Inside story - Sharon Berry - Winner: Breaking New Ground  the innovator award

18 May 06
Research shows how tough prison can be on families but Sharon Berry's charity, Storybook Dads, has gone a long way towards bringing inmates and their children closer together. Joseph McHugh reports

19 May 2006

Research shows how tough prison can be on families but Sharon Berry's charity, Storybook Dads, has gone a long way towards bringing inmates and their children closer together. Joseph McHugh reports

Like many dads, Kerry won't make it home to read daughter Carley a bedtime story before she goes to sleep tonight. But he won't be there tomorrow either. Or, for that matter, the night after that.

In fact, it might be another three years before he can read to his daughter. Kerry, a 34-year-old from South Wales, is four years into a seven-year, three-month sentence at Dartmoor, the infamous medium-security prison in Devon.

Determined to maintain his relationship with his 12-year-old daughter, however, Kerry has done the next best thing. He has made a professional-quality CD of himself reading Cinderella – her true story, complete with music and sound effects, for Carley to listen to each evening before bed.

This new version reinvents the old fairy tale for the modern age – 'it's a comedy, and she's a bit of a cow really' – and has a beauty-is-only-skin-deep moral bound to appeal to young girls.

'I'm pretty close to my daughter but I'd like to think the CD is bringing us that little bit closer. It's nice to know that you can put some time and effort into your kid. She loved it. She still listens to it now a year later. She shows it off to her friends,' Kerry says with a smile.

'In the first year, I'd see my daughter every week because I was in a local prison. But now I only see her once a year. It's really tough.'

Kerry, along with a lot of other prisoners at Dartmoor and at other institutions around the country, has Sharon Berry to thank for this vital lifeline to their kids.

Berry, the winner of the Breaking New Ground award in the 2006 Public Servants of the Year Awards, set up the Storybook Dads charity from scratch in 2002. Four years on and based in one of the forbidding grey wings of Dartmoor, it has recorded and edited almost 2,000 prisoners at 40 UK prisons reading bedtime stories to their children.

From the outside, the prison has changed little since it was built 200 years ago to house French prisoners taken in the Napoleonic wars. It is a solitary granite outcrop amid the marvel of the Devon moors and inevitably conjures up images of convicts breaking rocks. Inside, it feels like a museum harking back to the era of penal servitude. Austere stone staircases snake through the prison and it is impossible to move more than few metres without your progress being blocked by heavy metal doors, which are barred and double-locked.

It's a bleak setting for a charity that aims to improve people's lives. But that is exactly what Storybook Dads has been doing so successfully.

'The men are much happier when they're able to maintain their family bonds. During visits they're not able to get off their chairs so they can't play with their kids; it's difficult for them to talk on the phone because there's always so much noise on the wings,' Berry explains. 'Reading stories is a natural parental activity. It lets the men see they can still be good parents and can take part in their children's lives – even from behind bars.'

The Storybook Dads concept is simple. A prisoner chooses a story to read and is recorded digitally using a microphone and a minidisk recorder. This and some books is all a prison needs to take part.

The file is downloaded on to a computer and any mistakes are edited out. This means prisoners with reading difficulties can be prompted and the help is then removed from the end product. Next, music and a range of sound effects are added to bring the stories to life. The men also record a personal message to their child to go with the story, and the result is then put on a tape or CD.

What motivates Berry is the knowledge that she is helping some of the most marginalised and vulnerable members of society.

Research by the government's Social Exclusion Unit paints a depressing picture of family life for prisoners and their children. It estimates that around 150,000 children have a parent in prison. It also says that one in five prisoners gets divorced or separated as a result of being locked up, while a massive 45% of inmates lose touch with their families as a result of their incarceration. And the problems begin even earlier: one in four prisoners has grown up in care.

Infrequent visiting rights and the long distances that many families must travel to visit loved ones are just a few of the barriers that hamper prisoners' efforts to stay in touch with their children. The storybook CDs are an important link to home.

'It lets the children know that their parents love them and miss them, and that they're important to them. Kids often have feelings of abandonment, of depression and shame that can make them feel angry, and they can start getting into trouble at school and at home,' Berry says. Having a recording is 'empowering' for them, she says. 'They can listen to their CD whenever they want to, if they're missing their parent or feeling lonely. They're really proud of their CDs, they often take them to school and show everyone.'

A professional life spent behind bars is not a career choice that would appeal to everyone, but Berry, 44, decided soon after passing through the prison gates for the first time that it was right for her.

Perhaps this is because she knows a thing or two about second chances herself. She decided, aged 36 and a single parent, to go to university as a mature student to take a degree in English. After graduation she began volunteering one day a week at another Devon prison, Channings Wood, helping to set up a radio station.

Her empathy for the men comes through as she talks about them and she is clearly at ease being among prisoners who, in some cases, have committed serious crimes. 'As soon as I started working in prison, I knew it was what I wanted to do. It is fun and rewarding,' she explains. 'I've never had any grief from them. The prisoners treat us with the utmost respect and they appreciate what we're doing for them.'

Berry first got the idea for Storybook Dads during her time at Channings Wood, where she and the prison's writer-in-residence began using the radio editing equipment to make the CDs. During this time she also trained as a further education teacher and, in 2002, she got a job in the education unit at Dartmoor.

For a time Berry taught by day, while running Storybook Dads in her spare time. She would record the prisoners herself and then edit the files on her computer at home in the evenings.

But as word got around among the men and demand began to soar, she took the plunge and decided to launch Storybook Dads as a fully-fledged charity. By 2003, she had raised enough money to kit out a small editing suite. More importantly, she managed to persuade the former governor, Claudia Sturt, to let her move into an empty cell on one of the wings.

The organisation has been growing ever since and she now has a staff of four part-time workers, two volunteers and four prisoners who have been trained in editing and sound production. They have also moved out of the cell and into a modest office in the prison's training block, a clear sign that the Dartmoor prison staff back Storybook Dads.

Surprisingly, perhaps, this even extends to allowing Berry and two of her staff members to have sets of keys that let them move freely around the prison, including the blocks that house the men.

'It was a process of infiltration really,' she jokes. 'I worked through the education department initially and then people gradually started getting used to seeing me around. I got to know the previous governor, Claudia Sturt, and gradually more and more people accepted it. Now 99% of the officers are fine about us.'

Her ability to make friends and influence people is obvious as we go on a tour of the wings. The buildings have been refitted in recent years and the communal areas are spartan, but light and airy, and equipped with pool tables and gym equipment.

The cells, on the other hand, are tiny and dungeon-like – with outstretched arms you could almost touch the walls on either side. A thin strip of square window panes high on the wall admits almost no natural light, adding to the subterranean feel. But every man has his own cell, which comes equipped with a washbasin, toilet and, for £1 per week, a TV.

Berry is obviously a familiar face and a chorus of 'Alright, Shar' greets us as we pass through. She stops to chat – 'Hi, Michael, when are you doing your next recording?' – and seems to be on first name terms with virtually everyone.

Berry's outgoing nature is undoubtedly an important part of Storybook Dads' success. Dartmoor can hold 600 prisoners at any one time and in the past three years around 800 have recorded stories for their children.

Its popularity just keeps on growing: there is a three-month waiting list among the men, and at Christmas they queue up to make a recording as a special present. The CDs are also popular birthday gifts.

Storybook Dads is now making a splash throughout the prison system. Ten prisons have set up their own editing suites and Berry has invested considerable time travelling around the country to provide training and support.

She has gone as far afield as Scotland, where Cornton Vale women's prison is one of handful in the country running a 'storybook mums' project. The other 30 or so prisons that belong to Storybook Dads make recordings, which are then sent to the Dartmoor office for editing.

The runaway popularity of the scheme means that demand continues to rise. Berry has so far raised almost £300,000 in donations, which is enough to fund the charity at current capacity until 2008. She receives no funding from the Prison Service.

But expansion is on her mind. 'We keep having more prisons getting in touch. It's like a child – the scheme just keeps growing,' she explains.

It is this dedication that prompted Tony Benson to nominate Sharon for the award. 'For the past four years Sharon has worked tirelessly and devotedly to developing Storybook Dads and raising the funds to enable as many prisoners and their families as possible to benefit,' he says.

So these days, Berry has to juggle a hectic schedule of editing the CDs, travelling around the country to other prisons, fund-raising and acting as an ambassador for the organisation.

This drive and determination has seen Storybook Dads go from Berry's bedroom to a charity helping prisoners around the country – men such as Kerry. It's clear the opportunity to make the CD for his daughter means the world to him.

'Kids can be cruel. I remember ringing up one night and Carley was crying down the phone, saying “all the kids are saying I haven't got a daddy”. It rips your heart apart. You wish you can be there for them,' he says.

'But now, every time she's feeling down, she puts the CD on and she can listen to my voice.'

After a pause, he adds: 'It's just amazing what Sharon does.'


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