Our Work

“[The Literacy Link] builds hope in an environment that traditionally, historically has decreased hope.”                                        – Sheriff Dave Mahoney, Dane County (former)



Research has shown that children of incarcerated parents are at risk for delayed cognitive development, lagging literacy comprehension, and social emotional difficulties. Over the past two years, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension has been implementing strategies through a University of Wisconsin System-funded pilot project called The Literacy Link to engage justice-involved children and their families in literacy activities and develop language-rich learning spaces at county jails.

The two-year pilot project was initially funded through the UW System President’s Office in July 2017 and has utilized University Extension resources within county jails to provide educational programs, support services, evaluation tools, curriculum, and, of course, books.  The original pilot counties for the program were Dane, Racine, Pepin, and Buffalo. The program later expanded to include Bayfield and Ashland counties, and most recently, Dunn and Kenosha Counties.

The Literacy Link project is an approach that builds reading, communicating, and listening abilities with young children in justice-involved families. The emphasis is on building relationships and spontaneous engagement between children and their parents and caregivers through literacy.  These relationships serve as buffers to the elevated stress that justice-involved families experience.

The program has worked closely with its county jail partners to remake physical space so environments nurture literacy interactions during jail visits. Other community partners, such as Criminal Justice Services and Human Services, are building The Literacy Link activities into their clients’ overall plans.

Our Strategies

  • TeleStory – provides a live literacy focused video visit for incarcerated parents and their children from a child-friendly space at a local library
  • Making Reading Memories – a recorded book reading program that allows incarcerated parents to support and enhance communication and connections with their young children via video recordings of them reading a story book to their children. The video and print book are sent home with the child to view at any time
  • Physical Space Changes – creating spatial changes to jail visitation areas that foster literacy and learning activities for children via age-appropriate, culturally-diverse, and visually rich educational games, toys, posters and books
  • Parent Education and Supporttargeted individual and group sessions for jailed and justice-involved parents on topics such as reading to children, emotion coaching, child-centered play and family literacy; includes the Parenting Inside Out program designed specifically for incarcerated parents and parent education materials available free to jail inmates on existing electronic tablets


  • Increase engagement from key stakeholders, including jail administrators, librarians, and university educators in supporting incarcerated and justice-involved parents and their children
  • Build awareness of the literacy needs and opportunities to support young children with incarcerated and justice-involved parents and the valuable investment of this support for the well-being of communities
  • Increase availability of literacy-rich resources and learning spaces in jails and other justice-related areas for young children and their parents and caregivers
  • Improve the quality of parent-child interactions and increase the time children spend reading books and engaging in educational activities

Additional Information

For more information about The Literacy Link project, please contact Ronda Nicole Davis, Justice Involved Families State Specialist at ronda.davis@wisc.edu