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. Image courtesy of enotes.com

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