Stillwater inmates turn a page toward reading and a better future

  • Article by: GREGORY A. PATTERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • July 31, 2010 - 5:49 PM

Leon Perry is doing a life sentence at Stillwater prison for killing a man. But he's also working to ensure his family isn't drawn into the cycle of incarceration that affects many children of felons.

One important tactic he's using is a free program at the prison sponsored by Reading Is Fundamental, which lets Perry pick three books a year for each of his children, siblings, nieces and nephews. He then mails them to the youths.

The idea is that the children who receive the books will be coaxed into reading more, and get better at doing so, says Shirley Ingebritsen, who runs the program for the prison and teaches literacy, GED and high school diploma classes there.

"The hope is to keep up the communication so that children know that their fathers are interested in reading. Research shows that if children think their parents are interested in reading the more likely they will be avid readers," Ingebritsen said.

About 120 of the institution's 1,620 inmates participate in the program, which was selected by the national RIF organization as its Program of the Month for July. The well-known Reading Is Fundamental organization targets low-income children from birth to age 8 and provides 4.4 million children with 15 million new free books each year.

The Stillwater program seems to have worked for Perry. He's been sending books to his children for the nine years that it has been operating at the facility. Three of his children now are in college, he says.

"I know the importance of their knowing how to read because reading was hard for me coming up," said Perry. He says he graduated high school without really learning to read, which he has done while in prison.

"It's shameful to see that so many of us can't read," said Perry, who recently earned an associate of arts degree in applied science through Inver Hills Community College.

The program also helps the inmates keep in touch with their families and loved ones. That's especially the case at Stillwater prison, a high security facility that doesn't allow children younger than 18 to visit.

One way of dealing with that restriction is a feature of the program that lets inmates make DVD recordings of them reading from a book and then mailing the recording along with the book to the child.

The prison RIF program sponsors a once-a-year book fair in the fall at the prison, so that fathers can choose books for their children. They are encouraged to talk to their children beforehand to find out what books the kids might want.

Such a conversation led Perry to select and send his daughter "The Skin I'm In," by Sharon Flake, a book about how a black girl in middle school lives through the insecurities she harbors about her social standing.

"It was her favorite book," Perry said.

And in a place and situation where prisoners have no income, the ability to send their children books are proxy for Christmas and birthday presents the inmates can't afford. "This is one of the few things that I have to offer that is tangible," Perry said.

Gregory A. Patterson • 612-673-7287

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