The inmate walks into the classroom at North Slave Correctional Complex (NSCC), and sits down in front of a video camera.
He looks curious, if not a little hesitant about the new program, Reading Together.
“Listen — this is for your children,” Hannah Eden, the videographer, tells him. “I’m just here to facilitate this for you. You tell me when you’re done.”
Then she hits record.
A few minutes later, the inmate has a picture book open and is mooing like a cow between fits of laughter.
“It’s a lot of joy. I mean, this is just a dad reading to his child,” Eden says.
The NWT Literacy Council (NWTLC) launched Reading Together in 2020.
“One goal of this project is to support parent-child connections despite the separation,” says program founder Katie Johnson, from the NWTLC.
The program’s first step is the inmate selects a book to read to his child on video.
After the recording is made, including a special bedtime message, the father then chooses a blanket kit and ties the pieces together.
“We included this element as an opportunity to talk and connect with participants about their children and their literacy,” says Johnson.
Then, they assemble a “kit” for their child, including the blanket, pyjamas, toothbrush and the book they read.
“They’re actively involved — they know this is a gift for their children,” Johnson says.
While the inmate assembles the kit, Eden uploads the video on her computer.
Then, she sits down with the inmate and they edit the video together.
“We might remove a long pause or a loud sound or re-do a page. At the beginning or the end, the client may add a message,” says Eden.
Abiding by the prison’s rules — and the program’s overarching commitment to autonomy — no footage is filed away. It is created solely for the child.
The kit and video — in a USB and DVD format — is then mailed to the child, addressed to their primary caregiver.
“Giving the fathers as much parenting autonomy as possible was really key to the project’s success,” says Johnson.
She got the idea around 2010 from the adult educator at the South Mackenzie Correctional Centre and the Hay River Literacy Society, who were making audio recordings of stories and sending the tape and book to the participant’s children.
“I had wanted to increase the impact of this project by having video recordings so children could also see their parent in addition to hearing them, and adding the bedtime kit,” says Johnson. “While incarcerated, many aspects of parenting autonomy, like helping a child pick out their new pyjamas or reminding them to brush their teeth, doesn’t happen, so I wanted to add this element.”
On March 8, six inmates at NSCC participated in the program, which benefited 12 children living across NWT.
“Participants have said that the program gives them pride in helping and connecting with their children,” says Johnson. “The program has provided an opportunity to focus their children for an hour, and reducing stress.”
The initiative costs about $225 for each child to receive a kit, and the program relies on government funding.
The NWTLC is working with the NSCC on more parenting-related programs. and expanding Reading Together.
”NWTLC is able to offer the program monthly, fathers will have an opportunity to make different types of crafts and send new books each month to their children,” Johnson says.
Additionally, the literacy council is seeking to offer it at the South Mackenzie Correctional Centre and at both the male and female units of the Fort Smith Correctional Center.
“They (the clients) are incredibly polite, well-spoken, just appreciative. This might be the only contact, outside of calls, they’ll have with their children,” says Eden.
Utimately, the children benefit from the program the most, according to Johnson.
“(They) talk about watching the video every day, or snuggling with their special blanket from their dad,” she says.