(Photo: Cheri Fuller)
Bobby Miller is serving time for robbery at the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Oklahoma. To many he’s just another statistic from The Sooner State, which has the third highest incarceration rate for men in the nation.
But this week, the 30-something-year-old black man, wearing a blue-gray prison jumpsuit with braided cornrows, sat in front of a brightly colored Christmas backdrop and videotaped a message for his 8-year-old daughter. And the smile on his face couldn’t have been bigger.
During the taping he told his daughter, Jermaria, how much he loved her. He read her a book he picked out about Alice in Wonderland. “You’re like my Alice because I love you so much,” he told her before he started reading.
Miller’s videotaped message was one of nearly 50 recorded that day at the Cimarron Correctional Facility. It is one of the hundreds being recorded across the state of Oklahoma through a ministry called The Oklahoma Messages Project.
In May, the project began as a ministry by the organization Redeeming the Family, the brainchild of Christian author and speaker Cheri Fuller. She and a team of volunteers started filming incarcerated parents at two correctional institutes, and this Christmas they have expanded to eight.
Fuller spoke about the ministry on a video from TulsaWorld.com. She said the mission of the Oklahoma Messages Project “is to help to encourage children who have a mom or dad in prison. There’s nothing like looking in the television screen and seeing daddy say ‘I love you. I’m proud of you. I think about you all the time.’ It makes a world of difference in their lives.”
When Fuller and her volunteer team go into a prison, they work with parents in small groups. Fuller told The Christian Post that they don’t call them inmates because this ministry is focused on family. So, for the hour they are taping, they are moms and dads again. The videos create a time for them to reconnect as parents.
Fuller said many of the children think it’s their fault their parent is in prison. They have a sense of guilt. So the volunteers coach the parents on how to craft a positive message and to say things like: “This is not your fault. Mommy or daddy made a mistake.”
Hearing that helps relieve kids of their worry, Fuller told CP. It gives them permission to focus on their school work and be a kid again.
The mothers and fathers get to choose a book, donated by the community and churches, that they want to read to their child on the tape. Literacy volunteers from RTF train the adults how to read in an engaging and fun way so their child can read along with the parent on the video.
Fuller said the ministry is really about the kids. The impact it can have on their futures is immense. Children who have a parent in prison are 70 percent more likely to go to prison themselves.
Fuller claims that “when dads and moms do a good job of this (videos), kids act out less in school, they bond better with their family or their caretakers, they actually can focus better.”
The videos also give parents a chance to succeed with their reentry process when they get out of jail. Fuller says the videos lead to lower recidivism.
If people lose connection with their family when they are in jail, oftentimes they lose their support system when they get out. For many, if they are rejected by their family when they reenter society, it pushes them back into drugs or crime because they lose hope.
Fuller previously worked in the Oklahoma prison system teaching parenting programs to inmates. Through that work she realized, even if a child’s parent is behind bars they still need their love. If a mother can connect with her child it gives her a “tremendous amount of hope to rebuild a relationship with their kids.”
The videos also help families on the outside witness a transformation of their relative or parent. They see them as the new person they are becoming, Fuller said. Because of that, they are more willing to support them after they get out.
Filming for this Christmas’ video project wraps on Monday. Once the two volunteers responsible for burning all the footage onto DVDs finish their work, the several hundred DVDs will be sent along with the book the parent picked out to children across the state.
For most parents, reading a book to their child is one of the routines of childhood. But Fuller said for parents in prison, reading a story to their child is almost impossible. Some have to wait three to five years until their child can get permission or a means of transport to come visit.
“Very frequently we hear a father or mother say, ‘I have been praying for some way I could connect with my children, I could share my love and have them see me,” Fuller told CP. The moms and dads are “nervous when they go in [to film], and overjoyed when they come out,” she said. One man told her a few weeks ago that filming for his 10-year-old son was the best Christmas present he’d had in seven years. “It’s the first time I’ve gotten to read a book to my child.”