Inmate artwork supports ‘Little Readers’ program for children

December 14, 2018 Atlanta - On public display now at the Governor’s Mansion are incredibly ornate replicas of familiar places and they were made by inmates in the state’s prison system. This castle was made in Walker State Prison and is a model of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria Germany. Once the public viewing is finished, the artwork will be auctioned off to the public by Heartbound Ministries, which supports Georgia’s corrections staff, its inmates and their families. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
December 14, 2018 Atlanta - On public display now at the Governor’s Mansion are incredibly ornate replicas of familiar places and they were made by inmates in the state’s prison system. This castle was made in Walker State Prison and is a model of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria Germany. Once the public viewing is finished, the artwork will be auctioned off to the public by Heartbound Ministries, which supports Georgia’s corrections staff, its inmates and their families. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

While a prison inmate, John Turner was able to read a bedtime story to his godson 50 miles away.

“My wife said he would listen to it every night,” Turner said proudly in a recent interview. “It changed me from the inside out, having the opportunity to have that kind of connection.”

Except Turner, 42, was not actually at his godson’s bedside when he read the children’s book, “Goodnight Moon.” He read it while being videotaped inside Walker State Prison in northwest Georgia were he was serving a 15-year-sentence for armed robbery.

Both the DVD of his reading and the book were sent to Xavier Jennings’ home in Ellijay so he could watch and read along. This was possible thanks to the Little Readers program run by Heartbound Ministries, which supports Georgia’s corrections staff, its inmates and their families.

John Turner with his godson, Xavier Jennings, when Turner was still an inmate at Walker State Prison. Walker State Prison has an art program that Turner helped start. (Family photo.)
John Turner with his godson, Xavier Jennings, when Turner was still an inmate at Walker State Prison. Walker State Prison has an art program that Turner helped start. (Family photo.)

Heartbound’s mission is to change the culture of crime and incarceration to hope and restoration, said Andrea Shelton, who founded the nonprofit in 2003. It also provides funding for chaplains at juvenile detention centers, transitional centers and prisons that don’t have them.

Heartbound relies on grants and donations to carry out its programs. In June, the Gannett Foundation announced it will give $50,000 in grant money to Heartbound so it can expand its Little Readers program.

Heartbound also has the support of Gov. Nathan Deal and his wife Sandra.

“This is something that touches children with family members in prison,” Deal said recently. “It’s a wonderful program and we want to do everything we can for it.”

This holiday season, the governor and first lady displayed artwork made by prison inmates at the Governor’s Mansion. The pieces will be included in an art show in February at the Sloppy Floyd Building across the street from the state Capitol. Proceeds from the sale of the items will go to the Little Readers program.

December 14, 2018 Atlanta - Georgia’s First Lady Sandra Deal greets student visitors at the Governor’s Mansion, where they are admiring art created by inmates. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
December 14, 2018 Atlanta - Georgia’s First Lady Sandra Deal greets student visitors at the Governor’s Mansion, where they are admiring art created by inmates. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The inmates’ artwork includes an impressive cardboard replica of Hogwarts Castle from the Harry Potter movies. There are also replicas of the famous Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, which inspired Walt Disney to create the Magic Kingdom, and the Governor’s Mansion itself.

So far, Heartbound Ministries has had three art shows of the inmates’ work and raised more than $20,000, said Shelton, whom Deal appointed to the state Department of Corrections board in 2014.

In 2014, the first year of Little Readers, about 1,100 boys and girls received recordings, books and postcards made by family members inside prison, Shelton said. Last year, the program reached more than 1,500 children.

“When you look at the children of incarcerated parents, I don’t know if you’ll find a more vulnerable population,” said Shelton. “And we’ve found that low literacy and incarceration go hand in hand and that it’s generational. Children need to have their parents at home to read to them.”

Also for inmates’ children, Heartbound has put carts with books, games and coloring pads in visitation rooms throughout the state prison system.

“It’s so gratifying to me to walk into a visitation room and see the kids drawing pictures with crayons and playing games with their parents,” Shelton said.

This year’s art show at the Sloppy Floyd Building will be held during the week of Valentine’s Day. In the past, Nathan and Sandra Deal have helped choose the “best of show” winners. And it was Sandra Deal’s idea to display the works at the mansion during the holidays, Shelton said.

December 14, 2018 Atlanta - This replica of the Governor’s Mansion was made by an inmate at Walker State Prison in northwest Georgia and is one of many ornate replicas on display inside the mansion. They will later be sold with proceeds going to Heartbound Ministries, which supports Georgia’s corrections staff, its inmates and their families. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
December 14, 2018 Atlanta - This replica of the Governor’s Mansion was made by an inmate at Walker State Prison in northwest Georgia and is one of many ornate replicas on display inside the mansion. They will later be sold with proceeds going to Heartbound Ministries, which supports Georgia’s corrections staff, its inmates and their families. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

One year, inmates made replicas of courthouses. This year, they built castles.

“The inmates don’t check their talent at the door when they walk into prison,” Shelton said. “And it’s important for them to be doing something not only for themselves, but for the children.”

Many of this year’s displays came from Walker State Prison, which has it own art program. It just so happens that Turner, himself an artist, helped start that program during his prison stint.

“When you give people who are locked up the chance to make art, they’ll put their hearts into it,” Turner said. “And when their good work is recognized, it helps their self esteem.”

Pairing the sale of the inmates’ art with the Little Readers program makes it even better, said Turner, who was released from prison three years ago. While inside, he said, he was overjoyed to be able to send the book reading to his godson.

“We all were in prison because we’d been takers all of our life,” he said. “I gave back so I wouldn’t go back.”

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