Earlier this month over 120 people came together at the University of Roehampton to celebrate reading in prison. The delegates included prison librarians and PRG volunteers, reading organisations, authors and publishers, and most important ex-prisoners with first-hand experience of what books can do behind bars.
The first panel of the day explored putting libraries at the heart of prison life and offered a snapshot view of some of the brilliant initiatives around: literary festivals; author visits; book groups for avid readers or those just getting stuck into reading: creative writing groups; debating societies; song-writing workshops, and clubs of all kinds from chess to scrabble.
Library access was a big issue and there were some good ideas about how to get prison managers and officers onside. Above all, speakers encouraged library staff to be ‘bloody, bold and resolute’ in promoting libraries as places where prisoners can discover the world – and themselves.
As every prisoner knows, family contact is crucial for prisoner wellbeing and that of children. The Reading and Families panel introduced a range of initiatives including FLiP, Family Literacy in Prison, a project which helps prisoners develop skills to make reading with their kids more fun for everyone.
One of the highlights of the day was the discussion of reading groups in action. PRG librarians and volunteers talked about what the groups provide: pleasurable conversation and debate; the chance to expand reading horizons, and the sense of connectedness with the wider world. In the words of one member:
‘When I read a book it gives me the chance to escape into another world. I love the reading group because it’s great to share that world with other people and learn about the journey they’ve been on whilst reading. It’s a relaxed and enjoyable setting where all opinions and views are welcome.’
Or as another member put it even more succinctly:
‘It’s the most grownup discussion I have in prison’.
The day ended with tea and the wonderful PRG cake, followed by a poetry workshop. Lots of people in and out of prison are wary of poetry: ‘I didn’t get it at school and I don’t get it now’. So we took the plunge to explore two poems and bring them to life together. One was from Seamus Heaney’s collection called Clearances, a sequence about his mother. No-one was quite sure about it at first but as we read and talked different views emerged: ‘It’s the memory of a rare moment of closeness with his mother’; ‘but potatoes like solder weeping off the iron – what’s that about?’; ‘is it a happy memory? why ‘cold comforts’?’ In the end we agreed that what the poem stirred more than anything were our own memories of childhood moments which the workshop let us share or keep private. See what you think: