Snuggling up next to each other on the couch to read a book aloud is one of the special bonding rituals between parents and children – and one that research shows helps make a kid more successful in school. When a parent gets locked up, it brings an abrupt end to sitting on the sofa and turning the pages of "The Cat in the Hat" together.
But children and incarcerated parents in New York City can still connect and read a book together thanks to TeleStory, a two-year-old program run at a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. The initiative increases childhood literacy by using free live video conferencing to connect children to incarcerated parents at Rikers Island and borough-based Department of Corrections Jails.
“Once that monitor is flipped on, it’s amazing how invisible the technology becomes,” Nick Higgins, the director of outreach services for the Brooklyn Public Library, told TakePart. “The moment that dad pops up on the screen – and I see this in almost every visit – once the families connect, it’s like everything fades away and it’s literally a conversation among family members. And it’s about the child, and about reading books together and singing songs.”
Now Higgins and his team have the opportunity to expand TeleStory to 12 library branches across Brooklyn. On Thursday it was announced that the program is one of 14 winners of the Knight News Challenge on Libraries, and the library will receive nearly $400,000 to support its growth.
The challenge, which was run by the Knight Foundation, focused on highlighting programs that position libraries as centers for digital learning, community connection, and discovery. “Public libraries are at a moment in time where they have both the need and opportunity to retell their story and reemphasize the vital role that they play in American democracy,” John Bracken, the vice president of media innovation for the Knight Foundation, said in an interview. The way Brooklyn Public Library “is growing and expanding and really thinking in new ways about their work” made the project stand out among the 700 challenge applications, he said.
Over the past two years, TeleStory has connected roughly 150 families multiple times. The kids range in age from schoolchildren to babies. “There’s been so much attention focused recently on the importance of early childhood engagement. They’re thinking really creatively and critically about how to take the historical tool of the story time, and by using other digital tools, reinvent that and make it even more relevant to people,” Bracken said.
The potential demand for the program’s expansion is certainly there. About 105,000 children have a parent in prison or jail in New York alone, according to state child welfare officials. A report released in April by the Annie E. Casey Foundation estimated that about 5 million American kids under 18 have a mom or dad who’s locked up.
“The expansion will make it more convenient for people in New York City to access these video rooms,” said Higgins. TeleStory also hopes to leverage its contacts at the Osborne Association, a Bronx-based organization that advocates for the incarcerated, to expand to other prisons across the state. “We’ll be in the jail on Rikers Island, and then we’ll start the relationship with the New York State Department of Corrections,” he said.
The way TeleStory works is simple: There’s one set of books at the library in Brooklyn and another set at the jail. That enables the parent and child to read the same book simultaneously. “The video service has been in place with the Department of Corrections for a very long time. It’s just been used by attorneys who want to visit with their clients,” Higgins said.
The library schedules reading times in the afternoon, which is when use of the video conferencing system by attorneys slows down. “It’s perfect for us because that’s when kids get out of school. And since there’s no other strain on the system, we can go over an hour in some of these visits. It’s a very intimate, very – they don’t have to watch the clock. It’s just a dad and his kid reading,” Higgins said.
Higgins has spent the past decade working in jails in the library capacity. “We set up some traditional library services, like book loan programs through mobile libraries – what you envision mobile libraries look like from television, sort of a cart going around different housing areas,” as well as family programming and early literacy classes, he said. But the library was “always looking for ways to make our relationship a little more concrete with the families in the hopes of providing a bridge back to the community for everyone.”
The spark for the video conferencing program was lit thanks to a contact Higgins had at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. “He’s a psychologist using video conferencing technology to meet with patients in upstate nursing homes. He’d be in Manhattan and have these tele-psychology visits with nursing home residents, and so we got together and decided that the technology could also be employed in a family reunification effort at the jails and prisons,” Higgins said.
Despite the excitement over winning the Knight News Challenge, Higgins said there are still obstacles facing the program. One of the biggest comes from the telecommunications companies that have contracts with prisons. “They are requiring the facilities to eliminate in-person visitation in favor of video visitation, and in some cases they’re actually charging the inmates’ families to use the platform,” he said. The charges vary but can be as much as $20 per visit, he said.
“So what we can do here with this pilot in Brooklyn with Knight Foundation funding and the partnership with the Osborne Association is to really demonstrate a national model of video visitation as it should be: free, accessible, wholly inclusive, and focused on the family,” Higgins said. “We’re connecting families, and doing things that libraries have always done but using new technology to do it.”
• Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.