HMP Grendon’s annual Six Book Challenge event celebrated reading and the benefits it brings. It paid tribute to the well over 100 prisoners who had completed The Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge, as well as those in other reading initiatives such as Storybook Dads, Prison Reading Groups, and Turning Pages.

The audience heard from a prisoner who had been struggling to read when he came to Grendon but had managed to complete the Challenge.

‘The Six Book Challenge inspired me to read more. It also encouraged me to search for books that I would like to read. I know that if I hadn’t taken up the challenge I wouldn’t be reading so many books now.’

The guest speaker for the event was former life prisoner and Guardian columnist, Erwin James. Governor Jamie Bennett, who introduced the event, said that Erwin’s book, A Life Inside was one of the two most important books on prison he’d read, the other being Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man

David Kendall from The Reading Agency interviewed Erwin about his life, writing, and his passion for reading. The silence from the audience was tangible deepening as Erwin spoke about his 20 years in prison and his passionate belief in a person’s ability to change. The questions from the audience were many and varied and stretched to the limit the amount of time available but staff didn’t hurry anyone, they knew how rapt the audience were.

At the end Erwin gave out certificates, and the mini-dictionaries from Give A Book, to all Six Book Challenge (will be renamed Reading Ahead from September) completers. Afterwards, in the car park, he was asked what he had made of the event.

Erwin James in HMP Grendon carpark

‘I went in there not really sure what to expect…I came out remembering a lot of the negative stuff I experienced in prisons, and thinking gosh this [the Six Book Challenge] is something that all prisons should be embracing. Getting prisoners to lower their defences. That what I really saw tonight. Prisoners lowering their defences, opening up to each other, sharing with each other, encouraging each other. You don’t normally get that in prison, where prisoners are actually lifting each other up, usually they’re pushing each other down. And here we had a situation where prisoners were celebrating achievement among their peers. Sometimes you achieve something in prison and people will look at you: “Who does he think he is?” They don’t like tall poppies in prison but here we had a whole room full of tall poppies and everybody felt good about that.’

Note: HMP Grendon is the only prison in England and Wales run entirely on therapeutic lines.