Wanda Thomas carefully picked out library books for her two sons: a book of children's art for her 9-year-old and a book of songs for the 3-year-old. Thomas, 35, reads a book to them once a month, faithfully ending the stories with a song.
"Yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me . . .," she sang, later explaining "I want them to be able to hear my voice."
But Thomas's boys cannot see her face when they read along. She is serving an 18-month sentence in the Arlington County Detention Center for possession of an unauthorized credit card.
Thomas is one of 35 female inmates at the jail participating in a program called "Read Me A Story." The program, a partnership between the Arlington library and the county sheriff's office, allows incarcerated mothers to read books to their children on audio cassette tapes. The tapes are sent to the child with the book selected by the mother.
Read Me a Story began three years ago under the supervision of inmate services manager Robbye Braxton-Mintz. Braxton-Mintz served on the incarcerated mothers committee of the sheriff's office, which was formed to respond to the needs of the growing number of incarcerated women.
"Our female population was growing faster than our male population, and we were looking at ways that we could address some of their issues," Braxton-Mintz said.
One major issue was communication between jailed mothers and their children. To supplement letters and phone calls between mother and child, the committee began hosting Mother's Day and Christmas visits in 2000. During those two-hour visits, a reader from a bookstore would give an oral presentation for the children. Braxton-Mintz said she began conducting research on the Internet and came across a program for mothers to read to their children on cassette.
She wrote a grant proposal to the American Home Library Association, which gave $3,000 to purchase books. The sheriff's office contributed funding to buy cassette players for children who did not have access to one.
"The response was overwhelming," Braxton-Mintz said. "We began to deplete our resources very quickly."
Read Me a Story received subsequent grants from the Arlington Community Foundation, a philanthropy, and other community organizations. The cost for cassette players was taken out of the inmates' commissary accounts, but no mother was turned away for financial reasons.
Kadija Sesay, a librarian at the detention center, helps inmates select books and screens the tapes for inappropriate language. The inmates are given time to say a greeting before they begin reading. "They'll tell their kids to behave or tell them to do their homework," Sesay said.
Donna Coghill, 43, who has been at the detention center for 14 months, comes to the library every month to tape a book for her 8-year-old daughter. "Sometimes my daughter will say, 'Mommy, I didn't have time to read [the book], I had too much homework,' " she said. Coghill hopes to be released next month upon successful completion of a drug rehabilitation program.
"I like family-oriented books," she said. Her selection this month is "Franklin's New Friend." "It's about a moose who is the new kid in the neighborhood," she said with a laugh.
Often, recording is stopped midway when the mother becomes emotional. "I cried on my second tape," Thomas said. She said her younger son started potty training when she began her jail sentence. The second book she taped for him was about potty training.
"I just lost it," she said.
Inmate April Reid-Smith, who said she will be eligible for release in about five months if she completes a drug rehabilitation program, said Read Me a Story is her way of staying connected to her children. Her 18-year-old daughter is too old to participate, but Reid-Smith sends a book and tape to her 14-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son every month.
"You only get to see your kids twice a year," she said. "This is a way to keep in close contact. It kind of makes up for lost time."