Cheri Fuller, executive director of the Oklahoma Messages Project, saw a statistic back in 2008 that caused her jaw to drop.
The former high school and college-level English teacher came across an article on how women’s incarceration harms their children’s development in lasting ways.
Research shows maternal incarceration can harm children’s well-being, ChildTrends.org reports. Most female inmates are mothers, and their children can show anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems.
They’re also more likely to have problems at school ranging from poor classroom performance to misbehavior. It can all add up to juvenile justice involvement – and incarceration when they become adults.
“So when I read those stats and learned how shattered the bond is, how disconnected the child and mother are, I couldn’t just read the paper, go on and do nothing about it,” Fuller says.
She decided to start a parenting class, creating a curriculum for women inside Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, the state’s largest women’s prison.
The class’s goal was to help moms keep in touch with their children and motivate them to be positive, active parents.
Then, she realized most children of incarcerated women rarely get to see their mothers. So, she and a few friends formed the OK Messages Project in 2010, but they needed a program to deliver inside prisons. Her daughter heard about one on National Public Radio that recorded messages and parents reading books for their children to watch later.
She worked with ODOC’s Leo Brown, Agency Chaplain & Volunteer Coordinator, and Dr. Laura Pitman, Director of Population, Programs & Strategic Planning, to set it up in prisons.
Now, a team of 8-13 OK Messages Project volunteers visits state inmates, and records them reading books to their children.
The group was most recently at Jess Dunn Correctional Center in Taft for Fathers Day, helping the facility’s men record books for their children.
The program has also been to North Fork, Mabel Bassett and Eddie Warrior Correctional centers.
“Research shows children will do better if they know they’re not forgotten, and their parents love them,” Fuller says. “No matter what they did, they’re still mommy and daddy.”
Children the program serves show less depression and anxiety than when they began working with the nonprofit. They also showed improved reading skills.
“Without intervention like this, the statistics show that up to 50-70% of these kids will go down the cradle to prison pipeline.”
Helping children maintain connections with their incarcerated parents is key to helping them avoid prison themselves. Without volunteers like Fuller, thousands of ODOC inmates’ children would be put at risk.