Prison Reading Groups hosted our annual Reading in Prison event on Friday June 17th at the University of Roehampton. The day brought together PRG librarians and volunteers alongside a range of other reading organisations working in prisons. The aim was to celebrate the work we all do and explore news ways to join up our initiatives.
The day kicked off with coffee and pastries served by the wonderful hosting team from the University’s conferencing department, and with reading group facilitators from as far afield as the Isle of Wight and Kirkham, Lancs mingling with representatives from publishing houses who had travelled similar distances to meet them. We welcomed GateHouse, ReadZone, Bloomsbury, Penguin Random House, Picador and Ransom Books this year, and were grateful for generous supplies of sample copies, which no doubt will inspire the orders we receive from groups in the coming months.
PRG’s Director Sarah Turvey welcomed delegates and introduced the first session of the day, chaired by Victoria Gray, trustee of Give a Book.
Victoria introduced a panel of librarians, library assistants and volunteers, who began the day by sharing what they’d been up to over the past year. It also featured Steve Whitmore, a Special Constable with the Metropolitan Police Service, who spoke on the promising groundwork laid by Give a Book’s nascent Books in the Nick initiative.
Topics ranged from working with emergent readers to managing group dynamics and supporting reading at Family Days. One standout session was the contribution from two former prisoners and reading group members from HMP Thameside. Both paid fulsome tribute to the librarian Neil Barclay, and to the PRG reading groups at the prison, described by one of the men as fostering ‘respect, community and a place where you are given a voice’.
Another highlight was Cathy Rentzenbrink whose memoir The Last Act of Love, was short-listed for the Wellcome Prize earlier this year. Cathy is also a former project director of Quick Reads and has extensive experience of working with prisoner readers. Her talk was both a moving account of a family tragedy and a powerful analysis of how literacy and education can tackle the exclusion and alienation experienced by many prisoners.
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC opened the afternoon’s sessions with a keynote address. She talked about the importance of books, and their part in helping prisoners create a new sense of self.
The final session was an exploration of the possibilities of poetry introduced by Rachel Billington, poetry editor of Inside Time. Facilitators at Send, Wormwood Scrubs and Thameside talked about using poetry in their groups and the session ended with a mini workshop on how to navigate a challenging poem, facilitated by Cathy Wells-Cole, a volunteer at HMP Wandsworth and HMP High Down.
The afternoon closed with a drinks reception, and the famous PRG cake:
I have returned to work in a prison library with renewed determination to get through whatever red tape there is, in order to get books to prisoners.
Librarian, HMP Foston Hall