Colorado female inmates record stories for their children
DENVER, Colorado ” Five-year-old Anthony Martinez hears his mother’s voice as if she never left.
“This is mommy. I brought you three new books again,” Mary Amber Martinez says.
It’s a recording ” one made by Martinez, clad in a gray and white jail jumpsuit at Denver County Jail, where she’s serving time for a probation violation. Anthony gets the tape and books by mail at home, then begins his favorite nighttime activity.
The jail-to-home program, called Project Bedtime Story, is run by Mary Ann Figlino of the St. Louis-based Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondolet. Figlino, a former elementary school teacher, makes weekly trips to county jail so women can record messages for their children. She says kids who keep a bond with their mothers have a better chance of avoiding jail themselves.
“The whole point of it is that mom and child stay connected,” said Figlino, 68, whose work is part of The Empowerment Program, which provides a variety of service to low-income women and women who have been behind bars.
Similar programs are run at Colorado’s La Vista and Denver Women’s correctional facilities.
A jail warden had doubts when Figlino started Project Bedtime Story nine years ago. He stood, expressionless, in a room of women reading to their children, but ended up donating $100, Figlino said.
Donations cover books, Figlino’s four tape recorders and postage.
Every Monday, Figlino makes her way through the halls of the jail, carrying two blue tote bags with books and pulling a backpack on wheels, a familiar fixture to jail staff.
“OK, Reading for the children, Let’s go!” a guard yells. Figlino scatters a pile of books on a table. Slowly, inmates pick books their kids will like ” Sesame Street, books based on Walt Disney Co. movies, Dr. Seuss ” and begin recording.
Some, like Martinez, become lively.
“…. And out came a thunderous rrrooaarrr!” she says, reading a book about characters from the “Madagascar” movies.
Each inmate adds a personal touch, whether it’s telling their children when to turn the page or by singing a song to sign off.
Leaning toward a tape recorder on the table, Jean Williams, 30, sings quietly to her 1-year-old son.
“Yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so. … Good night. … Sweet dreams,” said Williams, jailed on a destruction of private property charge. She expects to be released in July.
“Right now, he’s in social services and so I just want to feel like he’s connected to me,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “I just pray that he knows who I am because I haven’t seen him in almost five months now and this is the only way that I can get to him.”
Some women don’t want their children to know they’re locked up, Figlino said. One told her child that the background noise she was hearing was a student union where she was between classes.
“Sometimes, I have to wipe off the tape recorders because they cry,” Figlino said.
At her two-story Boulder home, Gloria Yellow Horse, Mary Amber Martinez’s mother, has taken care of Anthony and his 1-year-old brother Devin since Martinez was jailed in December for violating probation on a 2006 cocaine possession conviction.
“I’ve never told him what’s going on,” Yellow Horse said of her grandson. “His mother is ill, you know, in several ways. That’s all he needs to know.”
Martinez used to read to her children every night. With the tapes, they don’t miss out on that. They do miss her when they hear her voice.
“He talks back to her,” Yellow Horse said. “She’ll say, ‘Did you catch my kiss?’ and he says, ‘Yeah.'”
On a recent afternoon, Anthony got his mother’s latest package. A shy smile spread across his face.
“There’s SpongeBob sitting there with his red T-shirt,” Martinez says on the tape. “I spy with my eyes, a pair of pants. Blue pants. Do you see ’em? And a hat. What color is the hat, Anthony?
“Purple,” Anthony says.
“Good job! All right, let’s begin to read now. SpongeBob and Patrick were excited. …”
The books keep Anthony in good spirits while he waits for his mom to come home, Yellow Horse said.
“I love you very, very, very, very much, and don’t forget it, OK?” Martinez says. “And have a good night. Good night. Sleep tight, don’t let bed bugs bite.”
And with that last line, Anthony smiles.
On the Net:
The Empowerment Program, Inc.: http://www.empowermentprogram.org
Donations can be made c/o Mary Ann Figlino at 1600 York St., Denver, CO 80206