A strong argument can be made to suggest that all of Darrell MacPhail’s trouble with the law was sparked by his inability to read.
The 28-year-old remembers hanging out at his friend’s house as a kid where he was always greeted warmly.
It was a good environment that could’ve set him on a healthy path, but when it came time for the household reading hour, MacPhail couldn’t face the shame.
“My best friend didn’t know I didn’t know how to read for 12 years,” said MacPhail. “Every time there was a reading time I’d get mad at him and take off. I always made sure I was gone.”
Later on MacPhail’s keen technical abilities enabled him to become an explosives expert and earned him work on rock blasting crews. But without the ability to read, that too didn’t last.
Work would eventually dry up and when it came time to apply for another job, he says he would be honest with prospective employers during job interviews, and that worked against him.
“You have to tell them ‘Hey I can’t really read, can’t really write. But I can do everything else,’” said MacPhail. “They’d say ‘OK, right on, good to know you’re honest.’ They’d tell me they’ll call me back and they don’t.”
MacPhail eventually turned to stealing and drugs, which landed him in jail several times.
And he wasn’t the only inmate with undeveloped reading skills.
“There is ample evidence that many inmates have low literacy levels,” said Fiona Clare, Literacy in Kamloops (LinK) outreach co-ordinator. “The statistic often quoted is that as many as 70 per cent of those incarcerated struggle with literacy issues. Kamloops Regional Corrections Centre is no different.”
The situation led B.C. Corrections to adopt a literacy strategy, developed in collaboration with the Ministry of Education beginning in 2007, according to Cindy Rose, Corrections B.C. spokesperson.
The strategy involved an increase access to literacy tutoring and educational programming for inmates across the province.
Among them is the Storybook program, which operates in Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre, the Alouette Correctional Centre and Surrey Pretrial Services Centre.
The program is a partnership between Literacy in Kamloops (LinK), John Howard Society, Partner Assisted Learning (PAL) and KRCC.
It’s called the Storybook Project.
The way it works is a client selects a children’s book and with the assistance of a PAL volunteer, reads and records the story on a CD.
The recording, book and a letter are then sent in the mail to the child thanks to Raise-a-Reader funds. The children are then able to listen to their father’s voice reading the story while following along.
It also avoids the typical shame associated with the level of reading material by turning the exercise into a way to connect with sons and daughters.
During MacPhail’s most recent six-month stint at KRCC from October, 2011 to March 2012, he heard about a program that would simultaneously help improve his reading challenges and connect him with his children.
He signed up and jumped right into Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.
After about two months, said MacPhail, “it started to work out pretty good.”
He was especially keen about reading to his kids, six-year-old Harmony, three-year-old Justin and one-year-old Katie.
“It felt awesome,” he said. “It felt good cause I didn’t talk to them or see them for a while. They get to hear my voice while I’m reading a book to them. It’s kind of like a bedtime story. That’s what I thought was really, really cool about it.”
His ex-girlfriend’s parents told MacPhail all about his kids’ reaction when they heard this voice.
“They were like ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ Really excited to hear my voice. It felt really good.”
And whether he knows it or not, MacPhail also helped his kids avoid the path he took.
According to Fiona Clare, LinK outreach co-ordinator, research reveals that kids are significantly impacted when their dads read to them.
“As one inmate (said) after participating in the program ‘It allows me to show my commitment to reading, so my kids will continue to read,’” she said. “And it’s a wonderful way for these men… to experience the joy of reading. For many, it is the first time they get to read and enjoy children’s books.”
And by maintaining a family connection, the inmate’s chances of successfully reintegrating back into society are improved, she said.
The Storybook program launched at KRCC in early 2012 and has been a monumental success so far with more than 45 books read to date and a waiting list of inmates waiting to enrol, said Darcy Kaban, assistant deputy warden.
“Some of the clients have completed several readings, as they know how much their children enjoy to hear their dad's voice reading to them,” he said.
MacPhail is now in transition housing and volunteering at New Life Mission. He said he tries to read every day and “it comes a little easier now.” He added he’d love to get back into another Storybook program.
“At a point in my life I didn’t really care about reading. Now I know it’s something you need.”