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A Bedtime Tale, from Jail

updated 05/21/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit at the New Mexico Penitentiary in Santa Fe, inmate Norman Whatley leaned intently into a recording machine and spoke. This was no confession, no statement fingering an accomplice. Instead, Whatley was reading four children's books—Moon Rope, Corduroy, The Bossy Gallito (rooster) and Boing!

A few days later, his wife, Mary Ann, and his stepchildren—two sons and a daughter—gathered around the CD player in their Albuquerque mobile home and listened. They opened each book in turn, following the text, smiling at the illustrations. At the end, Whatley bid good night to his audience—Gabriel, 14, Marisol, 10, and Jonathan, 5—and told them, "I love you. I miss you. Be sure to take care of Mom."

And so, even if just for a few minutes, the Whatley family was together at home, something physically impossible as Whatley, 41, serves his ninth year behind bars. "Norm can't be with us on a day-to-day basis," says Mary Ann, 33, who works caring for an elderly woman by day and by night manages four state homes for the mentally retarded, "but he's part of our lives with his voice." When little Jonathan goes off to child care, he carries the books his stepfather sends him, and, for his sister Marisol, the recordings are a harbinger of a happier future. "Pretty soon," she says, "he'll be reading to us at home."

The Whatleys are participating in a program called Fathers as Readers (FAR), designed to foster a closer bond between inmates and their children and to ease the transition when they take off their orange uniforms and go home—less strangers than they might otherwise be. In the four minimum-security prisons in New Mexico that participate in the program, 236 fathers have sent out monthly recordings of 2,500 books to 627 children since the program began in 2003. (About a half dozen other states have similar programs.) For Whatley—who expects to be paroled this summer—it's a chance to redeem his past and build his future with his stepchildren. The readings "mean a great deal to the kids," he says. "Hearing me gives them a sense of my presence. It shows them that I'm a part of their lives, that I care."

A truck driver, he'd never been in any serious trouble before that fateful night in August 1998. He went to a house he'd once lived in to retrieve his car—only to find that the windshield had been smashed in with a large rock. Assuming the culprit was an acquaintance inside the house, Whatley angrily hurled the rock through the living room window, striking the man in the head, and kicked in the front door. "I'd been drinking," he admits. "I didn't think."

He copped a plea: an 18-year sentence for attempted murder, burglary and intimidation. Whatley was in his fifth year when he received a letter from Mary Ann Baca. Did he remember her? she asked. Definitely. Years earlier he'd been a driver at her father's recycling plant; she was a teenager who helped out in the office. "We didn't really go out because I was so young," she recalls. "For me it was more like a puppy love thing."

Mary Ann had gone on to have a relationship that produced Gabriel, Marisol and Jonathan. In 2003 she broke it off and soon afterward learned Whatley was behind bars. After they exchanged letters and photos, she and her kids finally met him at Roswell state prison in April 2004. They began to visit regularly, always with the children in tow, and on Sept. 3, 2005 they married in the Roswell prison chapel.

A year later Whatley was transferred to the minimum security facility at Santa Fe, an hour's drive from Albuquerque. There he began recording the books as part of a larger prisoner-education initiative—Success for Offenders after Release (SOAR)—that has reduced recidivism for participants from 70 percent down to 28 percent, according to Melody Whitehead, the program's coordinator. The reading program, in particular, "gives the men a chance to do something for their kids," Whitehead says. "It encourages the kids at home to read—and helps the fathers improve their reading skills, which is important when they are out and looking for jobs."

Now the family prepares for the day Norman Whatley walks through the door. Of course, thanks to the magic of literature and technology, he has been there in spirit. But Marisol is already looking forward to her stepdad's first in-person reading—and has some other plans as well: "I want him to be my softball coach."

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