It’s late November, and a storage room at a west Edmond office is brimming with packages, addressed and ready to ship to Oklahoma children, just in time for Christmas. There aren’t Thunder jerseys, Elsa dolls, or X-box games among the gifts. What’s inside is far more personal and valuable – a video message from a mother or a father who can’t be present every day. The DVDs are the work of the Oklahoma Messages Project, a four-year-old non-profit whose mission is to help the state’s invisible children – an estimated 30,000 whose mothers or fathers are in prison, literally out of sight and out of touch. The 15-minute videos revolve around Mom or Dad reading their child a book but also include personal messages that can range from reassurances they are safe in prison to bedtime prayers.
It’s late November, and a storage room at a west Edmond office is brimming with packages, addressed and ready to ship to Oklahoma children, just in time for Christmas.
There aren’t Thunder jerseys, Elsa dolls, or X-box games among the gifts. What’s inside is far more personal and valuable – a video message from a mother or a father who can’t be present every day.
The DVDs are the work of the Oklahoma Messages Project, a four-year-old non-profit whose mission is to help the state’s invisible children – an estimated 30,000 whose mothers or fathers are in prison, literally out of sight and out of touch.
The 15-minute videos revolve around Mom or Dad reading their child a book but also include personal messages that can range from reassurances they are safe in prison to bedtime prayers.
“It is so much more effective than letters or phone calls,” says Cheri Fuller, the OK Messages Project’s executive director. “It’s this amazing powerful digital format that is their world – kids feel like their parents are in the room.”
Since the group began videoing parent-inmates in May 2011, it has distributed more than 4,000 videos to children. Hundreds more are set to go out this month.
Oklahoma owns the nation’s second highest incarceration rate – and is No. 1 in locking up women per capita. Eighty-five percent of the state’s female inmates have at least one child – most have several.
Few of the children get to visit their imprisoned parents. Most live with family members who can’t afford the time it takes, much less the travel costs.
It’s a disconnect that often fuels a family-to-prison pipeline, a difficult-to-break cycle of dysfunction that all-too-often ends in generation-to-generation incarceration.
This is not an insignificant concern, given that nearly 30,000 men and women were under state supervision last month or that a suburban Oklahoma City elementary school reported nearly half its students had at least one parent in prison.
Imagine the impact on a child who’s present when their mother or father is arrested. Or what they might think when their lone parent suddenly is gone, locked up in a prison far away.
Is prison what they see on TV? Is Mom safe? Was it somehow my fault she was arrested? If only I had been a better kid …
Take the case of Hunter, who was about 3½ when his mother went to prison, leaving him and his two sisters to be raised by their grandmother.
Early on, Hunter asked, “Grandma, is mommy in a cage?”
“No,” his grandmother would assure him, “she’s not.”
The next day … and the next … and the next, he asked the question again … until an OK Messages Project video arrived. He could see his mother and hear her voice. She appeared safe and healthy
“That’s one of the first things parents say on the video – ‘I want you to know, kids, that I’m safe and healthy’ and, in fact, most of them are healthier than the kids have probably seen them because they’re off drugs, they’re sober and they tell them, ‘here’s the courses I’m taking, I work in the saddle shop, I’ve gotten my GED, I’m in college classes,’” says Fuller.
“It gives the kids hope. It relieves a lot of their nightmares, because especially if they were with the parent when they were arrested, they have nightmares. We’ve heard that from a lot of caregivers. The nightmares stopped.”
According to research by University of Oklahoma sociologists, video messages from imprisoned parents has helped their children significantly – 65% had less depression and sadness, 78% had higher self esteem and 55% experienced less anger, anxiety and acting out.
“It’s like a virtual visit,” Fuller says. “It’s very safe. They don’t have to go through layers of razor wire and concrete doors to go see their parent. So when they’re missing them, they put the video in …
“The thing we are hoping for and parents are aiming for is that they will have bedtime stories – they can go to sleep seeing their Mom or Dad reading a book, maybe saying a bedtime prayer, saying how much they love and miss them – and it has amazing results.”
Perhaps the most impressive statistics from the OU research: 72% of children receiving the video messages showed improvement in their abilities to read and 59% showed a significant increase in their interest in school.
Fuller’s interest in children of incarcerated parents was heightened in 2008 when she read OU Professor Susan Sharp’s research on women in prison. Fuller, a former teacher-turned-writer, developed a parenting curriculum and then began teaching at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center near McLoud.
Her first class included 25 students. By the time she completed her first two years at the women’s prison, she had taught 380 mothers. With the help of her daughter, she learned about a program in Virginia that served as the model for the Oklahoma Messages Project.
Now, 4½ years after it was launched, OK Messages Project’s 25 or so volunteers periodically visit Oklahoma’s prisons – often around Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – producing the video messages sent to inmates’ children at no cost to the inmates, their families or the state
Support for the group is raised through tax-deductible private donations and foundation grants which, among other things, help purchase books that inmates read to their children. The books then are mailed, along with the DVDs, to the children so they can read along with their parents’ video messages – an important part of the group’s literacy efforts.
For more information on the Oklahoma Messages Project, visit www.oklahomamessagesproject.org.
On Dec. 12, the SandRidge Santa Run in downtown Oklahoma City will benefit the Oklahoma Messages Project. The event includes a 5k race, a one-mile fun run and a Kid’s Dash to Santa. Visit DowntownInDecember.com for more details or to register.
– Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer. This story first appeared in The Observer’s December 2015 print edition.