David Person loves reading to his 2-year-old daughter.
But unlike most parents, he can't do it whenever he wants. Person is currently locked up in the Dane County Jail for violating his probation.
"When I was out, I'd read to her once a week, or as much as I could," the 29-year-old says. "I try not to set up too many visits, because it's hard to have to talk through the glass. I'd rather have a visit where I can hold her myself."
But thanks to the local Jail Library Group, Person is able to connect with his daughter in another way. The group, which provides books to inmates in the Dane County Jail, has a program called Kids Connection. It records inmates reading books to their children and then mails the recording and the book to the child.
Last Saturday, Person read Clifford's Bedtime by Norman Bridwell to his daughter. It's a short book, about a puppy's bedtime ritual. It ends with the dog getting a goodnight kiss. Person reads the book and tells his daughter, "I love you. See you soon."
He decorates the CD with stickers provided by the Jail Library Group and writes a short note. "If you can't be out there to do it personally, at least you have some type of outlet to reach whoever you're trying to reach," Person says after the reading.
Does his daughter understand where he is? "I tried to tell her I was just on timeout. But I guess her mother told her where I am, because last time I saw her, she was like, 'Daddy's in jail.'"
In 1992, when Michele Besant was a master's student in UW-Madison's library program, she looked for a practicum project and heard there was interest in developing a jail library program.
The jail had a library of sorts, but it was just a shelf of worn paperbacks in a space that doubled as a chapel and weight room. From the beginning, the project had two aims: to provide books to inmates and to create more awareness about corrections issues in the community. "These folks are our neighbors, both literally and figuratively," says Besant.
"People [in jail] are at a point where, first of all, they might be terribly bored," continues Besant, who is now associate director at the UW School of Library and Information Studies. "But if you're in jail, you're in some crisis point. Something's gone wrong. So it's an opportunity where you might be seeking information about a whole host of things."
While most prisons have libraries, they're much less common in county jails. The Dane County jail's library in the Public Safety Building still isn't much to look at. It's the size of a small office, with shelves and carts full of books. There's a lot of genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mysteries), along with some loftier titles like Call It Sleep, Hitler: a Study in Tyranny and The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Books in the main collection are mostly obtained through donations. The group maintains an Amazon wish list and gets donations from around the country. Besant has no idea how many books are in the collection because titles are frequently lost. The circulation policies are liberal due to the circumstances.
"The inmates don't ultimately have control of everything they have in their cell. They might get moved and everything might not go with them," she says. "It's hard to say this person is completely responsible for this book. It might go out of their possession and it's not their fault."
Books used in Kids Connection, which are given to the inmates' children, are purchased new through grants obtained by Mary Driscoll, outreach librarian for the Dane County Library Service.
Many of the group's volunteers are library students at the UW-Madison. Dawn Wing, a master's student, helped Person make the recording for his daughter last Saturday. Inmates often make recordings for their children for birthdays, Christmas and other holidays.
"It's important that inmates are able to connect to their children through literacy," says Wing. "I can't imagine how hard it is for that parent to be away from their child, for whatever reason.... Hopefully, this will motivate that kid to look forward to reading and see it in a positive light."
In April, the Sheriff's Office recognized the Jail Library Group for its 20 years of service.
Besant is thrilled that students and volunteers have kept the group afloat for so long. She likes the symbolism of the library as an egalitarian space operating in a place of confinement.
"The library is a very democratic institution. It's about community-building. It's about hopes and dreams and possibilities," she says. "Putting a library in a corrections institution where it's largely about confinement, it's hopefully saying we are a community and we all need to figure out how to do things better. And change is a possibility."
Listen to David Person read to his daughter and hear other interviews with members of the Jail Library Group.