December 20, 1999 12:00 PM

In a classroom at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Okla., Suzanne Edmondson, a literacy volunteer, sits at a wooden desk facing Pamela Denson, who’s serving 35 years for possession and distribution of cocaine. “Just use your regular voice,” Edmondson says reassuringly. “You’re going to do just fine.” Denson, 43, opens a copy of the children’s storybook Puppies Playing Hide and Seek and, as Edmondson presses the “On” button of her battered tape recorder, begins in a trembling voice: “Jason and Jesse, this is your grandma. I love you very much. I miss you. And I have a book I want to read to you.”

For the past 10 months, Edmondson, 54, housewife, mother and longtime fixture in nearby Muskogee, has been a primary force in Tales for the Rising Moon, a bedtime-story reading program at Eddie Warrior meant to help inmates maintain stronger relationships with their families. Encouraged by Edmondson, more than 130 of the 650 inmates have taped stories, which she then forwards to the children and grandchildren they seldom see. Mary Lou Martin, executive director of the nonprofit Operation Hope Prison Ministry, a sponsor of the program, notes that it is as important for the children as for the inmates. “Children who have a mother or father in prison are five times more likely to be incarcerated,” she explains, “This is a proactive program to reduce their rage at being abandoned.”

Edmondson herself speaks more intimately of the program’s benefits. “I feel my work is meaningful,” she says quietly, “because I’m connecting my mamas to their babies. And in some instances, I believe it does some healing.”

It is not only the inmates she is referring to. Nearly five years ago, Edmondson’s daughter Sarah, now 23, a privileged child of one of the state’s most prominent families, whose members include a governor, congressman and state attorney general, dropped LSD, watched the controversial 1994 film Natural Born Killers several times and, with then 17-year-old Benjamin Darras, went on a drug-fueled crime spree that left a Mississippi businessman dead and a Louisiana convenience-store clerk paralyzed.

Today, Sarah is serving a 35-year sentence for armed robbery and attempted second-degree murder at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel, 20 miles southeast of Baton Rouge. The Edmondsons, along with director Oliver Stone and Time Warner, parent company of Warner Bros., which distributed Natural Born Killers (and is the publisher of PEOPLE), are also being sued for civil damages by the family of store clerk Patsy Byers, who died of cancer in 1997.

Edmondson, with her husband, Jim, 54, a state district judge, receives the one 15-minute phone call each week allowed Sarah, and four times a year the couple make a 24-hour drive to St. Gabriel for prison visits. Of her daughter’s offense, says Edmondson, “My feelings of disbelief have never really gone away. It was a terrible, awful thing. But it was very important to me that good come out of this terrible crime.”

That’s how Edmondson came to volunteer at Eddie Warrior, where each Wednesday from 1 until 5 she can be found gently cajoling self-conscious readers. “Perfection is not the goal,” she tells one hesitant inmate. “You’re sitting on the bed, and I want you to think of the little ones in their jammies.” For Denson, an eighth-grade dropout who married at 14 and began using drugs after her divorce at 27, the program has been nothing short of life-changing. The mother of two adult sons, Denson had never seen the youngest of her six grandchildren, born after her incarceration. But when her son heard the tape that Denson sent, he brought her year-old grandson to prison so that she could meet the boy. “I was so emotional on the tape, crying and stuff,” says Denson. “My son realized that I needed to see my grandchildren. Now I don’t feel like they’re forgetting me.”

The same might be said of the Edmondson family. As a little girl, Sarah (her brother James, 29, is now a river patrolman for the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission) was “joyous, sweet, with lots of promise, talent, ability and heart,” recalls her father. But by high school, Sarah was using drugs heavily. She later spent some time in rehab and dropped out of college. Then, one spring night in 1995, Sarah arrived at the family home “exhausted,” Edmondson recalls. “We tried to feed her and have her rest.” Two months later came a knock on the door. “The police said, ‘Is Sarah home?’ and I said, ‘I’m not going to say anything else until my husband comes home.’ Jim came home, and things have never been the same.”

In the wake of Sarah’s arrest, Edmondson fell into a deep, 14-month depression. “She was just shell-shocked, so fragile and tiny,” recalls longtime friend Barbara Green, 64. “She didn’t go to the grocery store. She didn’t leave home.” But in time, Edmondson began to realize “just how unendurably wasteful it would be if I allowed [my daughter’s crime] to destroy my life, my marriage, my wonderful son.”

While today, from her prison cell, Sarah believes that “anything I do from now on will never undo the pain I’ve caused,” her mother insists that there is still the need to try. “I hope to live long enough to see my daughter come out of prison,” says Edmondson. “She’ll be 36. That’s very young, and you can still do a great deal of good.”

Susan Schindehette

Michelle McCalope in Muskogee

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