Inmate Colter Liston was trying to decide between two children’s books on a table in the library at Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center in East St. Louis.
It was his first time participating in the Storybook Project of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, which sends volunteers to the prison once a month to record inmates reading books and mails the CDs and books to their children or grandchildren.
“This one has a definite young girl theme with the colors, the sparkles and the characters,” said Colter, 35, of Fairfield. “This other one, you can’t beat it for cute, and it touches on something that is very important to me, and that’s pet adoption.”
Colter eventually picked the second book, “Firefighter Dog” by Howard Dewin, for his fiancee’s two daughters, ages 10 and 8.
Colter walked down the hall to an empty classroom and sat opposite volunteer Marcine Lemke, who placed an audio recorder on the desk in front of him. He held the book firmly with both hands, his fingers tattooed with the words “thug life.”
“It stands for truth, honor, unity, grace, loyalty, intelligence, faithfulness and equality,” Colter said, noting that was the motto of his former street gang.
Marcine, 78, of Edwardsville, a retired kindergarten teacher with glasses and salt-and-pepper hair, started the reading session by laying some ground rules.
“You know that you may speak only to the girls,” she said. “Do not say anything to your fiancee or to any other adult who may be in the room.”
Colter would be allowed to give a brief introduction and close with a personal message to the girls.
“If you make a mistake, I cannot stop this (recording),” Marcine said. “So you just have to say, ‘excuse me’ or ‘pardon’ or whatever, and just keep on going. It’s OK to make a mistake.”
‘Remember, I love you’
It took about seven minutes for Colter, a skilled and expressive reader, to cover the first two chapters of “Firefighter Dog.” The girls would have to finish the book on their own.
“Remember, I love you,” Colter said in closing, his voice cracking with emotion. “You are my dear pups, and I wouldn’t trade you for anything in the world. I miss you, and I’ll see you soon, OK? Be good for Mom. Bye.”
Colter knows he won’t be going home soon. He’s serving a five-year sentence for meth possession. His record also includes burglary, arson, forgery and weapons charges.
Colter said he worked as a racehorse groomer before his last arrest, but he’s certified as a personal trainer and nutritionist.
“I’m learning to do new things (through the prison’s drug treatment and education programs),” he said. “I’m learning to redirect my life in a more positive direction.”
Storybook volunteers have heard all kinds of stories, although they’re discouraged from asking inmates questions or sharing personal information about themselves.
“I think some people have some apprehension (about volunteering),” said local coordinator Don Baden. “Females have a little bit different situation than males. But in the five years I’ve been doing it, we’ve never had any problems.
“Some of (the inmates) aren’t very responsive. That’s just their personalities. But most of them are nice and friendly and really a delight to work with.”
‘My favorite volunteer job’
Don, 72, of Fairview Heights, is a retired education professor and associate dean at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He reports to the prison one Saturday a month with his wife, Elaine, and five or 10 other volunteers.
Many are retired teachers who think it’s important for children to maintain relationships with their fathers, no matter what the circumstances.
“(The inmates have) made mistakes,” said volunteer Sara Manley, 59, of Swansea, a retired second-grade teacher. “That’s why they’re here. But they love their kids, and they want to stay connected.”
On this day, Marcine, Don, Elaine and Mary Etta Skinner recorded 61 men reading books to 90 children in about 2 1/2 hours. After each session, they gave recorders to Sara, who plugged them into laptops and burned CDs.
Three inmates help with the project, maintaining a waiting list and making sure the right books and CDs get in the right envelopes for mailing.
“This is my favorite volunteer job,” Marcine said. “(The inmates) are so grateful that we come here to help them. They’re so appreciative. It’s not easy sometimes. I want to cry. I wish I could help them, and I wonder, ‘How did you get here? You’re so well-read and well-spoken.’”
Other inmates are less educated, but they want to talk to their children and send books.
“Some of them sing songs,” Don said. “Some of them will say a prayer. Some of them will cry. It can get very emotional.”
‘Like having Mom or Dad close’
Lutheran Social Services of Illinois administers the Storybook Project in 17 prisons and jails with help from about 175 volunteers from all denominations and backgrounds.
The goal is to help incarcerated fathers and mothers maintain loving “voice connections” with their children and encourage the children to read.
“We often hear stories of the children ... arguing about whose turn it is to sleep with the book or CD under their pillows because that is like having Mom or Dad close,” said Gail Beard, state director in Springfield.
The 18-year-old project came to Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center in 2006. The minimum-security prison averages 722 inmates in a complex that once served as Assumption High School.
“Our whole focus here is (rehabilitative) programming,” said Warden Jeff Parker. “Everybody here has an admitted drug problem, which caused their criminality.”
Some inmates hold jobs at the prison. Others study carpentry or maintenance. Parker sees Storybook as one more way to prepare them for life after parole.
“We’re giving these guys some education, something they can use to get employment and stay out of prison,” he said. “We’re trying to teach them how to be men and take care of their families and be productive citizens.”
‘Everyone is very polite’
Prison volunteers must submit to drug tests and background checks, walk through metal detectors and get frisked by guards. Don arrives each month with plastic tubs full of donated books for all reading levels.
A guard escorts the group to the second-floor library and classrooms, where inmates line up for the chance to read.
“Everyone is very polite,” Sara said. “They treat us with respect and courtesy. We never have any problems. I have never felt unsafe. That makes it very easy to come here.”
In February, the men could choose from more than 200 titles, such as “I Wonder Why the Sun Rises,” “The Nancy Drew Files,” “I Have Enough Stuff,” “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed,” “My Little Bible” and “Can I Have a Stegosaurus, Mom?”
Inmate Steven Roswell, 46, of Bethalto, has sent about 15 books to his 2-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son in two years.
“My son’s pretty advanced, so I try to pick out something more his age level,” Steven said. “He looks forward to this. It’s a great program. It helps us keep in touch with our kids and our families. I can’t be there, but he can hear my voice.
“Sometimes, when he’s in the car with (his mother), he’ll just pop the CD in. It’s neat.”
Steven is a slender man with a shaved head, goatee and black glasses. He worked as a chef before being sentenced to six years for home invasion. He’s trying to break an addiction to prescription pain pills, he said.
This month, Steven chose to read “The Last Olympian” by Rick Riordan to his son, who loves the Percy Jackson adventure series. Don made the 10-minute recording.
“That’s enough to get him interested, and he’ll finish the book himself,” Steven said. “It’s a good incentive for him to read. He saves all his books.
“The last book I got him was ‘The Little Giant Book of Science Facts,’ and after he got it, when I’d talk to him on the phone, he’d tell me all the facts. Like ‘Did you know that a French horn stretched all the way out is 23 feet?’ And I’ll be like, ‘No, I did not know that.’”
‘She misses him so much’
Don leaves the prison each Saturday with a crate full of envelopes, big and small, and takes them to the post office, where he spends about $170 in postage.
Storybook services are offered free to inmates. Books and most funding for postage, envelopes and other supplies are donated by individuals, organizations and churches.
“Offenders often voluntarily send in (donations of 50 cents to $5) to help with the postage,” Gail said. “This is a major expense for them, as most only make up to $15 a month.”
Colter’s fiancee, Lois Webb, and her two daughters received his recording of “Firefighter Dog” a few days after Don mailed it.
“The girls listened to it Friday night, and they loved it,” said Lois, 32, of Fairfield, a personal home aide. “To them, that’s their dad, so to hear his voice, when they haven’t seen him since June or July, it was wonderful. They were so happy.”
“They read along with (the recording). When they got to the end, they could hear the sadness in Colter’s voice, so it made the youngest one cry. She misses him so much, but she enjoyed every bit of it.”