Reflections on Reading in Prison 2017

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:

from clearances

Save the Date!

PRG is holding its annual Reading in Prison Day at the University of Roehampton, London SW15 on Friday, June 9th. There will be three major themes this year: ‘Putting the library at the heart of the prison’; ‘Reading and families’, and ‘Why read?’

We expect over 100 delegates: prison governors, librarians and volunteers, authors, ex-prisoners and representatives of education and literacy organisations. The event is free to all and includes lunch and refreshments, not least the famous PRG cake.

For further details, get in touch via email or Twitter.

Penguin Random House offer for Spring 2017

Do you organise a prison reading group?  If so, we’d like to invite you to have a look at this booklet (PDF), which contains summaries of 24 books published by the Penguin Random House family.

All of our groups are invited to choose one or two books from any Penguin Random House imprint as one of their monthly choices.  Simply email the title to the usual PRG address (find it on the Contact page on this website) by Wednesday 12th April, and the books will be sent to you early this summer.

PRG suggestions booklet

This offer includes any book published by the extended Penguin Random House family, including all books by Arrow, Jonathan Cape, Penguin Classics, Transworld, Vintage, Windmill and a whole realm of others.  The books in the booklet are merely our suggestions.  You can view the full list of imprints here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk/publishers/.

To work out if a book is published by the extended Penguin family, you can consult  book reviews or booksellers’ websites (such as Amazon and Waterstones).  These usually tell you the publisher, and you can find out if they’re part of Penguin Random House by following the link above.  However, if you have any doubts, please feel free to email us, and we’ll happily clear it up for you.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for their generosity!

HMP Thameside’s Autumn Literary Festival

Prison Reading Groups volunteer Maggie Gallagher reports on Thameside’s recent Literary Festival.
All photos appear courtesy of Neil Barclay.

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Author Clare Mackintosh, librarian Neil Barclay and PRG volunteer Maggie Gallagher

Not one for sitting around letting the grass grow under his feet, Neil Barclay, librarian at HMP Thameside, had no sooner finished organizing his library’s contribution to Black History Month in October than he was hyperactively off again with a new programme of author visits to round off the last three months of the year.

Many authors queued up to visit Thameside and share their thoughts, reveal their secrets and enlighten their audiences of prisoners, staff and volunteers. Among them were: Clare Mackintosh, ex-copper and author of I See You, her follow-up to blockbuster I Let You Go (a film version of which is currently under discussion in Hollywood); the fantastically popular crime writer Peter James (Love You Dead, 18 million copies sold); psychological thriller writer C L Taylor talking about her latest dark and twist-laden novel The Missing; and internet self-published sensation Mark Edwards with his chart-topping Follow You Home chiller. Another big name was Ann Cleeves, whose novel Cold Earth was discussed with the group. Cleeve has written over 30 books, many of which have been made into television programmes, notably the Vera series for ITV and Shetland for BBC.

Not all books were crime or thriller though. Two authors coincidentally featured Japan as a location for at least half of their books. The first was Jackie Copleton, who told a gripping tale partly set in the aftermath of the atom-bombing of Nagasaki and the second, Sarah Moss, writer of Signs for Lost Children, had the protagonist’s husband visit Japan as it opened up to western influences in the late nineteenth century, fall in love with the country, and almost not return. Her discussion of the experience of the western male visitor to Japan in those times was simply fascinating.

Each session generated enthusiastic audiences, floods of questions, engaging responses and lengthy queues at the end to get copies of books signed. Clearly author visits at the prison get top billing with the prisoners, and Neil intends to continue them over the coming year, making the library as ever the bustling, lively, beating heart of HMP Thameside.

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Wellcome Book Prize nominee Sarah Moss

Scrooge in the Scrubs

This report is from Emanuel De Silva, and first appeared in Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees, in February 2017

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Poster courtesy of Janet Rand

Another Christmas passed within these walls. If it was your first then don’t threat none. You know now, it goes as quick as it comes. Same shit different day. Let us brighten it up eh. Some of us were given the opportunity of creating an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol. Yes, a play in HMP Scrubs. Don’t be negative. It was good. The much acclaimed actor, Simon Callow – you may know him from Four Weddings and a Funeral – was here in the Scrubs, working with those of us involved in the production together with Philip Dundas, a writer and former BBC presenter. No one likes doing time but there can be opportunities, so make the days count, don’t count the days.

So why choose A Christmas Carol written by a Victorian author? Well, it was Christmas. But there is more to it than that. At our first session, Simon Callow explained why Charles Dickens wrote it and his social commitment to draw attention to the dreadful conditions of the poor in Victorian England.

Charles Dickens, I can hear some of you say “Who the blazes is he?” Well, he was the second eldest child of eight, born in February 1812. He was quite familiar with what we are all going through. As a child, he spent time in the infamous Marshalsea prison, where his father was imprisoned for debt. In those days if a man was sent to prison, his family went with him. Dickens’ younger siblings went into prison with his mother and at the age of 12 he was out on the streets; a pretty grim situation for the child that he was. He got a job in a boot blacking factory so that he could be near the prison where he could go and have meals with his family.

Dickens’ father later received an inheritance and he was released from prison, which enabled Dickens to obtain some education and later he worked as a political journalist and court reporter. However, his early experiences left a scar on him and he was haunted by the shame of his father’s sentence and much of his writing emphasizes the pitiful situation of the poor. His knowledge of the tedious and disorganised legal processes feature in many of his works. I am sure many of us have heard of some of his books which these days have been made into films – Oliver Twist, with the cheeky Artful Dodger and A Tale of Two Cities, one of sacrifice for friendship.

The cautionary tale that we were performing, is a damning statement on the love of money over community and compassion. Dickens was widely regarded as a literary colossus of his time. Although written over a hundred years ago, his stories are still relevant today.

So that brings us back to Simon Callow. What was his interest in Dickens and how come he ended up here with us lot? He has been a self-confessed Dickens fanatic ever since his Grandma gave him a copy of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers to read when he had chicken pox as a boy and, in his own words, “it performed the minor medical miracle of stopping me from scratching.” In his book, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World Simon tells us that:

“My relationship to Dickens is a little different to anyone else’s. I have over the years been Dickens in various manifestations, from reconstructions of the Public Readings on television, to being one of Dr Who’s helpers; I have also been involved in telling his life story, through the wonderful one-man play Peter Ackroyd wrote for me, The Mystery of Charles Dickens. Presently, I am involved in performing my solo version of A Christmas Carol. In order to do all of this, I have needed to find out what it was like to be him, and what it was like to be around him. I have immersed myself, on an almost daily basis, over a period of more than 15 years, in the minutiae of his life, above all seeking out personal reminiscences and his own utterances…my primary concern has always been to convey the flavour of one of the most remarkable men ever to walk the earth: vivacious, charismatic, compassionate, dark, dazzling, generous, destructive, profound, sentimental – human through and through, an inspiration and a bafflement…Playing Dickens, and performing his work, has been like standing in front of a blazing fire…”

The organizations Give a Book and Prison Reading Groups who run the monthly reading group in the Scrubs asked Simon if he would consider performing A Christmas Carol here for us. He came in, talked to the staff about what was possible and talked about how, as a result of his childhood experience, the first thing Dickens did on any visit to a town would be to visit its prison. Simon felt that it would be more interesting and more meaningful to put on a show with the men as he felt it would be a show that not only told Dickens’ story but would become something of theirs.

A big thank you, of course, to Simon and Philip who found time in their busy schedules to work with us – but a massive shout is also due to Officers Alan Gourley and Sean Coleman who struggled to overcome all the problems and craziness that happens here with regime changes and lack of staff to ensure that this production really did happen. Keep it real. Thanks a million, Alan, for having confidence in us. Thanks also to Governor Bradford for authorizing what must have been a big disruption on to the regime. We hope we did you all proud.

Book Clubs for Inmates

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PRG is pleased to announce an informal partnership with Book Clubs For Inmates, an initiative to establish and run reading groups in prisons in Canada. In 2013 PRG advised the Director Carol Finlay on getting started and BCFI now supports 26 book clubs in 17 prisons across seven Canadian provinces. We were pleased to welcome Carol to our recent Reading in Prison Day where she shared her international perspective and experience.

You can view all of our current partnerships here.

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Book Clubs for Inmates’ Director Carol Finlay speaking at Reading in Prison 2016

‘An inspiring and positive experience’: Reading in Prison 2016

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.

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From one co-founder to another: Jenny Hartley presents Sarah Turvey with flowers

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.

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Cathy Rentzenbrink, whose publishers, Picador, were kind enough to donate 20 copies of The Last Act of Love to PRG librarians and volunteers

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:

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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