Coming Up for Air

What Happens Next at HMP Wandsworth

Blog written by David Kendall

The dads squeeze in. The library doesn’t have a lot of space but we manage a half circle of chairs, and wait for the rest of the men to come in from the wing. Some need a reminder.  Prison fogs the memory. Every day is every day, making remembering hard.

The dads’ eyes drift uncertainly over the books we’ve laid out in what we hope is a tempting way. Books for babies through to teens – we’ve fought to include the books we think would most appeal to the dads at HMP Wandsworth.  The project created by Prison Reading Groups (PRG) is simple – support dads in choosing and reading to their children.  

Some of the dads exclaim with delight at seeing the picture books they remember from their own childhood. The Hungry Caterpillar, The Tiger Who Came For Tea. None can remember their own parents reading to them and few show any knowledge of books beyond picture books.

“Not saying it didn’t happen but I don’t have a memory.”

A couple of the men remark how few memories they have before the age of eight or nine.

One of the delights in bringing books to those unfamiliar with them is how it allows everyone to see the books anew. The dads are helped in the choosing by PRG volunteers who enthuse and compare the books. The key is always how well the dad knows their children’s likes/dislikes and abilities.

How to choose for a teenager? Asks one dad, and another nods. “They’re on their phones, aren’t they?”

“No lie. I haven’t picked up a book since I’ve been in here. Meant to but I can’t seem to get round to it.

Orange Boy is suggested and both dads are both delighted with its opening pages. “This is just like what it was like. I can talk about this.” Now he is aglow with enthusiasm. “I’m going to read 100 pages and then I’ll challenge her to read a 100 and then we can talk about it on the phone.”

The hook of the project is free books and time with your family. A special two-hour family visit where you can read with your family, and where a guest artist will encourage the children to illustrate bookmarks.

The second day of workshops is held in an even smaller space but the men cluster in. The dads are intense, talking about books and how they read with their kids at home.

‘Every night.”


“I mean sometimes, I’ve got to go out…”

The dad trails off, and the group laugh, acknowledging what he means.

“Working. He means working.’

And being away due to work is a common refrain. Long hours mean they often miss out on precious family time. We talk about how the books can be read or talked about over the phone. They know about Storybook Dads but this gives them something that can fit with their day-to-day life.  “We got to give them their best. Hard from here though.”

And I share Knock Knock, a picture book by Daniel Beaty, an American writer whose father went to prison when he was a small boy.

‘Papa, come home, ‘cause there are things I don’t know. And when I get older I thought you could teach me.’

The room is silent and it feels as if everyone is holding their breath. The dad in the story has gone away, and his son is growing up without him.  The group silently will the dad to return, but that’s not how this story ends.

‘No longer will I be there to knock on your door, so you must learn to knock for yourself. KNOCK KNOCK down the doors I could not.’

“That was a Big Book,” one man exclaims when I finish. There is a sudden rush of breath from the group. The book has shaken them.

“That’s not us though. We’re all getting out.” The dads look around at each other. “Makes you think though, don’t it?”

The family visits are joyful. The children create bookmarks, eat with their families, laugh and run. They draw the animal that should never be in charge of books: dragons, sharks, snakes and all manner of dogs appear.

They love watching the illustrators bring their ideas to life and then, most importantly, the dads read the books they have chosen, the books they have practised and will give to their children.  The room is full of dads reading The Cat in Hat, and That’s Not My Monster with the babies.  Dinkin Dings Dad’s boy is on his lap showing his dad how good his own reading is.  A wall is quickly covered by the children’s pictures. At the end the dads thank us.

“It felt like coming up for air.”

David Kendall

April 2019

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