Give a Book was delighted to go to an event at this year’s Wimbledon Book Fest where Sarah Turvey, co-founder, with Prof Jenny Hartley, of our partner organization Prison Reading Groups (PRG), was in conversation with Ann Walmsley, author of The Prison Book Club. Since it started in 2000 PRG now runs 45 prison reading groups across 35 prisons, ranging from Full Sutton in Yorkshire to Albany on the Isle of Wight. For anyone wishing to know more about the scope and depth of their work we urge you to read their admirable report What Books Can Do Behind Bars.
PRG’s reputation has grown internationally and recently they advised Dr Carol Finlay on setting up groups in prisons in Canada. Carol Finlay then approached her friend, author Ann Walmsley, to advise on book selection.
It was a personal as well as professional journey for Ann Walmsley. Left traumatized by a brutal mugging, it was a big step for her to go into prisons and read with men who potentially could have been her attackers. But she did so, and the result is this fascinating and engaging book, which gives– frequently verbatim– accounts of prisoners’ reactions to the great books they read as well as taking us on Ann’s own journey, through the book club, to recovery.
The format of meetings was much like a book club would be on the outside. Meetings were held monthly in the chapel, away from security cameras and staff—it was important that they did not feel like a class where many prisoners would have had experience of exclusion and failure. It was important also to reassure the guys that this would be a safe place to be where they could speak freely without fear of judgment. Ann quotes a prisoner as saying that the book club changed his life, making for confidence and allowing him to feel—perhaps for the first time– not lesser than, but equal to. “We all read a book but we just get different stuff out of it,” said another prisoner. The book is full of vignettes and vivid discussion about the many books they read.
The benefits of reading groups in prison are far-reaching. Prisoners are given a sense of connectedness to the outside world through reading and also hugely appreciate an outsider coming in to spend time with them just reading.
“Reading in prisons gives inmates a chance to run with a book club crowd when they get out, rather than their old crime crowd. You won’t find closer readers. And it’s a humanizing experience to get lost in good literature.”- Ann Walmsley, author of The Prison Book Club.
A number of publishers have kindly donated books mentioned in The Prison Book Club to us for Prison Reading Groups—so a huge thank you to OneWorld for organizing this and to 4th Estate, Vintage, Bloomsbury, Atlantic, Virago, and Penguin for their generosity.