Featured in Inside Time in November 2019
The report this month comes from HMP Bristol where librarian Sophia Dutton worked with some of the men to set up a cultural awareness reading group that would challenge assumptions and create good discussion.
To get things started one of the men went round the wing to get suggestions for good books to tackle. The titles he collected ranged from Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch to Stormzy’s Rise Up along with Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Mikey Walsh’s Gypsy Boy and Redemption, the autobiography of ex-LA gang leader Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams.
The group decided to kick off with Stormzy’s autobiography and it provoked plenty of lively debate. Where does inspiration come from, especially for those in prison trying to ‘chip away at doubt and negativity’? For some Stormzy is a role model for young black men, someone who makes anything seem possible. And indeed he has helped make it so by creating the Stormzy Scholarship to fund black students at Cambridge University. In his words:
‘There are so many young black kids all over the country who have the level of academic excellence to study at a university such as Cambridge – however we are still under-represented at leading universities. I hope this scholarship serves as a small reminder that if young black students wish to study at one of the best universities in the world, then the opportunity is yours for the taking – and if funding is one of the barriers, then we can work towards breaking that barrier down.’
But for others in the group, Stormzy’s image and music are more complicated. How do we read the cover of his album Gang Signs and Prayer: Stormzy in the middle of a black table, wearing all black and leaning on his fists, surrounded by figures in balaclavas, including a young child?
‘And what do you think when you hear that line “kick up the yout”?’
At every meeting conversation moves freely between the chosen book and individual experience. For example, in the discussion of Mikey Walsh’s Gypsy Boy, Romany members were able to provide context and deeper understanding for others through some of their own life stories. And overall the group provides a safe space where members can explore the effects of prison, in particular the ways in which it forces people ‘to wear a mask’ to protect themselves.
But as one member put it, ‘the mask can lead to a loss of identity, to not knowing who you are anymore’. This is exactly the danger explored by the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem ‘We Wear the Mask’ written well over 100 years ago:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask…
Reading confidence and experience in the group vary but members are alert to this and go out of their way to support each other. As one man put it: ‘it’s unlike anything else in prison, an opportunity to relax in the library and talk about things you would never normally discuss on the wing.
‘the book is the springboard that lifts everyone out of the prison environment for that one meeting’
HMP Bristol is part of the Prison Reading Groups (PRG) network, which helps set up, fund and support reading groups in more than 45 prisons nationwide. In 2018 we provided over 3000 books. If your prison doesn’t have a reading group, encourage your librarian to look at the Prison Reading Groups website: www.prisonreadinggroups.org.uk.