It's story time. Settle back, and I'll begin. Once upon a time, a mother duck sat patiently on her nest of eggs, waiting for them to hatch. And then one day, she felt something move beneath her. Crack, crack! Filled with happiness, she watched as her eggs hatched one by one.
I don't know about you, but when I was little, story time was always one of my favorite parts of the day. And I loved reading to my two sons when they were small, too. It's that special time when a parent and child can be totally absorbed together in mystical kingdoms, fantastical beasties or scruffy little ducks that turn out to be swans. Well, that's how it is for some children, but for other children, there isn't a parent around to read to them.
I'd like to tell you about Sophie. Sophie's five years old and lives with her parents. One day, there's a bang at the door. Sophie hears lots of shouting; her mum's crying. She sees the police dragging her father away. Sophie's afraid. She starts crying, too. Weeks go by. Sophie doesn't know what's happened to her dad. When she asks her mum, her mum gets upset. So she stops asking. Sophie waits. She really misses her dad. Every day, she hurries home from school, in case he's come back. On many nights, she cries herself to sleep.
Children at school start to tease her. They call her names. Somebody's mum has heard that Sophie's dad is in prison. Sophie pretends to be ill so she doesn't have to go to school. And her teacher can't understand why she's so far behind with her schoolwork. After what seems a long, long time to Sophie, a letter arrives. It's from her dad. The writing is very messy. The letter makes her mum cry, but she reads a little out to Sophie. He says that he's OK and that he's missing them. It's a short letter.
Sophie says she'd like to go and see her dad, wherever he is. But her mum says it's too far away, and they can't afford the journey. Then one day the phone rings. "Sophie, come speak to daddy." Dad sounds different, far away. He says he can't talk for very long, and anyway, it's very noisy wherever he is. And Sophie doesn't know what to say to him.
Well, as stories go, that's not a very nice one. In the United Kingdom, 200,000 children experience the shame and isolation of a parent in prison. Two hundred thousand. That's more than the number of children each year who are affected by their parents divorcing. And it can affect the children of prisoners very deeply. There can be problems at school, and they're three times more likely to suffer from mental health issues. In so many ways, children are the unintended victims of their parents' crimes. In so many ways, children are the overlooked victims of their parents' crimes.
Until last November, I was a serving prisoner, imprisoned for fraud. I was dishonest, and I paid the penalty. Before that, I'd been a practicing solicitor for 30 years. I'd had a happy and stable upbringing, a good education, a happy marriage, which, I'm pleased to say, continues. I have two adult sons. When they were growing up, I did my best to be around for them as much as I could. And I took a careful interest in what they did. I read to my boys every night, and ironically, our favorite story was "Burglar Bill."
But when I got to prison, it soon became apparent that my background was very different to that of most of the prisoners. Few of the men that I met had had a decent education. Indeed, many associated education with humiliation and failure. I can tell you firsthand that prison is dehumanizing. Prisoners harden up, they shut down, they close in...just to survive. And this can be devastating for families. In fact, maintaining contact with your family from prison can be very difficult indeed. And if a child does get to see their parent in prison, they have to go through the same pat-down searches as the adults. They walk through the same detector frames, they're sniffed by the same sniffer dogs, and all because some children have been the unwitting carriers of drugs and mobile phones. And when they get through to see their parent, they may be tired from a long journey, shy, tongue-tied, even upset. And it isn't easy for the parents, who may not be getting along. For many reasons, not just these, over half of prisoners lose contact with their children and families.
How can we help prisoners to stay in contact with their families? When I was a prisoner at Channings Wood Prison, I began working for a charity called Storybook Dads. Storybook Dads began in 2003, when Sharon Berry, a civilian worker in a prison, realized just how much many prisoners wanted to stay in contact with their children. And so, armed with a few storybooks, she began to help prisoners to read and record stories to send home to their children. It wasn't a new idea. Few ideas like this are new. They're great ideas. But it was an instant success.
You may wonder: How does the recording of the stories work in prison? Is it difficult for prisoners? Can it be challenging? Well, the process of choosing, reading and recording a story can be very challenging for prisoners. Prison is tough, and prisoners can't afford to show any signs of weakness or vulnerability. But this, this recording process, this can be uncomfortable, upsetting, sometimes all just a bit too much. And prisoners often cry. They cry because they regret missing out on their children's lives. They cry because they're ashamed that they've let their families down. They cry because they don't know how to go about reading to their children. But because when they come to us we offer a private space, one-to-one, prisoners don't need to be tough anymore, and they can use their vulnerability as a strength when contacting with their children.
I remember one prisoner who came to record. He was a big, hard man with a reputation for being tough. He came along as implacable as ever. But when the door of the recording room closed behind him, that facade began to crumble. From his pocket, he took a screwed-up piece of paper and quietly began to read the words which he'd written as a message for his two little ones. His hands were shaking. And then, in a surprisingly quiet voice, he began to sing their favorite lullaby. You see, there wasn't much that he could do from behind bars to show his children that he missed and loved them. But he could do this.
Once the recording is made, it's sent to the Storybook Dads production unit at Channings Wood Prison in Devon. And that's where I worked. I was trained, along with other prisoners, to edit and produce recordings sent in from prisons all over the United Kingdom. Using audio and video software, the recordings have the mistakes taken out and sound effects and music added in. And the experience and skill which the prison editors gain helps them in their future employment.
Once the recording is finalized, it's transferred to a CD or a DVD and sent out to the families so that the children can watch them whenever they feel the need. And they listen to these recordings and watch them a lot—at bedtime, in the car...Some even take them to school to show their friends. These recordings, they show the children that they're loved and missed. And they show the prisoner that they can do something for their child, as a parent.
Do you remember Sophie? Well, one day, just before Christmas, a parcel arrived, and this is what was in it. Let's listen to a little of it together.
On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!
That's his reindeer, isn't it?
It is his reindeer, yeah.
Up, up, higher and higher they flew, across land, across oceans they sped. Through the magical northern lights they passed—I'd love to see the northern lights, wouldn't you?
I figure they'd probably look a bit like that snowman's belly.
They probably would, yeah. That's a cool snowman, isn't it?
It's very cool indeed, I love it.
They visited all the children in the world and left presents for each and every one. In the blink of an eye, they were back in Frogsbottom Field.
You think that's well funny?
I want to live in Frogsbottom Field!
Where do you live, in Frogsbottom Tree?
I don't, I live in this tree. I've made it all Christmasy-look.
It's nice, that. You've done a good job, good job.
Thank you very much!
Sophie and her mum listened to that three times, and they haven't laughed so much in a long time. They can see that he's all right, they can see that he loves them, and the next time he rings, Sophie's got plenty to talk about: "What does Charlie the Chimp eat? Will daddy do another story very soon?"
Since it began in 2003, Storybook Dads has grown and grown. It now operates as Storybook Dads and Storybook Mums in more than 100 prisons in the United Kingdom. Ninety-eight percent of the prisoners who take part say that it's improved their relationship with their child. And since 2003, over 60,000 DVDs and CDs have been sent out to the children of prisoners. For Sophie's family and for thousands of families like them, Storybook Dads has been a lifeline. Some prisoners say that it's the first time that they've begun to build a relationship with their child. And some poor readers have been so inspired by what they've been able to achieve that they've gone to education classes to improve their own reading skills.
Let's go back to the story of "The Ugly Duckling." But this time, I'd like to play you a recording made by a prisoner, because it encapsulates the power of what we do. The prisoner was an Irish Traveller who couldn't read. And he wanted to send a story home to his daughter for her birthday. With the help of a mentor and some clever editing, something magical happened. This is an extract from the raw recording, where the prisoner is reading the story by repeating it, phrase at a time.
He had nowhere to hide.
He had nowhere to hide.
So one day, he ran away.
Then one day, he ran away.
He ran until he came to the great marsh.
He run until he come to the great marsh.
Where the wild ducks lived.
Where the wild ducks lived.
And this is a recording—an excerpt of the recording with the mentor's voice taken out and sound effects and music added in.
He had nowhere to hide. Then one day, he run away. He run until he come to the great marsh where the wild ducks lived, and he laid in the rushes for two weeks.
Some wild ducks and geese come to look at him. "You're very ugly," they said, and they laughed at him.
The ugly duckling ran away from the great marsh.
And this is how he finished the story:
He wasn't an ugly duckling at all. During the winter, he had grown into a beautiful white swan. The other swans looked at him and thought how beautiful he was. "Come with us," they said. And he did.
Well, Tiara, I hope you have enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed reading this story to you. I cannot wait to be with you again and hold you in my arms. All my love, your daddy, Owen. Lots of love, I miss you with all my heart. Goodbye for now, my love. Bye bye.
When he listened to that recording in his cell before it was sent out to his daughter, he cried. And that's a pretty common reaction from prisoners, as they realize for the first time they've been able to do something for their child which they never thought they could. They've connected in the most fundamental way, through the medium of storytelling.
And as for Sophie, she wants "The Gruffalo" next time.