Celebrating Prison Libraries

Give a Book was privileged recently to visit HMP Huntercombe for its Library Spring Revival.  We’d been delighted to send books to them to help refresh their stock but we don’t always get the opportunity to see– and hear– what we’ve helped with. That day the staff of the prison,  the librarian, library staff and the prisoners worked together to put on a fabulous display in their light airy library–it was a good space, you can tell at once, although we don’t know how to define it. HMP Huntercombe is a foreign national prison and prisoners read to us from books of their choosing in their own languages–we heard readings in Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Italian, Spanish, German and Mandarin–just a few of the 78 languages spoken there. A prisoner spoke movingly of how he came into prison unable to read or write and can now read to his child. The importance of this to him and to the staff who had supported his journey was a joy to see. Another prisoner made us a beautiful card that opens like book, containing the motto that means so much to us –“Working Together”.

The prison population of England and Wales stands at over 85,000. The Shannon Trust reports that 40% of prisoners have literacy skills so low that on release they are ineligible for more than 90% of jobs. The rate of reoffending drops from 90% to 10% if a person leaves prison and goes straight into the world of work.

Prison libraries can make a huge difference. Prison libraries and professional library staff have a mu

ch more flexible remit than those offered by formal education. Reading for pleasure, for example, is a powerful tool and can be an important push towards the uptake of more formal learning opportunities. Prison Reading Groups often meet in the library setting. “Today we have not been in a prison, just a library,” said one member of such a group, quoted in What Books can do Behind Bars. There are other wonderful and effective projects run by prison librarians including Storybook Dads that enhances and encourages family relationships and Reading Ahead from The Reading Agency (formerly the Six Book Challenge) that encourages adults to take up the challenge of literacy.

Outside agencies such as charities, together with libraries, prison staff, governors of course and, most of all, prisoners all can collaborate and, as the card says, work together.