Fairytale from a prison cell

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Inmates are reading bedtime stories to their children through pre-recorded CDs. Ross Davies reports

Paul can't be there to read a bedtime story to nine-year-old Nicole. And by the time he'll be able to sit at her bedside, his daughter could be 11.

Paul, 43, has served one year of a four-year sentence at Dartmoor, the medium-security prison in Devon, for drug offences.

What Paul could do is read Nicole a 15-minute tale, Cinderella - The True Story, that he has recorded and sent to her on CD, to play whenever she wants to hear her father's voice. "In this version, Cinderella is a nasty piece of work, slagging off her sisters because they're not pretty," he says. "It's got a 'beauty is only skin deep' moral, and it's very funny.

"Nicole plays the CD whenever she feels lonely or is missing me ... it's our special bond. She takes it with her when she sleeps over at her grandparents' or friends' houses. She's played it to all the kids on the estate and I think she even took it to school."

The story behind Paul and Nicole's story concerns Storybook Dads, a project funded by charities and based in facilities made available by Dartmoor prison.

Storybook Dads is run by further education teacher Sharon Berry, 42. Paul is one of nearly 250 prisoners and their families who have benefited from the recording and editing skills of Storybook Dads, which edits stories recorded by inmates of Bedford, Bristol, Dartmoor, Exeter, and Portland prisons.

The project was started in Channings Wood prison, Devon, by the Writer in Residence, Mary Stephenson. "I took over the project from Mary," says Ms Berry, "and then decided to make Dartmoor the HQ for the project because Dartmoor is too remote for most families to visit.

"Most of the funding has come from charitable organisations, although Strode college who provide prisoners' education, have funded some of my work."

Ms Berry began by recording prisoners' stories at Dartmoor and then editing them on her home computer, before raising the funds to equip a small editing suite in the prison. "A story can take three or four hours to edit, so there's a waiting list to record at Dartmoor. Some prisoners will go on to further training in audio editing when they leave prison."

Ms Berry wrote Paul's story, and he recorded it digitally, using a microphone and a minidisk recorder, which, apart from some books, is all a prison needs to be part of the project. The recording is then downloaded onto a computer, and any mistakes edited out. Digital editing means a prisoner can tell a story regardless of his or her reading ability.

Mistakes can be eliminated, and so can prison sounds like the jangle of keys or the slamming of gates. Next, music and sound effects are added from a database before the story goes to tape or CD.

"Children and dads are always amazed at the results," says Ms Berry.

"Digital editing helps the stories come alive. The children love hearing a father's voice whenever they want, and fathers feel they are doing something for their children which strengthens family ties, and can help reduce re-offending."

Ms Berry says: "The recordings are sent to us on minidisk and we do the editing for them. The scheme can be run through the prison's education team, library, Writer in Residence, volunteers, officers, or the prisoners.

It can also be linked to literacy projects in which prisoners write their own stories."

That's the story so far, except that Storybook Dads became a registered charity in December, which will help with this year's fund-raising.

In a future chapter, Ms Berry will be making Dartmoor the editing centre for many more prisons. "I'd like there to be a Storybook Mums as well as many more Dads - we're expecting minidisks from women at Bullwood Hall and Winchester prisons soon."

Five more prisons have asked for Storybook Dads to call, and there are enquiries from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. "It's so important to try and maintain the family unit while a parent is away in prison, and I know that Storybook Dads (or Mums) can be a lifeline for families," says Ms Berry.

As for Paul, he says: "It isn't easy for Nicole. Everyone back home knows I'm in prison, but at least she's got something I've done for her that she can be proud of ... and it gives me comfort to know that although I can't be with her and her mum right now, she's got something to hold on to."

For further information email: storybookdads@blueyonder.co.uk

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