Croakey was unusually impressed when she picked up the latest Good Weekend magazine, published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, to read about a groundbreaking rehabilitation program at Hobart’s notorious Risdon Prison.
It is a credit to the freelance journalist involved, Erin O’Dwyer, on two counts. Getting into a prison to do such a story is no easy feat. But it’s probably easier than getting a story about prisoners into a magazine whose cover image almost always reflects power, wealth or celebrity.
So I asked O’Dwyer if she’d mind telling Croakey readers a little bit about the story. She writes:
“The Reading Together program began in August 2008 with little more than a cheap voice recorder and a pile of borrowed library books.
The concept is simple. Prisoners read storybooks aloud. The CD recording and the storybook is then sent to the inmates’ children. For the children and families at home, it’s a chance to mend relationships that were lost, or broken, or never existed at all. Already, 133 prisoners have read 212 books onto CD. And the cost? Not much more than a few postage stamps per prisoner.
The Good Weekend story emerged out of a radio documentary, funded by ABC Radio’s now defunct Regional Production Fund. The program, Bedtime Stories, aired on ABC Radio National’s 360 program in October.
The broadcast sparked a flurry of interest. Prison reform advocates are campaigning for the program to be introduced into NSW prisons. Two Melbourne academics are doing research on the program. A retired Victorian school teacher is collecting preloved books and sending them to Risdon. And a NSW midwife has wondered whether a similar program might help mothers in neonatal wards keep in touch with their children at home.
Again, the cost? Not much more than a few postage stamps.
Too often innovative public policy is knobbled by high cost projections and too much red tape. Too often good projects end, because funding is withdrawn before the benefits can be assessed.
The greatest ideas are often the simplest. And the ones that work best are often those given wheels by ordinary people at the grassroots.
“To have someone like Sandra who was interested in running the program on the ground has been excellent,” says Tasmanian State librarian Hugh Fielding, of the program’s instigator and prison educator Sandra Duncan. “Without the people who have a commitment to something like this it’s very difficult to get it up and running. We’re now looking at the whole range of indicators that this program is working and recidivism and literacy will be among those indicators.”
Reading Together is a program that is brilliant in its simplicity. Others sketching out great “kitchen table ideas” will hopefully be inspired to follow suit.”