McLOUD — Through windows of the small building can be seen the rows of silver razor wire and thick gray metal bars of Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, a women's prison.
However, within that plain concrete building used for the chapel are folding tables lined with children's books such as “Clifford Takes a Trip” and “The Secret of the Old Clock.”
Rebecca Bishop, Suzanne Jainese and Penny Willoughby look up and down the rows of books, which are separated by reading level. Bishop pulls out “Franklin Forgets” featuring Franklin the Turtle. Jainese takes “Making New Friends” and Willoughby grins as she scans the pages of “Oswald Makes Music.”
These women are among about 1,100 imprisoned at Mabel Bassett.
Bishop, 28, is serving time for assault with a dangerous weapon. Jainese, 29, and Willoughby, 38, are serving time for an assortment of drug-related offenses.
The word “Corrections” is written across the back of their prison-issued grays, and a badge clipped to their shirt pockets lists information including their Department of Corrections number.
They can't leave the prison, but their voices can leave and be heard by their children again and again through an Oklahoma Department of Corrections literacy program conducted by Hosanna Prison Ministry called Mommy and Me.
About the program
Mommy and Me allows mothers, and sometimes grandmothers, an opportunity to read to their children. The offender selects the book and makes a recording while reading the book to her child. The book and CD are then sent to the child. The program is held every other Monday at Mabel Bassett with an average of 10 to 12 women reading anywhere from 15 to 25 books, depending on their number of children.
“We've mailed these as far away as Alaska and Germany,” said Polly Ward, who leads the Hosanna Prison Ministry. “The voice is a powerful thing. You can be just as calm as you want to, but when you know you're connecting with your child that is emotional.”
Jainese didn't have to be told that.
She was the only one of the three to have been able to participate in the program previously. She read last month to her 1-year-old son, her youngest child. When one of the volunteers said, “You're an old pro at it,” she replied, “I don't know about old pro. I cried last time.”
This month, Willoughby worked to fend off tears before she ever chose a book. Why? She was asked where she would be reading to her 6-year-old son Peyton if they were at home together.
“We would probably be on the floor in front of his bed because he has a bookshelf right next to his dresser and then he has bunk beds,” she said. “We would probably sit there on the floor with our pillows up against the dresser, so we could go get another book.”
Bishop said she used to read some to her four children. She laughed when thinking how although she had a few books she could have read they always chose the same one about a train.
“It was like ‘Let's read the same story over and over,'” she said. “They just didn't want me to quit reading to them. So that's why this is important, so I can keep reading to them.”
In addition to reading a book and then signing it with a message for their child, the inmates are allowed to record a message to the caregivers and can sing “Happy Birthday” to be used on their child's birthday.
Expansion is possible
The process for a woman being selected to participate in the Mommy and Me program includes their case worker submitting their request to the chaplain at Mabel Bassett, the Rev. Charles Freyder. Ward said that in part they have to make sure each woman is allowed to have communication with their child.
Also, presently the building used has enough room for only about 50 women to gather. The recordings are done in the same room where the other women are waiting their turn to record.
However, groundbreaking for a new chapel is tentatively planned for early fall. It would provide space for up to 200 people to gather for interfaith services, volunteer programs and educational sessions. “What this program and volunteers have come up with really allows us to have solid contact with our families, something our kids can hold onto,” Willoughby said. “You're not the only person who goes to jail. Everybody who loves you goes to jail with you.”
Jainese was expecting when she arrived at Mabel Bassett. She said she talked to her child “every day, all day” when she was carrying him.
“I only got to spend five days with him when he was born and then he had to go with his dad,” she said. “I wanted to do this so he could keep hearing my voice and know that I'm still there.”
So what was Chance's reaction when they played last month's recording?
“When he listened to it, they told me he perked up and looked around for me,” Jainese said. “He knew my voice.”