- Associated Press - Saturday, June 21, 2014

WAUPUN, Wis. (AP) - Before he opens the copy of “Basil the Barn Cat” in front of him, Steven Reynolds takes off his identification badge - the one that reads “OFFENDER.”

He’s been practicing for this moment.

Sitting at a table in a small conference room at the maximum-security Waupun Correctional Institution, Reynolds says he’s been working on the animal voices in the story he’s reading for his son, a 16-month-old named Gabe.

“I don’t want to make it boring,” Reynolds says.

Sister Ruth Poochigian focuses a video camera across from Reynolds and hits “record.”

The 29-year-old father then puts his practice to work.

He rhymes his way through the story, doing each animal’s voice. As he turns the pages, Reynolds holds the book up to the camera, like he would if his son were sitting there.

Gabe was born not long after Reynolds was arrested for selling 3 grams of cocaine to a confidential informant in Marathon County, the Wisconsin State Journal (http://bit.ly/1kIcOlt ) reported. When authorities searched Reynolds’ home, they found 4 more grams of cocaine, and he was charged with a slew of drug and bail-jumping offenses.

Last November, a judge sentenced him to 10 years at Waupun.

Gabe lives in Wausau with Reynolds’ wife, Stephanie, and stepchildren. He’s also reading books for them today.

He met Gabe once, also while he was locked up. He knows it will be a long time before Gabe sees him anywhere else.

That’s one of the reasons Reynolds jumped at the chance to make this video, and why he’s been practicing for it.

“He’ll get a chance to know me a little bit,” Reynolds said. “That’s one of my biggest worries about being in prison: My son not knowing who I am.

“He’ll know, ‘That’s my dad.’ So I’m not a stranger coming home to my family.”

Poochigian has been recording these videos in Wisconsin prisons for years, as part of a program called Reading Connections, letting incarcerated parents do something they might not be able to otherwise: Read a book to their children.

“It’s an intimate moment,” Poochigian said, “and it’s a privilege to be there.”

Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, 1.1 million are fathers, according to a 2010 report from the Pew Center on the States.

In Wisconsin, nearly 8,000 of the state’s 20,600 prison inmates say they are fathers, according to the Department of Corrections.

Some 2.7 million children in America are growing up with a parent behind bars, the Pew report found, or one of every 28 kids.

If you’re not in one of those families, Poochigian said, those can be very easy statistics to ignore.

“Unless you’ve been there for some reason you don’t even think about (prisons),” Poochigian said.

Each month, she and others from Madison-Area Urban Ministry make trips to Waupun and the Taycheedah Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Fond du Lac, to record videos.

The parents also write a letter for their child, which is sent along with the video on a DVD and a copy of the book.

Reading Connections is one of many Madison-Area Urban Ministry initiatives designed to help families with incarcerated parents. It grew a decade ago out of another program that took the children of Taycheedah inmates on monthly bus trips to visit their moms there, Poochigian said.

A Dominican nun, she has been recording fathers at Waupun since last fall, and she said similar programs exist at some Wisconsin jails.

The goals of Reading Connections are to help children get through the tough process of growing up with a parent in prison and encourage reading as a way to keep the relationship with their mom or dad strong. By maintaining those relationships, organizers say, ex-offenders have a better chance to stay on the right track once they get out.

“Even though this is a (maximum security prison), a good percentage of them will be going home,” Laura Bonis, the prison’s social services director, said of the inmates. “That’s one of those hard things to go back into, is being a dad.”

On the day Poochigian and a volunteer record Reynolds and a handful of other fathers, she leaves Waupun satisfied but says there are dozens of names on waiting lists at each prison.

She knows there are fathers left waiting for her to come next month, and plenty more after those.

A few weeks after Poochigian visited Waupun, a package arrived at Terry Blom’s house in Burnsville, Minnesota.

It contained a hand-written letter, a copy of “The Tales of King Arthur” and a DVD of her son, Scott Blom, reading the book for his son, Scott Jr.

In 2003, Scott Blom Sr. shot a man twice during a home invasion robbery in Hudson. Prosecutors charged him with attempted murder; a jury found Blom guilty of aggravated battery, burglary while armed and being a felon in possession of a gun.

His son was born on New Year’s Eve 2003. Four months later, Blom was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Terry Blom knows her son made bad choices but tries to make sure her grandson, “Little Scott,” can still know his father.

The two write and talk on the phone often, Terry Blom said, and a few times a year she takes Scott Jr. to Waupun so he can see his dad.

Every time “Little Scott” has seen his dad, she said, it’s been in a prison visiting room.

“He’s never known it any other way,” she said.

Soon after the video arrived at Terry Blom’s house, Scott Jr. came to see her and got to watch his dad read him the famous King Arthur story of the sword in the stone. The next day, on a lengthy drive to Iowa City, he watched his dad read the story again.

At a hotel that night, Terry Blom asked Scott Jr. if he wanted to read another chapter from the book his dad picked out for him. He wasn’t interested in anything but the sword in the stone.

“I just want to read the parts that he reads to me,” he told her.

When Terry Blom watched the video herself, she saw Scott Sr., 35, sitting in a pale blue chair in front of a cinder block wall at Waupun. He read steadily, pausing on the medieval English names and skipping a French one.

“EAST SIDE” is tattooed across Blom’s knuckles, “St. Paul” over the backs of his hands. Devils and skulls run up and down his arms, and a ski mask-covered head and cross-bones is on his throat.

But that’s not what Terry Blom noticed.

“I could see how scared he was,” she said. “He wanted it to be perfect.”

Reynolds has had plenty of run-ins with the law - for battery, damaging property, selling drugs.

He was in prison six times before the sentence he’s serving now.

This time is different, though, with a family back home and a son growing up without him.

“It’s always been nothing to me,” Reynolds said of being incarcerated. “Before, I wasn’t missing nothing.

“Now I know I’m missing (his) first walk, first words, first day of school.”

On those other trips to prison, Reynolds said, all he thought about was selling dope once he got out. This time, he says he’s done with that.

Reynolds’ letter was sent to a two-story house in Wausau, where his son, stepchildren and wife, Stephanie Reynolds, live with her mother.

On a recent evening, Gabe ambled around the house in blue and green shorts before picking out his pajamas for bedtime. Steven Reynolds, meanwhile, was back in Waupun unsure when he’ll next see his son.

Gabe doesn’t really pay attention to the TV, his mother said. But as he gets older, she’ll show him the video more, so he knows the man on the screen - the one doing special voices for each animal and holding up the book’s pages to the camera - is his father.

Steven Reynolds is grateful for the chance.

“I can show him, ‘I’m trying. I care,’?” he said. “?’I’m not just giving up on you.’”

___

Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj

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