by Ned Scharff
A little boy gazes into a Free Library video screen when suddenly a familiar face appears—that of the boy's father, an inmate in a Philadelphia prison. "Dad," the boy exclaims, "Where are you? I miss you!" Over the next extraordinary hour, father and son read books together, practice spelling, sing songs, talk about school, and pray for each other. By the session's end, even the eyes of a supervising librarian are damp with emotion.
Their time together is part of Stories Alive, a pilot family literacy program connecting families separated by incarceration. Every Saturday, families who sign up can go to the Frankford, Kensington, or Widener neighborhood libraries to spend an hour visiting and reading with incarcerated parents via videoconference, in a private room set up at each library. Families can choose from a range of books—selected by a children’s librarian, with a focus on parent-child relationships and appropriate for children ages 2 and under—that have been placed in both the libraries and the prisons. Children leave with copies of the books they read, theirs to keep. Through this program, families not only achieve meaningful interactions while separated, but they familiarize themselves with the local library and its staff and its services. The program also encourages
inmates to take advantage of the Library’s many resources, including an in-prison library as well as a re-entry guide and a temporary library card given immediately upon release—giving them a valuable key to a wealth of essential information, job assistance, and vocational training.
The Prison Services program is the creation of Widener Library head librarian Titus Moolathara, who helped establish libraries at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Riverside Correctional Facility, and the Alternative and Special Detention Unit—all part of the Philadelphia Prison System. “The library is the most important place in any prison,” explains Moolathara. To an inmate, it represents a world of opportunity for learning and understanding, he says—and some brief escape from the grim realities of prison life.
The Free Library and the Philadelphia Prison System both want to see on-site libraries expand to all six city jails. Beyond that, the Library hopes to establish Stories Alive as a model for federal and state prisons nationwide, especially those in remote locations. Prison, Moolathara says, is a harsh environment in which inmates struggle wgainst despair and fear of losing family connections. In reaching out to incarcerated parents and their families, “part of our mission is to support those connections while fostering access to hope and opportunity,” he says. With its growth in prison services, the Free Library is attempting to do just that.
This story was originally featured in our Fall 2016 issue of Off the Shelf, a biannual publication with news and features from across the Free Library of Philadelphia system.