Women’s Storybook Project Bridges the Gap Between Incarcerated Mothers and Their Children

Midday on a Thursday this past April, the Austin Country Club was the site of a luncheon to garner new volunteers and donations for a local nonprofit that has changed the way many people look at mass incarceration in Texas. 

The Women’s Storybook Project of Texas, led by founder Judith Dullnig, BS ’68, and new executive director Jill Gonzalez, MEd ’96, has a simple, elegant, and heartbreaking mission: They dispatch volunteers to women’s prisons across Texas, where they record incarcerated mothers reading books, after which they mail the book and the recording to the children. 

Speakers spoke, videos—and tears—rolled, donation cards were passed. Within an hour, the buzz and the clanking of forks had faded into a low drone. The end of the third annual luncheon is just the beginning of the next phase for the nearly 16-year-old organization that has been profiled in Woman’s Day and The New York Times, and, most recently, blurbed in Oprah Magazine. 

“Our first goal is to get in all the women’s prisons in Texas,” Gonzalez says. “We will do that.” Currently, out of the 11 women’s prisons in the state, WSB is in nine, with plans to enter the Halbert Unit in Burnet later this year, and the Crane unit at Gatesville Prison, which houses the largest population of women inmates in Texas, by 2020. The organization also needs money for an expanding staff, fresh volunteers, and new technology as more mothers find themselves behind bars every year. 

When WSB began in 2003, there weren’t 11 women’s prisons to visit. As the company has grown, so has the number of incarcerated women in Texas, and, in fact, across America. In the years between 1980 and 2016, there was a 700 percent increase in female prisoners in the United States, according to The Sentencing Project. 

 According to a 2014 survey from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, 81 percent of female Texas inmates are mothers. 

Judith Dullnig heard about the concept behind WSB almost on a lark. Then selling South African jewelry and Italian and French fine linen, she was in Louisville for a trunk show and heard of a similar, albeit hyperlocal idea. 

During a dinner with, coincidentally, all Episcopalian women during the trunk show in 2002, they discussed their outreach programs. One woman was involved with distributing books and tapes from mothers to children in Louisville. The woman explained how children loved listening to their mothers because they didn’t normally get that opportunity. 

“The idea of hearing the mom’s voice tugged on my heart,” she says. A 2016 Stanford Medicine study of 7-to-12 year-olds confirmed what Dullnig and those who came before her knew intuitively: A child reacts in a more engaged way when he hears his mother’s voice versus the voice of a stranger. 

When she got back to Austin, Dullnig started calling around, figuring out how she could get a similar program going in Texas. After months of trial and error, she connected with Anne Mooney, then a psychologist in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. 

Dullnig and Mooney wrote a program that is still in place today, and that follows a few rules that stray from ones in other states that preceded it. No. 1, the women must remain “case-free”—without a disciplinary mark on their record—for 90 days before acceptance. Dullnig explains that this motivates the women to do better, helps ingratiate themselves with the wardens, and also prevents inmates “who want to kill a Saturday” from taking up a slot from mothers who really want to connect with their kids. The books must also be brand new; they are a gift from a mother to a child, and it has to feel special. And, despite Dullnig’s own faith, the literature read by mothers and given to children has to be secular in nature. 

“I’m very strict about that,” she says. “There are great programs within the prisons, but most of them are faith-based. This is a literature program—literature and reading.” 

WSB began with five volunteers, and Dullnig ran the operation out of her Austin home, receiving a grant from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church for a mission fund. She spent $25 on the first batch of children’s books from TJ Maxx, and received four tape recorders from St. Marks’ outreach program. During the early recording sessions, with her sights set on expanding the program into more prisons, she would encourage the incarcerated women to have their children and the caregivers write letters to WSB that they could show to wardens across the state. 

“I would get a letter,” Dullnig says, “it was like Christmas.” At the WSB’s office on Bee Caves Road, there are thick white binders bulging with handwritten letters from children explaining how happy they are to hear their mother’s voice, or typed screed from caretakers about how the child was sleeping with the tape at night after listening to it on repeat all day long. Dullnig felt the impact about a month in. 

“That was a motivator to me to have as many women connected to their children as possible, which meant adding prisons, establishing a good reputation, and a good relationship with TDCJ,” Dullnig says. 

Dullnig remembers in 2005 receiving a phone call from the Baptist Women’s Association, who were bringing 800 women to town for a conference and wanted to know how they could help. She asked each attendee to bring a book, a cassette tape, and a mailer. Every single woman complied. Three years later, she started asking Barnes & Noble stores around Austin to let them in on their holiday book drives. Today, the WSB office is overflowing with more than 10,000 books. 

“Books are not what we need,” she says, laughing. “It’s money and volunteers.” The week after the luncheon, WSB already has more than 25 new volunteers, ready to be dispatched across the state. In 2018, WSB mailed more than 3,500 packages filled with brand-new books and recordings of mothers, to children in 108 Texas counties and in 23 states across America.  

 

The process is mostly the same across all the prison units WSB serves. On the second and third Saturday of each month, two team leaders bring volunteers to women’s prison units in Gatesville, San Saba, Lockhart, and elsewhere. After passing security, they form an opening circle with the women involved in the program and the volunteers, where they talk about their lives. The idea is to form a bond before the women head off to record. 

Then the volunteers, like longtime supporter Rhoda Silverberg, MEd ’80, set up at a desk or table in the prison’s classroom. 

“Right away I was hooked,” Silverberg says, of her first recording session. “Here are these mothers, for some reason, not able to see their kids, and I think about holding my kids and my grandkids now and being able to read to them and their mothers not being able to do that. Recently one of the mothers told me, “I felt like my son was on my lap when I was reading today.” I think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”  

As technologies change, so do the methods of WSB. At first, the volunteers like Silverberg were using tape cassette recorders, but after a while, it became difficult to locate functioning ones outside the occasional Goodwill. So they moved to CDs in 2010. But in March of 2017, Dullnig rented a car, and noticed that the stereo didn’t include a compact disc player. 

“I thought, We’re in trouble. 

Dullnig contacted a volunteer who works at Google to organize a brown-bag lunch where she could speak about the organization. At the lunch, she expressed to the dozen or so Google employees that she was worried about what to record the mom’s voices on. 

The Google employees helped them modernize their efforts. Now, they record on digital recorders, after which the files are downloaded to a computer and then uploaded to the cloud. Each child is given, along with the book, a label on the back page with a unique link to their mother’s voice recording.  

“Sometimes [the caregiver] doesn’t know how to use the link,” Dullnig says, so, for the time most children are also still given a CD. 

Over the next two years, Gonzalez will help completely overhaul the technology at WSB, from the computers to their recording technology, and will look to give the founder—who will stay on as president of the board of directors—a much-needed break. 

“Judith is fantastic and brilliant—but everybody who has taken us from point A to point G is tired,” Gonzalez says. “They are awesome and they need support. It’s my job to put the support in place.” WSB hired its first executive director in 2017, but it wasn’t a good fit, so an interim ED served while Dullnig searched for a permanent replacement. She says she was looking for someone who valued “passion over power.” 

This is my place. This is where I have to be, Gonzalez remembers thinking when a recruiter friend sent her the job posting for executive director, despite being happy in her then-role as associate director of local children’s reading program BookSpring. 

Gonzalez is leaning on Dullnig’s institutional knowledge while simultaneously inhaling everything she can learn about the criminal justice system on the fly. But she’s unperturbed; the longtime elementary school teacher once took a two-year sojourn to become a certified reading specialist at UT because she didn’t feel adequately prepared to assist her students. 

“When you stop learning,” Gonzalez says, “it’s time to stop leading.” 

Still, she acknowledges the stigma of working with incarcerated women, even if she repudiates it. And while it is emotional work—Gonzalez accompanies the volunteers at least once every month to one of the prison units—that feeling fades away when she hears a mother reading Goodnight Moon to an invisible but very real child who yearns for a parent’s voice. 

“Often people will ask, ‘Isn’t it depressing? How can you do that month after month, aren’t you so sad all the time?’ It’s really not,” Gonzalez says. “It’s so hopeful.”  

Photos by Buff Strickland

 
 
 

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