Literacy program enables incarcerated parents to connect with their children

Stephanie Koons
May 14, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As it becomes increasingly common for children across the United States to have a parent who is in prison, College of Education researchers say it is important for correctional facilities and outside organizations to find ways to facilitate connection between incarcerated parents and their children.

The research team studied a program in a rural Pennsylvania state correctional institution (SCI) that enables incarcerated parents to stay involved in their children’s literacy, learning and education through video technology.

“We see mass incarceration as an injustice and separation of families as particularly unjust,” said Esther Prins, professor of education (lifelong learning and adult education) in the Department of Learning and Performance Systems. “(However), within the system that we currently have, we see these types of family literacy programs as crucial for enabling mothers and fathers to maintain connections with their children.”

Esther Prins

Esther Prins

IMAGE: Penn State

Prins and colleagues engaged in a study in which they used qualitative data to analyze how 11 fathers in a rural Pennsylvania prison were involved in their children’s literacy, learning and education before and during incarceration and through the Read to Your Child/Grandchild (RYCG) program. RYCG, offered in most correctional facilities in Pennsylvania, was designed more than a decade ago to enhance family literacy and strengthen the parent-child relationship through a shared reading experience.

Prins collaborated on the study with Tabitha Stickel, a doctoral candidate in the College of Education’s Lifelong Learning and Adult Education program; and Anna Kaiper-Marquez, associate director and assistant teaching professor in the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy and the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy in the College of Education. The team reports its findings in a paper (download PDF) “Incarcerated Fathers' Experiences in the Read to Your Child/Grandchild Program: Supporting Children's Literacy, Learning, and Education," and two other articles published in Learning, Media, and Technology and the Brazilian journal Revista Temas em Educação.

The study was funded by a $5,000 seed grant from Criminal Justice Research Center in the College of the Liberal Arts. 

According to the researchers, family literacy and read-aloud programs are being offered for incarcerated parents in response to high parental incarceration rates. In one of their papers, they report that more than 2.7 million minor children in the United States currently have a parent behind bars and about 5 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point during their lifetime. In Pennsylvania, the location of their study, about two-thirds of incarcerated people have at least one child.

“The reason these programs are becoming more common is that, sadly and unjustly, more and more incarcerated people are parents,” said Prins.

In their paper, Prins and colleagues report that RYCG participants select one or more books for their child (aged 12 or under) and are video-recorded reading the book(s) aloud. Parents often include a personal message at the beginning and/or end of the recording. The DVD and one book are sent to the child, pending the custodial caregiver’s written consent. Although implementation differs across institutions, at the SCI in which the researchers conducted their study, fathers created a scrapbook with drawings, photos, personal notes or letters, and/or photocopied pages from coloring or activity books. The researchers visited the prison numerous times to observe the participants being videotaped and interviewed the fathers, and then did follow-up interviews several months later, after the fathers had heard back from their children.

According to Kaiper-Marquez, previous research on family-centered services for incarcerated parents is sparse and mostly focused on programs that deal with the emotional and psychosocial aspects of parenting.

“One of the gaps we were trying to fill was looking at the role of literacy specifically and its effects on parents and children,” she said.

Anna Kaiper-Marquez

Anna Kaiper-Marquez

IMAGE: Penn State

Additionally, Prins and Kaiper-Marquez said that the results of their research counter the common notion of incarcerated people as deadbeat parents.

“What we found in our research is that that’s really an unfortunate and problematic assumption,” said Kaiper-Marquez. “Many adults who are incarcerated are parents and whether or not they’re incarcerated does not always impact their parenting. Some of them can still be very involved in their children’s lives and this program gives them an additional way to be involved.”

Throughout several of the interviews, Stickel noted, the fathers gave different examples of involvement in their children’s lives, such as emailing their older children, having their children’s schools send reports to them at the correctional facility and participating in the RYCG when offered.

Tabitha Stickel

Tabitha Stickel

IMAGE: Photo provided

Prins and Kaiper-Marquez noted that race is inseparable from mass incarceration and perceptions of parenting, and although the researchers’ questions were not geared toward race, some participants talked about how race has influenced the trajectory of their lives. For example, one of the fathers discussed how many people assume that he, as a Black father, would never open a book and how he was trying to push back against those assumptions by supporting his children through the RYCG program.

Prins said one of the poignant and important things is that some dads used this vehicle to maintain a connection with children. “But there also were several cases of dads who used this program to create a new connection with a child that they either barely knew or hadn’t even met before. To have that possibility to use this program to build those relationships was really crucial,” she said.

One of the key findings of the RYCG study, Prins and Kaiper-Marquez said, was the role of video in facilitating connection between the fathers and their children. Due to the rural location of the SCI, in-person visitations from family members often have proved difficult. Access to audiovisual technology, Kaiper-Marquez said, “was almost unheard of for the men we interviewed. These men were realizing how special that was because they so rarely get that opportunity.”

In particular, Stickel added, one of the correctional staff members mentioned that the RYCG program is the only way to make a video recording within a correctional facility, and for some fathers, the video might be one of the only visual records of themselves during their incarceration.

“Because photos and recordings are so ubiquitous and easily made and shared, it’s hard to imagine the reality of these fathers that have no opportunity for using such technology apart from the RYCG program,” she said.

Video-recordings of fathers reading books aloud, Kaiper-Marquez explained, allows families flexibility in their interactions, since children can watch the DVDs at their leisure. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased use of video technology as a communication tool, the RYCG program is in keeping with that trend. 

“One of the interesting things about COVID is that the idea of ‘being there’ without ‘being there’ physically has a whole new meaning,” said Kaiper-Marquez. “This project highlighted how you can be there in many ways. Even if you’re in a prison, you can still be an effective parent, but you need the opportunity and programs like this to create more opportunities.”

Prins and Kaiper-Marquez said that the findings of the study suggest several avenues for future research. For example, Prins said, they could examine what happens to families upon reentry when an incarcerated parent has been able to keep in touch with his or her child through programs like RYCG.

“There’s a push in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to focus almost all correctional education on obtaining jobs and completing a high school equivalency degree,” she added. “We don’t think that should displace programs like this that enable parents to maintain emotional ties with their children and enable them to support their children’s literacy learning and love of books and reading.”

Kaiper-Marquez added that it would be valuable to interview not only the parents participating in the RYCG program but also the children and their caregivers, and to expand their research into other areas of the country.

“It would be really vital to see how differing contexts in different geographical areas in the U.S. might lead to different outcomes in a program such as this,” she said.

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Last Updated May 17, 2021