SWEDEN
Bedtime stories from inside

Sweden’s oldest prison is situated in the old working class area of Kirsberg on the outskirts of Malmö. It is a high-security correctional facility and visits must be by appointment. Bags, cell phones and outer clothing are required to be secured in the foyer. Visitors are then subjected to a body search before passing through a metal detector and a series of locked doors and gates to the visitors’ room: an area which the inmates themselves have renovated with cartoon figures painted on white walls.

It is in this room that Jamil meets his son. At the most, for a few hours every other month, and the time always feels limited, but then it’s a long trip for the son from his home in Gothenburg.

- He’s always happy coming here and always sad to leave and that really affects me, says Jamil, raking his fingers through his large beard.

So, when he and five other inmates were given the chance to record stories to their children Jamil didn’t hesitate.

- This is something that strengthens the ties between me and my son. Dads read stories for their children on the outside; now we also have a chance to contribute something positive.

The project is called ‘Bedtime Stories from Inside’ and is a collaboration between the Swedish Prison and Probation Service and the Malmö City Library. The fathers meet six times and discuss children and reading; on the sixth meeting they record a story for their children and a CD is made.

Karin Johansson of the Malmö City Library was inspired by similar projects in England and is now the project leader for ‘Bedtime Stories from Inside’.

- The goal here is to strengthen relations between fathers and their children and with the aid of storytelling help fathers to participate more actively in life outside the prison, says Karin Johansson.

She emphasizes that the project is based on the child’s needs. It’s not enough that the father wants to join the project; both child and mother must also want to be involved.
- The fathers in the project should also have a genuine interest in their children: participation shouldn’t just be a way to avoid doing something else, she says.

Jamil says that he’s been a criminal for more or less most of his life. Up until 2004, just before his son was born, Jamil was a gang member in the Original Gangsters. And he’s been inside before.

- I can’t really blame anyone else but myself. No broken toys or a dad that beat my mum up. I just wanted to be a gangster.When other kids wanted to be policemen or firemen I wanted to be Al Capone. That’s the way it was till I met my son’s mother.

Since 2005 Jamil is serving a prison sentence for drug-related crimes and he’s incarcerated in an institution situated some considerable distance from family and friends in Gothenburg. When Jamil is released his son will have started school, and Jamil is very aware of the importance of maintaining regular contact with the boy.

- I’ve never thought of living my life without my son, but now we’re separated from each other for around seven years. It would be a catastrophe for both of us if I become a complete stranger who, suddenly one day, stands at the front door and says “now you have to come and live with me”.

In ‘Bedtime stories from inside’ fathers talk about their children and about their own exposure to stories when they were children. They learn how reading can help them to participate in their children’s development and they’re taught a variety of different storytelling techniques.

- The initial meetings are mostly about establishing contact and getting to know each other. For some, talking about one’s children and reading stories can be an unaccustomed and sensitive subject, says Karin Johansson.

A visit from an actor who demonstrated how to make a story come alive was really appreciated and Jamil thought it was one of the high points of the course.

- There some of Sweden’s most notorious criminals were sitting all wideeyed in wonder listening to children’s stories. It was really fantastic, says Jamil.

The project is now operative in the Fosie and Kirseberg prisons in the Malmö area. And hopefully the inmates will be able to continue recording stories even after the six meetings.

Jamil has flopped onto the sofa concentrating on Karin Johansson’s instructions. This is the second time he’s recording a story. The project has purchased a great number of books so there are plenty to choose from, but the last time Jamil knew exactly what he wanted.

- When my son first saw me with this beard he said “Pippi’s dad”, laughs Jamil. “So naturally I chose to record Pippi in the South Seas.”

This time Jamil has chosen a book about Barbapapa that he remembers being fun to read when he was a kid.

their children’s development and they’re taught a variety of different storytelling techniques.

- The initial meetings are mostly about establishing contact and getting to know each other. For some, talking about one’s children and reading stories can be an unaccustomed and sensitive subject, says Karin Johansson.

A visit from an actor who demonstrated how to make a story come alive was really appreciated and Jamil thought it was one of the high points of the course.

- There some of Sweden’s most notorious criminals were sitting all wideeyed in wonder listening to children’s stories. It was really fantastic, says Jamil.

The project is now operative in the Fosie and Kirseberg prisons in the Malmö area. And hopefully the inmates will be able to continue recording stories even after the six meetings.

Jamil has flopped onto the sofa concentrating on Karin Johansson’s instructions. This is the second time he’s recording a story. The project has purchased a great number of books so there are plenty to choose from, but the last time Jamil knew exactly what he wanted.

- When my son first saw me with this beard he said “Pippi’s dad”, laughs Jamil. “So naturally I chose to record Pippi in the South Seas.”

This time Jamil has chosen a book about Barbapapa that he remembers being fun to read when he was a kid.

But he hesitates; perhaps his son is a bit too old. It’s difficult to know what’s suitable when they meet so infrequently. At the same time it feels important to make the right choice.

- Or perhaps I should take Mamma Mu instead? asks Jamil, holding up a book with a cartoon cow on the cover. – Yes … that book’s a lot of fun, but Barpapapa is too, says Karin Johansson who’s always ready with a reading suggestion – OK then, I’ll go with Barbapapa, says Jamil, and prepares to start reading.

The stories are recorded on a laptop with a microphone, headphones and a basic sound-editing application. Sound effects are occasionally added afterwards.

Jamil opens the book and the recording begins. – Dad’s now going to read a book about Barbapapa and how he was born. Here it comes.

Jamil’s dark voice resounds through the book’s pages.We learn how Barpapapa arrives in the world, how he’s misunderstood, ends up alone in a zoo cage, but finally becomes a hero and can live together with his best friend Jacob. Despite the book being quite thin, the story is long and substantial. Satisfied, Jamil closes the book and Karin Johansson stops the recording.

- You added a bit yourself there, didn’t you?

- Yeah, more than half! That’s the way you normally read, then his mum points to the pictures in the book and fills in the gaps I’ve missed, says Jamil.

Response to the project has exceeded all expectations – from fathers, families and The Swedish Prison and Probation Service. For the children, the stories can provide solace when they’re missing their dads, and the fathers become a greater presence in their children’s lives.

- Initially, there were those who thought the whole thing was a bit silly, but kept mum for the children’s sake. When they later saw how the kids reacted they were dumbfounded. All of a sudden they could contribute with something that wasn’t prison-related, something that could be discussed on the phone or in the visitors’ room. – One of the mums has told of her daughter listening to a story every night, and how this makes her feel that dad isn’t so far away.

It’s not hard to see that even Jamil is pleased with the project. His only objection is that participants should be able to record stories more often; once a month perhaps, and this is something that Karin Johansson agrees with.

- You can’t put a price on the value of the contact that’s established between father and child, says Jamil. You can send presents and stuff but it’s not the same. This is much more important. Now you spend a lot of time and effort showing that you really care. This project is a brilliant idea.

Anders Persson
Freelance journalist

Translated by Greg Church

Freelance journalist