Featured in Inside Time in January 2020
Prison Reading Groups (PRG) celebrated our 20th birthday this year. We began in 1999 with reading groups in two prisons; today we support 50 groups in more than 40 prisons nationwide.
We were also delighted to be awarded one of the 2019 Longford Trust prizes for Outstanding Contribution to Prison Reform – a great birthday present! In her acceptance speech, PRG director Sarah Turvey commended both librarians and volunteers:
‘Our work relies on the commitment and energy of the prison librarians who run so many of the projects that bring confidence and ambition to prisoners and help make prisons more socialised and civilised places. Our volunteers are extraordinary. They bring in the outside world and an infectious delight in books, reading and other people.’
Her highest praise went to the prisoner members of our groups:
‘Above all, this award belongs to our members. Everyone here this evening and everyone listening live through National Prison Radio knows how daunting prison can be. Joining a reading group can feel very risky, especially for an inexperienced reader who may never have read a book before. But it can also be a first step towards lasting change.’
The principles of PRG are simple: groups are voluntary and informal – no certificates, no tests and no right or wrong answers. The emphasis above all is on the pleasure of reading and getting together to talk about books. Becoming a reader is about choice so the groups themselves choose what they read. Our funding means that members receive new copies which are theirs to keep or pass on to others on the wing or to family outside.
‘It’s the most grownup discussion I have in prison’
The books chosen are varied and ambitious. A few recent choices and comments from different groups give a good sense of this variety and the lively conversations the books provoke.
Tom Rob Smith, Child 44:
Stalinist Russia and a serial child-killer
‘Glad I opened myself up to something I wouldn’t normally read’
‘Russia under Stalin, just like in here: you can’t challenge authority, they’re never in the wrong. When I leave I’m going to blow the lid off’
Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn:
Chosen by a men’s group who wanted something from a woman’s point of view ‘we don’t get much of that in here’
‘I loved the way the whole book zoned in on Mary’s feelings’
‘You could really feel that squelchy bog-land on the moor’
‘I was watching football but reading it at the same time. That’s how good it was’
George Orwell, 1984:
Orwell’s classic dystopian novel that gave us so many iconic phrases: Big Brother, Room 101, the Ministry of Truth, the Two-Minute Hate
‘It’s not exactly a laugh’
‘I thought it was brilliant but I had to push myself through. A great book but hard reading’
‘The first time I read it was down the block for something that wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t believe how it captured what I was thinking and feeling’
Christy Lefteri, The Beekeeper of Aleppo:
refugees rebuilding their lives after fleeing Syria
‘We’re all aware of the situation in Syria but reading it in this novel made it all the more powerful’
‘When the young boy asked ‘Are we going to drown’, I thought about how I would answer my own son’
I’ve read 10 books now in this reading group and this is the one with the greatest impact for me’
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
‘Interesting for me, I’m from Poland and had never heard of this story’
‘It’s about second chances, we all know about that in here. I love it at the end when Scrooge realises he can start again and begins jigging around like a lunatic’
If your prison doesn’t have a reading group, encourage your librarian to look at the Prison Reading Groups website: www.prisonreadinggroups.org.uk.