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Bringing prisoners closer to children

Te Aihe Butler and Miranda Harcourt record a prisoner reading a story

30 January 2014

A quick chat between two women at Arts Access Aotearoa’s Big ‘A’ Awards ceremony last year has sparked a reading and literacy project that’s bringing prisoners in Arohata Prison closer to their children.

Miranda HarcourtMiranda Harcourt, actor, writer and patron of Arts Access Aotearoa, recalls talking to Ann Abraham, Prison Manager of Arohata Prison and a finalist in the Big ‘A’ Prison Arts Leadership Award 2012.

“Ann talked to me about her idea for a collaborative literacy programme where the women would read stories to their children on the local iwi radio station,” Miranda says. “I said that I would love to help. I have ideas and I’m a good connector.”

In the end, the radio station didn’t get involved. Instead, the women are recorded reading a story to their children. This is made into a CD, which is sent with a copy of the book and a message from Mum to the children.

Arohata Prison, situated in the Wellington suburb Tawa, is the only women’s prison with an alcohol and drug treatment unit. This means that many of the women are a long way from their homes and family, and their children often don’t get to see their mothers for months.

Building a team of volunteers

Using her connections, Miranda has built a team of volunteers: Toi Whakaari tutor Perry Piercy, acting student Skyla Love and, most importantly, technical production student Te Aihe Butler. Skyla provides the sound effects while Te Aihe uses Toi Whakaari equipment to record each story and then do the post-production at the drama school.

Miranda also brought on board educational publisher Clean Slate Press, which provides free books for the women to read and send to their children, along with a copy of the CD.

Frances McBeath, its Publishing and Sales Director, says the most popular titles among the women are the Huggles books, written by Joy Cowley.

Reinforcing the importance of reading

“There’s a hug implicit in every book and the women seem to really respond to that,” she says. “We think this is a fantastic project that reinforces the importance of reading to children and provides a link between mothers and their children.”

Before the stories are recorded, Miranda and Perry Piercy give the women some skills and guidance in reading aloud. “Joy Cowley’s stories are ideal for reading aloud to younger kids,” Miranda says. “They’re short, punchy, witty and easy to read.”

Ann Abraham, Prison Manager at Arohata PrisonFor their older children and teenagers, the women are recorded reading the first chapter of a book. Their children listen to the CD and can then read the rest of the book by themselves.

Miranda estimates that between 40 or 50 women participated in the six-weekly sessions over 2013. “It’s doesn’t need any funding. It only needs a bunch of keen people, and access to sound and post-production.

Ann Abraham, Prison Manager at Arohata Prison, says the project is a good fit with Corrections’ goal of reducing re-offending by 25 per cent by 2017.

“It helps mothers maintain a bond with their children and increases literacy – two essential ingredients if change is to occur,” Ann says.

“I believe these women have the power to influence their children so they can grow up to reach their full potential. They see this as a great opportunity to reduce offending in their own families and are very proud of the CDs they have produced.”

The power of voice

At first, Miranda says, the project was about literacy. “But actually, these women are very literate and have a strong sense of purpose: they want to read to their kids.

“I’ve spent my whole life recording stories for kids so I know about the power of voice.”

Renee Lyons performs "Verbatim" at Arohata PrisonMiranda, who did postgraduate study in drama therapy at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London back in 1990, also knows about the power of theatre and storytelling in healing and enabling prisoners to make positive change.

Late last year, two of her plays – Verbatim and Portraits – were revived by Last Tape Company in partnership with JustSpeak. Along with public performances in Auckland and Wellington, the plays were performed at Arohata Prison.

After attending the performance at Arohata, Miranda and her husband Stuart McKenzie spoke to a prisoner who said that she had “an amazing story” to tell.

It’s another of those conversations that’s got Miranda thinking about the next collaborative project.

 

 

 
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