Elizabeth "Jane" Handel

“A Book From Mom” Expands to Include Fathers, Reaching Parents in Five Massachusetts Correctional Facilities

Elizabeth “Jane” Handel of Needham, Mass., remembers curling up with her mother every night and reading books. And, when she was in the eighth grade she and a group of friends sorted through their school’s extra books, helping to ship them to schools that needed them. She wanted to continue with book projects like this when a friend of her family’s who worked at a women’s prison mentioned to her the lack of inmate resources. Jane started to research incarcerated mothers and learned how children separated from their mothers are “said to be doing time along with their moms.” She thought of how literature had been such a bond with her mother and imagined what her life would’ve been like if she had been separated from her mother.

She then learned about and was inspired by a national group called Reach Out and Read that enables children in low-income communities to select books to take home when they visit hospitals or health centers. It occurred to her that the same could happen in prisons during children’s visits and that such a project could help strengthen the mother/child bond and also increase literacy for both parent and child. She launched her project, called a “Book from Mom” in the spring of 2004 at the MCI Framingham prison, Massachusetts’ only women’s prison.

With all of this already accomplished—having already collected and distributed thousands of brand new books—Jane next attended Mount Holyoke College’s Take the Lead program last fall intent on expanding her project’s reach. Her goal was to maintain her work with her original prison with a minimum of at least 4,000 new books donated annually while starting up a new program in a second prison. Thanks to her hard work and flexibility, Jane expanded her project to three more locations and has placed a total of 9,000 new children’s books to date.

Using Take the Lead’s workshops and its leadership change model, she left campus with a specific action plan in hand. Then, she tackled rewriting her introductory packet, emphasizing how easy it would be for facilities to put the project in place. She stressed how it didn’t require bookkeeping, that the books were already sorted by age and that storage wouldn’t be a barrier since the program could start with a few books and grow from there.

Since Jane personally delivers all the donated books, which she collects through numerous drives, she sent her rewritten material to all the possible prisons within driving range of her home, including facilities at the county, state and federal level. Within six months, her persuasion paid off, as her program was accepted at three more sites, including those with men. That’s when Jane decided to turn A Book from Mom into a program serving mothers and fathers while preserving its essential features: books are new (not gently used) so they present as a gift from the parent and each book is selected by the parent.

Now, Jane has her eyes set upon “franchising” A Book from Mom/A Book from Dad so that the program can be replicated around the country. She would love to see what she started locally bring literacy, a strengthened bond between parent and child and the joy of reading together to as many incarcerated parents and their children as possible.