A new program at The Seattle Public Library helps parents incarcerated at the King County Correctional Facility (KCCF) connect to their children through videos of their parents reading a story to them.

Currently in a one-year pilot phase, Read to Me! is part of a partnership between KCCF and the Library. It started earlier in 2019 after community listening sessions with formerly incarcerated people highlighted the opportunity for the Library to reach a large population downtown with a need for Library resources. KCCF houses 1,000 people and is located just three blocks from the Central Library.

“Our job is to serve all people who live in the downtown area, and to break down barriers to access. People who are in jail have the biggest barrier,” said Deborah Sandler, a children’s services librarian for the Seattle Public Library’s downtown region.

Sandler worked with Lauren Mayer, another children’s librarian, to develop the program. Read to Me! is modeled after a longstanding partnership between New York Public Library and Rikers Island Prison Complex. It focuses on incarcerated parents with children up to age 7.

How the Program Works  

To date, Sandler and Mayer have led two, three-day workshops, one for mothers and one for fathers. The participants were volunteers, recruited with help from the King County Department of Public Defense.

In the first session for each group, the librarians discussed the importance of early literacy and also talked about different strategies for bring stories alive while reading aloud. They allowed time and space for the parents to share their own expertise.

“Some of the parents are very experienced, and stepped up to share ways that they read aloud to their children,” said Sandler.

In the second sessions, participants began choosing their book and started practicing their stories. In the third session, the parents video-recorded themselves reading, using a laptop and a microphone, against a backdrop that the librarians brought in.

The children were mailed copies of the story (which included a personal inscription from their parent) and the video-recording, as well as a copy of “Far Apart, Close in Heart,” a book about the experience of having a parent in jail or prison.

Looking Forward

Emphasizing that the program is still in its pilot year, with a small number of participants in the first workshops, Sandler and Mayer said they are pleased with the initial outcomes.

“The parents were so excited to participate, to read stories and get connected to their kids,” said Mayer. “They really miss them.” They’ve heard that some of the children have asked to see the video over and over, as a rare chance to hear their parent’s voice.

“It’s a gift from the parent to the child,” said Sandler. “We’re just a conduit.”

The librarians have begun a new Read to Me! workshop with a larger group of mothers and plan to hold another for fathers later this year. They’ll then evaluate the program and consider changes in the format and content for 2020.

The Library partnership with KCCF also includes supplementing the jail’s book collection by delivering paperback books (donated by the Friends of The Seattle Public Library) on a quarterly basis. Later this year, it plans to begin a program where librarians sign up soon-to-be released people for library cards, and share resources and services they can find at the Library, such as job training, a community resources specialist and technology classes.

“We know that a successful re-entry starts before a person is released,” said Sandler. “Access to Library resources can really help.”

More Information

Read to Me! and other aspects of the partnership between the Library and KCCF are made possible in part by funding from The Seattle Public Library Foundation.

The Library supports children and youth by giving them opportunities to excel and learn through our educational resources, classes and staff assistance. We help level the playing field for underserved populations by forming strong partnerships with community organizations.