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Prison reading groups grow thanks to AHRC funding

Three years ago the University of Roehampton ran four reading groups in a handful of prisons. Now thanks to an AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship there are 32 reading groups in 22 prisons from Yorkshire to Bristol and the Isle of Wight.

The project started 12 years ago in the research Professor Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey from the university’s Department of English and Creative Writing conducted into reading groups in the UK, which led to the publication of The Reading Groups Book. The research focused on questions such as who joins groups and why, what they read together, and what they enjoy about it. Research highlighted the benefits of belonging to a reading community, including the commitment to exploring the power of books through discussion and debate, a safe space for sharing personal responses, and a sense of connectedness to a wider culture.

In the course of the research it became clear that reading groups could be especially beneficial for prisoners. Professor Hartley mentioned reading groups to a prison chaplain and from this small conversation the project was born as she and Sarah Turvey began running reading groups in prisons.

Successful in a bid for an AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship, the University teamed up with the Prisoners’ Education Trust which carries out formal distance learning such as Open University courses. Prison reading groups are informal learning with no qualifications to work for nor targets to reach - just a commitment to read a book and turn up for meetings. But the groups can be a bridge into education and training courses leading to formal qualifications.

Commented Professor Hartley: “It’s difficult to measure precisely what difference prison reading groups make but they are certainly part of rehabilitation. We have accumulated a lot of case study evidence that illustrates how much reading has changed prisoners’ outlook, fiction especially. Novels are important because a lot of men don’t read fiction. Reading novels and autobiographies gets you right inside someone else’s head so develops empathy, something many offenders lack.

“For example one book, The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, a memoir of building the Burma railway in the Second World War, really got a prisoner thinking. He thought it was just another war memoir and being quite a reader had read many. But this one made him think about guilt and responsibility and how long it takes someone to get over something.”

Another member sums up the feelings of many: “For one hour a month the walls of my confinement crumble to dust and I feel respected. Not just by fellow inmates, but by citizens from the wider community, members of the society into which I'll one day be released - by the two women who run the group, and by the visitors they invite. For one hour a month my opinion is valid, I am listened to and others care what I say. In the book group, everyone is given a voice, all have an equal say. For one hour a month I am allowed to be the individual I used to be and not defined by my crime.”

When the University applied for funding the intention was to extend the project from four prison reading groups to ten. But such was the interest there are now three times that many thanks to the AHRC grant and enthusiasm of prison librarians and volunteers who run groups. The funding has been used to buy books and provide time for the project to recruit, train and support volunteers who also gain a great deal.

For a prison reading group is unlike any other. All those involved report that the diversity of views, backgrounds, experience and knowledge are fascinating and absorbing. The volunteers are passionate and committed to their groups. Some read aloud to members and encourage them to read aloud too. For many, it’s the first time anyone has ever read to them.

“We have evaluated the benefits for prisoners but also for volunteers. Our evaluator is another lecturer at the University, an expert in volunteering. He immediately latched onto what they get out of it. They have gained enormously useful experience,” added Professor Hartley.

Katie Gonzalez-Bell is a volunteer who runs two reading groups at Holloway, a women’s prison in north London. She said: “I have a real passion for literature and reading and sharing this with people who have very different opinions is really exciting.

“I’ve been in reading groups before but they felt a bit limiting as I was with people just like me so tended to have similar views. The prison reading groups at Holloway are far more diverse and I get a lot from them. I’m not there to be top down to tell them what to think or just give my views. Crucially I am there to receive views too.”

Sarah Turvey commented: “After doing some research into prison reading groups we soon realised there was a huge appetite for them. Word of mouth went into action and we received lots of inquiries from prison librarians and people in education departments who had heard about what we were doing and were interested in setting up groups. We wanted to expand but had taken it as far as we could on our own. We needed time to train volunteers and funds to support groups, mainly with book buying. Which is why we were delighted to get funding from the Knowledge Transfer Fellowship as this is precisely what we wanted to do - transfer the benefits of our research from the University to organisations outside.”

Being able to offer prisoners a choice of books is one reason the project has been such a success, commented Arif Khan, librarian at High Down Prison: “We had a small group before the project but it could take a while for inter-loan library books to arrive. This funding liberated us and meant prisoners could be offered a genuine choice, same as for other reading groups. 

“It’s also great for me as I’ve read books I wouldn’t have dreamt of reading for example, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. I had one member in my group who would only ever read fantasy novels and science fiction. Then one day he said he suggested The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. These groups always surprise and challenge you. I think that’s why people love being part of them.”

All the groups are different. Some meet every week, some once a month. Most prisoners keep the books after they’ve read them. Sometimes they pass them onto family members:  they can act as an ice-breaker during a visit or offer a neutral subject to write home about.

Writer visits are sought and offered wherever possible. Author Jake Arnott, who wrote The Long Firm and five other novels, said he particularly enjoys visiting prisoner reading groups. “They ask much more direct questions than other groups and I love engaging with them,” he said.

What most volunteers, librarians and facilitators agree on is that there seems to be stronger disagreement in prison reading groups than other groups. “If you all like a book, there’s not much to say about it,” adds Arif Khan. “Fortunately, that rarely happens in our group!”

As might be expected, crime novels are popular in prison but then it’s also the most popular genre outside. Commented Russ Litten, Writer in Residence at Everthorpe: “The men in my group leap on something they think is inaccurate. For example, while they enjoyed Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd, they said much of it couldn’t possibly happen and then explained why!”

Some groups have asked for classics such as Wuthering Heights with widely differing results; some loved it, others hated it. “Developing critical skills and gaining confidence to express views are a big part of belonging to a prison reading group. It’s very empowering for prisoners to be asked their opinion and to realise it’s of equal value to everyone else’s. It may sound a small thing but to them it’s hugely valuable,” said Sarah Turvey.

Groups meet at variable times to accommodate other commitments prisoners have such as education or work. Wandsworth’s group is able to meet in the evening thanks to the commitment of librarian Niamh Fahey who takes charge of all the considerable organisation needed to make a group work in prison: ongoing recruitment, unlock lists, liaison with officers, prisoner escort.

The Wandsworth group recently discussed To Kill a Mockingbird which some of the men had done at school. But this gave them a different perspective and a different experience, which is what the reading groups aim for. Professor Hartley comments: “A lot of prisoners had unsuccessful encounters with education in the past. We want to show reading is a pleasure, not a chore. Some members have told us they feel intimidated by bookshops and libraries. But after attending one of our groups, one man said he was going to find his nearest reading group as  soon as he got out. A prisoner at Wandsworth said he’d never read a novel in his life. Then he read The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx and identified with the protagonist’s life experiences. He got it. He got what reading novels is about, that it can be transformative.”

As well as empathy, belonging to a reading group has helped members foster independence and employability skills, especially “soft” skills employers frequently demand: social skills, negotiation, listening, facilitating and debate. Groups also meet the criteria of the prison inspectorate which looks for “purposeful activity” among prisoners. A way of using time inside rather than “just sleeping through their sentence” as HMIP Nick Hardwick put it.

With volunteers, visitors and authors going into prison reading groups, the effecthas spread way beyond prisons, charities and education establishments into the wider community. A place where most prisoners will eventually return. And while many variables affect reoffending rates, there is growing evidence that membership of a prison reading group has provided a strong incentive for some offenders to choose a different path upon release.

Image courtesy of Matthew Meadows.

Feature by Laura Marcus.

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