Prison literacy program that supports family bonds renamed after former SC governor

Through a South Carolina Department of Corrections program, inmates in all 21 state prisons can record themselves reading bedtime stories to their children.
Published: Nov. 8, 2023 at 10:04 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 8, 2023 at 11:20 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - A unique program that incentivizes good behavior for South Carolina inmates also helps maintain family bonds while they are incarcerated, doing it through the power of reading.

“A love of a child can’t be stopped by prison walls. It can’t be stopped by separation. A parent loves a child, no matter what,” South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said.

Dozens of books displayed at the State House in Columbia on Wednesday help remind hundreds of South Carolina children of that truth when their parents cannot physically be with them.

“There was a child that, their house burned down, and all they wanted was that book from their dad. If that doesn’t bring home what this means to these children, that connection, nothing will,” Stirling said.

Through a South Carolina Department of Corrections program, inmates in all 21 state prisons can record themselves reading bedtime stories to their children living on the other side of the prison walls.

Then the children receive the books with the recordings of their parent’s voice inside.

“This provides one avenue of hope and connection among families that I think will change families,” Gov. Henry McMaster said.

The initiative was developed in 2016 by a group from the Riley Diversity Leadership Initiative at Furman University that included Stirling.

It has operated since then under names including “A Mother’s Voice” and “A Father’s Voice,” but it took on a new name announced at a State House news conference Wednesday: Riley’s Readers, in honor of former US Secretary of Education and South Carolina Gov. Dick Riley.

“Gov. Riley’s name has been synonymous with education for a long time, and I think there’s no more appropriate name for this program,” McMaster said.

Riley, who was in attendance Wednesday for the renaming announcement, saw firsthand the program that now bears his name back in 2018, at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia.

“What I saw that day was remarkable. It was heartwarming, really, to see the happiness of the inmates,” he said. “It means a lot to them.”

To participate, inmates must be discipline-free for at least six months.

Stirling said programs like this are needed to reduce recidivism in South Carolina, including by keeping hope alive for what life can be like after inmates serve their time.

“Education is vitally important for stopping the cycle of incrimination, and then it’s also vitally important to returning safely to society, for that job, for that future, for that connection to society,” Stirling said. “That’s really what we want, is people to return safely, we want them prepared.”

Nearly 500 books with recordings have been given to inmates’ families since the program started, all of them funded through private donations.

Stirling said, to his knowledge, this is the only program of its kind in any state prison system in the country.