has done a parenting course in prison and is soon up for parole. “I wouldn’t expect somebody to come in every two weeks and do this with us. It’s awesome.”
Bedtime Stories, which accesses books thanks to sponsors and grants, was originally the brainchild of Wellington actress and acting coach Miranda Harcourt, who trialled the programme for six sessions in 2014. Since her friend Kerryn, a former teacher, took over five years ago, the initiative has grown to have around 12 volunteers, who take turns running the sessions in groups of three.
Part of their role is helping the inmates pick age-appropriate books for their children, and coaching the women through the reading and recording process. While Bedtime Stories participants often start out tentatively reading aloud, they gain confidence during the sessions and, according to volunteers, there are usually tears and plenty of laughter had.
To date, hundreds of books have been donated by New Zealand publishing company Clean Slate Press, the exclusive educational publisher of author Joy Cowley. As well as bringing comfort to some of the approximately 23,000 young Kiwis living with one or both parents in prison, Bedtime Stories ensures good-quality books are finding their way into the homes of vulnerable children around the country.
In 2017, the Bedtime Stories team received a volunteer award from the Department of Corrections, recognising the impact the programme is having on wāhine and their families. It was also recently introduced to men at Rimutaka Prison in Upper Hutt, where many of the participants begin their recorded stories with a haka or waiata for their young ones.
According to Arohata’s deputy prison director Pippa Carey, children are the unintentional victims in their parents’ offending. She says as well as adding some normality at home for kids, Bedtime Stories sits well with the prison’s emphasis on whānau and connection. Just a year since starting work at Arohata Prison, mum-of-three Pippa has brought a rare type of compassion and understanding to her leadership role.
“Perception is an amazing thing. People watch a lot of TV and may believe that corrections officers have to be hard and harsh, but that’s far from the truth. A majority of our people come from trauma and mental health and addiction, and it’s about humanising and healing,” says Pippa, who acknowledges the importance of reconnecting prisoners with their whakapapa through things like kapa haka programmes. “I applied for this job to make honest change because I was sad to witness a sea of my people incarcerated. Education is the key to knowledge, and it starts from our parents and how they guide us.”
Pippa, who previously worked as a manager at Rimutaka Prison, remembers a former female inmate saying she was grateful to go to sleep each night during her time in Arohata knowing her child would be hearing her voice through a Bedtime Stories recording.
“Women are running their families from prison, which is really sad. They’re checking to make sure the children are going to school and school camps, and who’s looking after them and buying food for them. For a mother to miss out on a phone call home is big,” Pippa says. “Our hope is that when people leave our care, they have a few more tools in their kete to help them make better choices on the outside.”
For Whanganui mother Brenda-Lee – whose daughter is 15 and son is 14 – this is her third stint in prison for dealing drugs.
“I grew up in the hood, pretty much idolising drug dealers and gang members and that’s all I really aspired to be. I grew up and did that, but jail wasn’t a part of that plan!” she says. “Both my parents were drug dealers and that’s what I knew, but I don’t want my children to be how I was and come to jail. I’ve been in and out for the last 10 years.”
Although Brenda-Lee’s children are teenagers, her son suffered a brain injury as a baby and has the mental age of an eight-year-old, which means he loves the picture books his mum, who is soon up for parole, sends each fortnight.
“Most women who come to jail don’t have anything – no money to get the kids things – so sending the books out is like giving them a birthday present. It’s something they can touch that Mum’s had and given to them,” she enthuses. “My son’s father is also in jail, so he lives with his granddad, who reads the books to him and my letters. I don’t want my kids to forget me and it’s good writing them letters and calling, but I love the books because I used to read to them on the outside.”
Most women who come to jail don’t have anything – no money to get the kids things – so sending the books out is like giving them a birthday present.
Brenda-Lee says her son was devastatingly hit in the head with a cellphone by his one-year-old sister, while their then-21-year-old mum was asleep. “He went to hospital and had seizures and Child, Youth and Family [now Oranga Tamariki] got involved and it was horrific. They took my kids away and I didn’t think that sort of stuff could happen to me. I just spiralled out of control and turned to meth.”
She very quickly started selling the drug to feed her own habit, but eventually she stopped and got her kids back, managing to stay clean for five years. They moved to the South Island and Brenda-Lee studied social services, which she loved, on top of working and caring for her son who has high needs.
“Since my son has a brain injury and ADHD, he’s quite full on and intense. But I wasn’t accepting help from anyone and was trying to be Supermum. I said I didn’t need the help from ACC, doctors and teacher aides, but I ended up getting burnt out,” she says. “Then I started leaning on drugs again because I couldn’t stay up for everything I had to do. I went back to drug dealing again and it was a vicious cycle.”
Although Brenda-Lee attempted rehab on the outside, she said it was too hard. Coming to prison two years ago, which has been her longest stint so far, gave her space to detox away from associates and family members using methamphetamine.
“Over the past few years, there has been a lot more help for us in prison. When I first came, you’d go to jail, do your time and then come out. But now there’s rehab,” says the book-lover, who graduated from business studies while in prison and plans to complete a counselling certificate next. “They’re also helping me get into permanent housing when I leave, and they give you wraparound services like counselling on the outside. Since my son can’t read or write, I plan to get out and put my all into him and accept the resources available. I’m not going to be stubborn in thinking I have to do it alone again.”
For Brenda-Lee, the hardest part about being away from her kids is missing important events such as birthdays and starting high school, or her daughter’s first period.
“I hate talking about my kids because I start crying like this,” she says, wiping away tears while Ana, who is a mentor with her at the prison’s drug treatment unit, comforts her. “But I’m really grateful to the people who run Bedtime Stories and sponsor the books because it’s amazing and means heaps to our families.”