College student to build library at correctional center to help incarcerated moms read with their children

Mt. Holyoke College senior Maria Patterson is working with Reader to Reader in Amherst, Mass. to build a library at a local correctional center

Mt. Holyoke College senior Maria Patterson is working with Reader to Reader in Amherst, Mass. to build a library at a local correctional center to help mothers read to their children.

As the evidence continues to build showing how essential parent-child reading can be in the preschool years, it’s worth asking: What happens to a child whose main caregiver is incarcerated? Is there a way to continue to foster that reading relationship? And what can the criminal justice system do to help?

Maria Patterson, a senior at Mt. Holyoke College, is asking exactly those questions. Her love of reading shaped her life, and she credits her mother’s read alouds for starting the process.

“My mom read to me a lot until I could read to myself,” she said. “I realized at a relatively young age that books could be a source of discovery, comfort and empowerment.”

After taking a class that discussed criminal justice and incarceration, Maria said she discovered that “Children of incarcerated parents have to cope with a difficult set of circumstances—separation from a parent, the stigma of having a parent in prison and whatever conditions contributed to the incarceration of their parent in the first place. As a result, they often do not receive the support or resources they need and deserve.”

In her final semester of college, Maria began a field placement internship. For her internship project, she recently partnered with Reader to Reader and the Hampden County Women’s Correctional Center (WCC) in Chicopee to try to bridge this gap. Her goals are to build a family-friendly library at the site, set up storytelling visiting times and develop a program that helps incarcerated mothers learn how to read with their children in a more interactive manner that helps the children stay engaged – and allows the mothers to play a more active role in strengthening their children’s reading skills. The library is scheduled to open at the end of April.

Maria said she was delighted to find that the WCC was an enthusiastic partner. “It was great to learn that the facility was actively seeking a way to improve the literacy of the children with parents in the correctional facility.” She hopes to make the project sustainable through continuing involvement from Mt. Holyoke students.

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