Prison program encourages reading, storytelling for inmates to engage with their children

  • Facilitator Sara Backer runs the reading program at the New Hampshire State Prison funded by New Hampshire Humanities on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Christopher Hanscom likes to connect with his daughter and books helps him do that at the reading program at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord on June 4. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Inmates come to a weekly reading program with Sara Backer funded by New Hampshire Humanities. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Roland Dow (left) and Abhishek Sachdeu look over the reading materials at the New Hampshire State Prison on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • An inmate reads a book at the New Hampshire State Prison on June 4.

  • Abhishek Sachdeu talks about his six-year-old son during the reading program funded by New Hampshire Humanities that helps inmates connect with their children through books. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • David Pacetti (left) and Lawrence Thomas look on as Sara Backer starts the reading program at the New Hamphsire State Prison for Men on June 4. The New Hampshire Humanities funds the program that connects inmates with their children through books. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Christopher Hanscom looks on as Sara Backer starts the reading program at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men on June 4. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/17/2019 5:26:06 PM

Chad Cyr tries to write letters to his six-year-old daughter, Summer, most nights: telling her that he cares about her, explaining his hopes for her.

“She’s too young to really read them now,” said Cyr, who is serving time in the New Hampshire State Prison on drug charges. “But I’m sure just going back and looking at that later in life, she’ll appreciate it. Maybe it will help her understand.”

Cyr said he already sent Summer one notebook full of letters. He tries to send her funny cards for her birthdays and for holidays, he said.

“She likes waiting for the mail because she feels like a grown up and all important,” he said. “Plus, she knows someone is thinking of her.”

Cyr is taking a class now that encourages writing and reading through the state prison’s Family Connections Center. In the class, which is run and sponsored by New Hampshire Humanities, inmates have the chance to read books and send them to their children. Cyr said he just sent Summer the book Make Way for Ducklings, which is one of her favorites.

Inmates are challenged to practice their writing skills in the course, called “Connections,” through personal writing assignments. Sara Backer, a class facilitator, said a recent assignment was for the inmates to write letters they wished their fathers had written to them.

“We found some common themes: That we want our fathers to accept us as we are and we want them to love us,” she said.

The Connections program runs in both the state’s men’s and women’s prisons.

“It’s really to encourage them to think about literature and storytelling and to engage with their kids,” said Connections facilitator Linda Graham. “A lot of them have had to have a lot of grim conversations with their kids. This is something different that they can talk powerfully with their children about.”

Letters

Backer stood in front of a whiteboard, decorated with colorful words reading “kindness,” “empathy” and “compassion” in the Family Connections Center before a recent class. She began her class with a question, addressed to the six men in green jump suits sitting around the table.

“Have any of you sent letters out to your kids recently?” she asked, looking around to make eye contact with each individual.

There were murmurs around the room. Some inmates said yes, some said no.

Backer said it’s important to find ways to communicate affection for kids, especially when families are separated.

“Having a note in writing is different than assuming the kids know these things,” Backer said to the class. “In a conversation, the mood can change, someone might say, ‘He said that, but he doesn’t really mean it.’ But if they have something in writing that’s a document, that’s an artifact and it’s harder to shake that.

“Even if you can’t get it to your kids until they are 18 years old, that’s something that a lot of kids would like to have, to know that you were thinking of them,” she said.

During the class, a group of six inmates were discussing Seedfolks, a book of short chapters told from the perspectives of people from different ethnic groups in Cleveland, Ohio.

They read one chapter aloud by alternating readers for each paragraph. Another chapter they each read to themselves silently.

“Did you feel it?” Backers said after a few minutes of silent reading. “There’s just magic being in a room with everyone reading.”

Each of the books read in a Connections course usually align with global issues: two examples are immigration and incarceration.

“When we come out from the unit and sit here for an hour or two, we get books and a little bit of knowledge about what’s going on outside so that way we can talk to our children,” said inmate Abhishek Sachdeu, who is serving time for sexual assault. “They give us a brief idea of what’s going on outside, so that way we have better communication with the kids.”

In one story in Seedfolks, a son is responsible for taking care of his father after the family moves to the United States. Sachdeu said a part about how the family was using cartoons to learn English reminded him of when he moved to this country.

“When you don’t speak any particular language, you try to watch TV so you can learn a language,” said Sachdeu, who moved to the U.S. from India 11 years ago. “Some people may think cartoons are a waste of time, or something, but if you don’t speak a language and you’re watching that again and again, in a funny way it’s better to learn. It’s easy to understand because they are doing the gestures, they are acting.”

Connections

Inmate David Pacetti said his daughter told him she is excited to receive her next book from him.

“I haven’t had a chance to send it in the mail yet, but she wants to read it,” he said. “Every time I call her, she asks me, ‘Did you send that book home yet?’ ”

Pacetti, who is serving three and a half years for sheltering and concealing two women who robbed and stabbed a pizza delivery man in Claremont two years ago, said it’s hard for him to be away from his 10-year-old daughter, Katelyn, and his four-year-old son, Carter. He misses helping Katelyn with homework and cheering her on at softball and soccer games. Sending the books makes him feel like a parent again.

“When she reads it, I make her tell me a little bit about the book, that way I know she actually read it and if she likes it or not,” he said. “I can tell with her, her tone of voice changes when she likes something. She gets excited about talking about it.”

Lawrence Thomas, who is from New York, said sending books enables him to stay connected with family even though they may be far away.

“For me to be able to communicate by sending out books, that is like a connection that is priceless,” he said. “It’s like being able to give something to your kids even though you’re in a messed up situation right now.”




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