Pilot project in Dane County Jail looks to increase literacy in children with jailed parents

Pilot project in Dane County Jail looks to increase literacy in children with jailed parents

A new project in the Dane County Jail hopes to change lives not just for the people housed there but their children too.

With stickers and animals that are now on the walls, the visitation room at the jail looks more like a playhouse. What may seem like a simple change from what it used to look like has had a big impact, especially for the people who work there and saw the toll visits could take on young children.

“It’s really heartbreaking watching children leave, crying for their parents when they leave,” said Susan Whitbeck, a security support specialist at the jail. “This environment just lightens the load, and it just brings a little more happiness to their families.”

The Dane Co Jail visitation room looks more like a playhouse now. @UWMadisonExt added educational activities and new books to the room so parents and kids can still read and learn together. They don’t want kids missing out just because of their parents circumstances.� #News3Now pic.twitter.com/J0Q1rh8lqT

— Amy Reid (@amyreidreports) June 2, 2019

The environment redesign is an important part of the greater goal UW Extension program specialists hope to accomplish here. They’ve created a space that is not just kid friendly, but educational.

The idea stems from research done at the university showing children of jailed parents often lag behind their peers in literacy skills such as reading, writing and even speaking.

Mary Huser, a program specialist with UW Extension, wanted to put that research into practice.

“If we can intervene at these very young ages,” Huser said, “and we can help families who are struggling with a lot of stressful situations with these literacy skills and building these vocabularies, that sets them on a more positive trajectory, and that’s what we want to do.”

Along with changing the space to include brand new books and literacy-building games on the tables, they converted an old vending machine that allows kids to pick and keep a brand new book for free.

“It’s really exciting to see the kids,” Whitbeck said. “They get so excited to get that token because they get to take it to the vending machine and actually get to press the buttons to get the book themselves.”

Whitbeck has been so excited by the change, she’s built off it, working with the library to bring library card applications and reading toolkits for parents to the space as well.

Huser said in addition to getting books to kids the project is about building the parent-child relationship and the benefits that brings.

“It’s not just the books,” she said. “It’s the interaction between the adult, the parent, the caregiver and the child, and what we want to do is encourage these responsive positive relationships between parents and young children, and we want to do that no matter where parents and caregivers are.”

Whitbeck has noticed a difference.

“The parents, the inmates, are actually having the kids sit on their laps,” she said. “And they’re reading the books to them or they’re doing the activities on the table.”

The change for inmates is noticeable to the sheriff as well.

“It builds hope in an environment that traditionally, historically has decreased hope,” Sheriff Dave Mahoney said.

Dane County is one of six jails in Wisconsin that’s part of this pilot project.

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