Alex Wheatle

November 2018 Reading Group Round-Up

PRG’s Reading in Prison Day 2018

Over 100 people gathered at the University of Roehampton in early September to celebrate and explore what books can do behind bars.  The event was the sixth Reading in Prison Day organised by Prison Reading Groups (PRG) and this year co-hosted with our new parent charity Give a Book.

Nick Hardwick

Nick Hardwick, former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons opened the day with ‘Why reading matters’. It was a powerful and energising talk about the vital role of books and prison libraries and it set the tone for the rest of the day. He began with an insistence that ‘prisons simply could not function without libraries’ and called them ‘oases of calm’ in the midst of increasing violence and dysfunction. Nick stressed the power of books to connect prisoners: with one another, with family and with themselves. And he boldly celebrated the pleasure of reading – for prisoners as much as for those outside.

The final image in his presentation was of a cell – grotty and chaotic but with a carefully ordered stack of books on the table. Nick’s comment: ‘Prison is grim but this prisoner found his escape’.

The first panel session was called ‘Thinking Big’ and included presentations of ambitious initiatives like the prison/university learning partnerships that bring students and prisoners together inside. Also projects like Leicester’s ‘Space is the Place’ that involved the whole prison as well as outside organisations including the National Space Agency.

Poetry seems to be getting popular with PRG groups so we ended the morning with an interactive workshop run by a PRG volunteer. The poem was Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Skylight’, not an easy read at first but Cathy got us all involved in exploring and enjoying it.

The Skylight
Seamus Heaney
You were the one for skylights, I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect, I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch,
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.
But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open,
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

One of the highpoints of the day was an electrifying talk by Alex Wheatle, the most read Black British author in the UK. He writes for both teenagers and adults and his titles include Brixton Rock and The Dirty South. He talked about his experience of prison and the power of books inside. For him the discovery came after a knockdown fight with his Rastafarian cellmate. After the older Rasta man beat him up, he told Alex ‘Boy, it’s time to educate yourself’. He took Alex to the library next day and led him to CLR James’s The Black Jacobins, a book about black revolutionaries and the creation of Haiti in the 1790s. For Alex it was a revelation – ‘I gobbled it up and from then on it was a hunger and a craving for books’.

Alex Wheatle
Alex Wheatle

The last session of the day concentrated on family reading projects run by PRG and Give a Book, including books and book bags for Family Days and workshops to help prisoners feel more confident about reading and enjoying books with their children.

The most powerful talks came from former and serving prisoners. Jonathan spoke of his experience on Safeground’s Fathers Inside course and how it helped him forge a new relationship with his 10-year old daughter. They now read and talk about shared books, ‘it’s Holes at the minute’. Alan Crickmore’s presentation of Storybook Dads and Mums left us in no doubt about the power of books to bond families in prison.

The day ended with drinks, the famous PRG cake and a lot of food for thought.

Featured in Inside Time in November 2018

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