When 3-year-old Serenity first saw her father on the big screen, she rushed up to put both hands on his face, as if preparing for him to hoist her into the air.
Serenity and her mother were at the Brooklyn Public Library, in a well-lit room outfitted with picture books, stuffed animals, and a widescreen monitor that showed a live video call from New York City’s main jail, Rikers Island. Serenity’s father was on the line.
The three of them spent the next hour reading books and singing songs. As Nick Higgins, the library’s director of outreach services, recalls, Serenity’s father never stopped singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” even as fellow inmates and guards passed by in the background.
Serenity’s visit was one of the first in the library’s innovative TeleStory program, an initiative Higgins launched in 2014 after working for several years as a librarian at Rikers Island. The program allows families impacted by the criminal justice system to connect without scheduling in-person visits.
Single-parents — typically mothers — can bring their children to the library to see the incarcerated parent in a warm, loving setting, and help cultivate the child’s love of reading while they’re at it.
In recognition of the program’s radical approach to family and education, the Knight Foundation recently selected the Brooklyn Public Library as one of 14 winners in its Knight News Challenge, an honour that came with $392,000 in grant money. The contest encouraged libraries to reimagine how they should operate in the future. Chris Barr, director of media innovation at the Knight Foundation, says TeleStory embodies that progressive vision.
“The fact that they incorporate the literacy element provides something for the parent that’s incarcerated to engage with the child on,” Barr says. In turn that creates a “good moment that hopefully both parties benefit from after the incarceration ends.”
A library steps into the 21st century
Before TeleStory, the opportunities for parents to have meaningful meet-ups with their kids were few and far between, Higgins says.
In 2010, he launched the Daddy & Me program. Once a month, kids could visit their incarcerated fathers to hear them read a story, which someone affiliated with the library would record. Kids could then take the audio recording of the story home as a memento once the visit was over.
The program had its successes, but over time Higgins noticed that many families stopped coming as frequently. Some stopped showing up at all.
“We lost track of families. We certainly lost track of the individuals who were incarcerated,” he says, pointing out the logistical problem of inmates changing facilities.
But rather than abandon the initiative, Higgins figured the real problem with the program was that it didn’t give families a convenient path toward intimacy. It might have been heartening for kids to read with their daddy, but that only happened once a month. For the other 29 or 30 days out of the month, all they had was a loop of his voice.
Around the same time, Higgins heard about a nursing home in upstate New York that was connecting families to their loved ones via video chat. The epiphany came right away. “We thought that it would be really powerful if we could connect people through video visitation from a public-library setting to a jail.”
Within weeks, the TeleStory pilot program was born.
Higgins worked with the Department of Corrections to turn the normal visitation rooms, typically used for video chats with attorneys, into reading rooms with collections of books that matched those in the library.
Now all a family had to do was give the library 48 hours notice before a visit, and the DOC would send the paperwork to the jail to arrange the inmate’s schedule to facilitate the video chat.
TeleStory’s early visitors, like Serenity and her mother, quickly had to fight for spots. “If we were running at full capacity, we could schedule about four visits a week,” Higgins says. There was only one part-time person who could oversee the project, which meant the library sometimes had the unhappy job of turning families away.
An expansion to more libraries means more chats and more kids who love reading
In a perfect world, TeleStory could become an everyday activity for the families who want to participate. According to Higgins, the video chats don’t take up any of the inmates’ allotted number of visitation hours. Parents can bring kids in as often as they’d like — as long as the child already knows that his or her parent is in jail. There can be no surprises, Higgins says.
Daily visits aren’t doable right now, since TeleStory is still in its pilot phase. But the grant money from the Knight Foundation will allow the program to expand to more than a dozen locations around Brooklyn — especially those in poorer neighbourhoods where a greater share of residents end up in jail — in order to meet the demand.
“We’ll have multiple locations going on at the same time and at different jails,” Higgins says.
Given the tepid response from Daddy & Me, the most heartening part of the operation is the fact that families keep coming back, he says. And it’s not just to video chat.
Most families that come in to call a loved one return for a second visit just to spend time reading. “That really allows us to get to know families and lets them get to know the library,” he says.
Over the next year or two, TeleStory’s expansion will help the library make good on its mission to be a hub for the community, providing safe spaces and free access to knowledge. Admittedly, that’s what any library strives for, Higgins adds.
“I can walk down the street to read books to my kids anytime I want, but for the families who are impacted by the justice system, that’s obviously not the case,” he says. “It’s really special to see kids and their parents have that opportunity just to be with one another without any restrictions. And for it to exist in a public library just makes sense to me.”
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