Khloe Williams sat in a child-sized pink chair arranging the letters in an A-B-C puzzle, before feasting her eyes on the bookshelves.
“I want to read this one,” she said, pointing to the book she called her favorite, called “The Planets,” and then to a bigger book, “8 Little Planets.”
The curious 9-year-old, who enjoys gazing into the night sky and loves rainbows and puffy clouds, was stretching her imagination within a children’s library located in an unexpected place — LA County’s Men’s Central Jail.
The new children’s library inside the Visitor’s Center of the large jail that houses 3,500 inmates opened on Tuesday, Sept. 19, a joint venture between Gordon Philanthropies, Inc., an LA educational nonprofit, and the LA County Sheriff’s Department. The space is designed for children of incarcerated fathers to read, borrow and inhale books and manipulate puzzles and play games — materials they may not have at home or school.
Another aspect that is a little tougher to make happen logistically is to connect the fathers with their children in the same space in a way that strengthens the family bond hampered by a parent in jail.
While no one has yet figured out how to bring incarcerated men down to the Visitor’s Center, so far they’ve brought the books to the men and to the children. The fathers can make a recording much like a book-on-tape and that gets sent to the child at home, along with the actual paper book.
“My Dad gives me a recording and he sends me the book,” Khloe said. “When he reads it to me (on tape), I can follow along.”
Likewise, when Angelique Molina comes to the jail to visit her husband, Terrance Sheppard, they have to wait sometimes an hour or so and her daughter, Miracle Sheppard, 8, gets fidgety. Now, she can park her in the library, where she can be occupied, her Mom said. Her father has also sent his daughter the book on tape recorded in his voice.
“This is the first start for the children to do something when we’re here,” said Molina, who attended the grand opening event. “It’s to keep them occupied when we have to wait.”
The children’s library space can make visits easier, especially now, because Molina can’t even go up to the jail floor in the Twin Towers facility and talk to her husband through the glass partition, because the elevator has been broken for seven months, she said. Instead, they communicate using phones on FaceTime.
Luis Mejia, one of the staffers at Gordon Philanthropies, looked around the small library space on Tuesday afternoon and watched a few children explore the reading materials.
“I love this idea,” he said. “The child can enjoy a little moment.”
Sylvia Beanes, the nonprofit’s executive director, showed off the titles, from wipe-down baby books to elementary school workbooks on phonetics and handwriting to books about space, animals, parents and yes, police officers.
“We want them to take books home,” she said. “We don’t want the books to stay here.”
While the connections may be small and taken for granted by families who’ve never seen the inside of the jailhouse and have the means to buy dozens of books for their children, they are meaningful for kids who can’t see their dads because they are behind bars. Studies have found that 23% of kids with a father in jail or prison have been expelled or suspended from school, compared to just 4% of children whose fathers have not been incarcerated.
Children with an incarcerated parent are much more likely to have depression, asthma, migraines and anxiety, according to a 2017 study. And these kids, on average, are six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves, according to the National Institute of Justice study from 2017.
“We think we can make a difference by interrupting the inter-generational impact that incarceration has on families,” said Dan Gordon, founder of the charity.
Sheriff Robert Luna made the point that this small library represents an attempt at re-establishing the connective tissue torn apart in the case of children growing up without a father because he is in jail or prison.
“Within the confines of Men’s Central Jail, we are actively working to minimize the trauma and emotional distress that often accompanies families separated during incarceration,” Luna said in a speech. “We are committed to ensuring the children are not forgotten.”
Can just knowing his child is getting nourished by books, and by participating in reading to his child virtually, make a difference when he is released from jail?
“One of the best ways to insure against recidivism of those who are incarcerated is to ensure that the ties that bind the incarcerated to their families remain intact,” said Los Angeles County Superior Judge Craig Mitchell.
Mitchell remembered at age 3, his mother, who had less than a year to live, put him on her lap with words on flash cards and took him to the library to flip through books.
“She had in her heart the knowledge that her son was equipped to read,” he said in his remarks.
The Gordon Philanthropies set up the library and provides all the materials. Gordon did not know the cost but said the money came from the nonprofit’s own funds. The group also donates books to under-resourced communities and schools, helping teachers sign up students to receive free books in the mail, he said.
This is the first library they’ve ever done, he said.
“We hope this is the first of many such installations,” he remarked.