In conversation with Prison Reading Groups

In conversation with Prison Reading Groups

Give a Book was pleased to talk to Prison Reading Group founders Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey about their work.

What made them start? They were colleagues at the University of Roehampton and in Jenny Hartley’s 2001 The Reading Groups Book  contributed to by Sarah, there was a survey of UK reading groups. Jenny’s brother-in-law was a prison chaplain and they wondered if anyone had set up reading groups in prison before. They investigated but the trail came to a dead end. Jenny started a group in HMP Coldingley– it took place in the chapel with the help of the librarian. There’d  been 6 months of letters and emails and she managed to get some money for books. Then Sarah started one in HMP Bullingdon. The group in Coldingley stopped and started again under a new librarian. Then they started a group at HMP Send. HMP Wandsworth followed. The groups were well supported by librarians. Jenny & Sarah found little pots of money for individual groups, the Millenium Fund supported one at Bullingdon. At Wandsworth, financed by the borough, they were able to start a 2003 group in the Vulnerable Persons’ Unit. The key to a successful group is to have someone on the inside and to have the support of the librarian. They have started staff groups too but these are practically difficult because of shifts so it’s more often the administrative staff coming rather than uniform. But at Grendon there are 6 Reading Groups across 2 sites which includes a staff group to which the governor comes.

The volunteer facilitators are all sorts—retired chief executives, teachers and other professionals, artists, graduates, sometimes from Roehampton where ST & JH are based, sometimes volunteers come through the librarians and sometimes there are writers in residence at the prisons. PRG always give the volunteers their head to allow them to make it work in their own way– the groups are flexible. JH & ST both said that the inventiveness and commitment of the volunteers is one of the great pleasures of doing this. The training is to come to a group and then volunteers have responsibility and agency.

How do they work? At the start, the facilitator, Sarah, Jenny or a volunteer, takes in a bag of books—chosen from recent paperbacks, films, a classic, say, Of Mice and Men or To Kill a Mockingbird. As the group gets going they become more adventurous. The main principle for members is choice—in a place where there is not much opportunity for choice the reading group groups always choose their next book- sometimes by vote, or by taking it in turn or general consensus. “Part of what being a reader is about taking a punt on a book” PRG said. Choice gives ownership of the process.

ST was once really concerned about one choice Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor but was surprised at the critical distance of the group. “The experience taught me not to interfere,” she told us.

Is there a most popular book? Members have often had bruising experiences at school so they often like to read books they might have read there such as Animal Farm—it’s good to come back to them. They have nothing to lose by starting: they come to one group and see all the different benefits—discussion, listening, negotiating….

A reading group does so many things, it helps form an alternative sense of self, one that is socialised and not alienated. A member can say ‘I’m a reader’, can talk about it to others and feel connected. This applies to their families and to wider culture as well.

Anecdotally, PRG confirms that groups help people develop confidence perhaps to find an education that they might’ve dropped out of. They also plug gaps for the higher level learners and at the other end of the reading scale with emergent readers,who might be taking up  Turning Pages , a group can help stamina and confidence.

PRGs help someone to open the door, for them and for us.

In an ideal world PRGs would be as embedded in the prison as AA and be one of its services. Everyone should be aware of it, have it on the landscape of the uniform staff as well as the librarian. Staff shortages of course make it all the more difficult.

What’s the best experience? It’s always unpredictable, PRG says. You never know what you’re going to get or if anyone will turn up, you never know how a group will respond, they endlessly wrong foot you. Reading Rebecca, once, ST doubted it would fly but then a member said “That girl, I was with her all the way.” The surprise was wonderful. “There is a determination to find something in it which always brings me up short.”

Favourite books? It’s always the one you’ve just read. Sarah mightily enjoyed the new Anne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread. Jenny has re-read Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey and hadn’t realised just how funny it was.

You can read the report on their work here. Give a Book is delighted to support PRG, who now run 45 prison reading groups across 35 prisons, ranging from Full Sutton in Yorkshire to Albany on the Isle of Wight.


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