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Incarcerated Parents Stay Connected to Kids Through Reading At McLean County Jail

Childrens books
"Children's books" by zetson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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A recent influx of interns from Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities has allowed the McLean County Jail to reinstate an updated version of its reading program.

The McLean County Jail has revived a program that allows incarcerated people to connect with their children through reading.

Years ago, the jail had a program that allowed inmates to record cassette tapes of themselves reading books for their kids. That program was shelved due to logistical problems, according Jackie Mathias, director of behavioral health and inmate services at McLean County Jail.

But Mathias said a recent influx of interns from Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities has allowed the jail to reinstate an updated version of the program.

 Jackie Mathias
Jackie Mathias, director of behavioral health and inmate services at McLean County Jail.

“We decided this would be a great things for our interns to do. And since we have a pretty steady stream of interns, it keeps it pretty consistent for us to be able to offer the program to the inmates.”

The interns help incarcerated people to choose books, and record a reading and personal message on CDs.

Inmates have a wide variety of books to choose from, Mathias said, thanks to books purchased by the jail through a commissary fund, or those donated by members of the community.

“We have a pretty stacked book cart that we take around. It’s got everything from, like, board books for babies, to chapter books for older kids,” she said.

Mathias said the program means a lot to inmates, especially around the holidays.

“Around Christmas when we did this, it was basically like them being able to send out a gift to their kids,” she said. “Normally when you’re sitting here, you’re not going to be picking a gift for your kids.”

Mathias said she’s not certain what kind of long-term effect the program may have on inmates’ relationships with their children, but she hopes that it can help in some way.

“I am a firm believer that any kind of contact with family, and supports, and things like that, is only good for everybody, all the way around – the kids and the incarcerated people here that feel so already disconnected from everything,” she said.

Mathias said inmates are able to stay connected with family through video conferencing. Those video calls, she said, make it possible for families to overcome logistical obstacles like distance in visiting.

But the jail has come under criticism from groups like Black Lives Matter for the cost of video calls. Black Lives Matter Organizer Olivia Butts has said that the cost of $7.50 for 30 minutes is extraordinary and cause hardship for families.

There is no cost for the reading program, to either inmates or families. Mathias says it serves as another avenue to keep inmates in touch with loved ones.

“It’s just another way to make sure there’s still that connection there,” she said.

Most importantly, Mathias said, the program allows incarcerated people to remain engaged in parenting – even if it’s just a little bit.

“It keeps that connection in feeling like you’re still part of the family,” she said.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.