Hon Louise Upston with Bedtime Stories team

Bedtime Stories bridge a gap

5 July 2017 
Bedtime stories are a time for parents to bond with their children and share the magic of imagination but for some people, the nightly ritual isn’t possible.

Woman and coach choosing a book to read.Women prisoners often find the disconnection from their families and children challenging and traumatic. However, the Bedtime Stories programme run by volunteers at Arohata Prison in Wellington is helping to bridge the gap between mother and child through the simple act of letting a child hear their mother’s voice reading them a story.

The women – grandmothers, mothers, aunts – choose a book and are coached to read it aloud. The reading is recorded on to a CD and posted, along with the book, to the child.

In selecting the Bedtime Stories programme as the recipient of the Arts Access Corrections Community Award 2017, the judges said it was an example of a practical community partnership that could change lives and be implemented in any prison environment.

Positive impact

“It’s about literacy, communication, creativity and performance. Above all, it’s about its positive impact on both the women and the children.”

Inmates and coaches worked alongside to record the stories.The programme was developed by theatre practitioner Miranda Harcourt in 2014 and trialled at Arohata Prison. Theatre director Kerryn Palmer heard Miranda talk about the programme at a lecture in 2015 and was immediately struck by the concept.

“As soon as Miranda finished speaking, I asked her if it was still happening, and she said no, mainly because of the time commitments. However, she suggested I should do it and more or less gifted it to me.”

Kerryn wasted no time in getting the programme up and running again. She organised a group consisting of actor and voice teacher Perry Piercy, social worker Liz Langham and sound technicians Ryan Knighton and Tony Black, who record and edit the soundtracks.

Sponsoring the books

Clean Slate Press stepped up to sponsor the books and the programme started again in March 2016.

“We couldn’t do the programme without the support of the staff at Arohata, especially the Interventions Co-ordinator Tracey Wernicki, who has been marvellous,” Kerryn says.

Asked about the impact of Bedtime Stories, Tracey says the prison is very grateful to Kerryn and her team for making the programme possible.

“It strengthens the bonds between mothers, grandmothers and aunties with the little ones of their whānau, allowing them to feel closer to each other by making this connection through stories even though they can’t be there in person.”

Overwhelmingly positive feedback

The feedback from the women is overwhelmingly positive. For example:

  • “I love the idea of my son being able to hear my voice even though I’m not there. It’s a great way to stay connected.”
  • “The programme is awesome. I sent my recording and the book to my granddaughter, who is two and half, and she is always asking her parents to play the recording as she tries to read along. I used to talk to her all the time and this programme allows me to continue to let her hear my voice. This is something important to me. I know that it is important to my granddaughter as well – she misses her nana.”
  • “The absolute joy of being able to read a bedtime story to my grandchildren while I am here is beyond words. My daughter told me there were smiles from ear to ear when they heard my voice. This is such a great heart-warming experience and allows to keep connected in such a great way. I am so grateful and my family are also so grateful to the wonderful women who make this possible.”

Support and encouragment 

At the first session, eight women came along to record their stories.

“The first session can be a bit daunting because many of the women have a history of trauma, miss their children, and have no experience of reading aloud like this,” Kerryn explains. “Often they become too emotional to read so we coach and support them through the process, gently encouraging them.”

More than a year later, the programme is running monthly with up to 18 women taking part in a session. Regular readers now select the type of books they know the children enjoy and have become much more confident in their speaking skills, Kerryn says.

“It’s really a small thing we are doing but it’s a constructive way for them remain connected with their children and help them build confidence at the same time.”

Bedtime Stories bridge a gap


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