Starting a reading group in prison

‘It’s the most grown-up discussion I have in prison.’

These guidelines are for staff and volunteers who are keen to get a group going in the library or on a wing.

Reading is a great way to spend time. Whether you’re looking for a thriller to keep you guessing, fantasy to transport you to another dimension or non-fiction with fascinating facts, there are books for everyone – books to move and challenge you, to expand your imagination, to make you think.

Reading groups are a brilliant way to explore and share your ideas and feelings about a book. They encourage great conversation that often goes in unexpected directions. And listening to other people’s views can open up a book even more.

A reading group can also help kickstart the reading habit and develop important skills: speaking and listening, debating ideas, and feeling connected to other people and the world outside.

If you’re interested in setting up a group in your prison, here are some suggestions to get you started…

Before you start

  • Talk to other interested people about what kind of group you want – do you want to meet and discuss a book that everyone has agreed on and read in advance? Or do you want to read aloud in the session – short stories or poems or articles? Or a mixture of the two?
  • How often do you want to meet? Monthly is probably best if the group is reading the book in advance; if it’s read aloud, fortnightly can work well
  • Do you have a quiet space in the library or a room on the wing where meetings can take place?
  • If possible, it’s best to meet at a set time eg the first Weds of the month from 2.30 – 4.00pm

Recruiting Members

  • Start with a poster. PRG has a template one that you can adapt or you can design your own
  • Word of mouth is key – talk to people who might be interested and ask them to spread the word. Brief your library orderlies and wing reps so they can approach likely members
  • 8 – 10 members is a good target number but you may want a waiting list as well so people who are released or transferred can be replaced quickly

The first meeting

The first meeting is a great time for everyone to talk about what they already enjoy reading and what they want from the group. Often it’s the chance to get out of the comfort zone and discover new authors and titles. It may also be a spur to building reading stamina and confidence.


  • Each person talks about the last thing they read – including a newspaper or magazine or even a notice on the wing – and something interesting they got out of it (content, layout, a new word)
  • Word association game: start with a word or phrase eg ‘sci fi’, ‘fantasy’, ‘horror’, ‘romance’ etc and see where it takes you and how views differ – film v book? why is fantasy such a marmite genre? do men read romantic novels?
  • Take in some photocopied material so you get stuck into reading and book talk from the start. Perhaps a very short story or a short poem or a thought experiment. There are plenty of all of these in BOOKSTUFF, our fortnightly handout of book tidbits for libraries and the wings. All 79 can be requested through Mima at

Decide on a few ground rules from the start eg:

  • Everyone does their best to read the book in advance (unless the group is read-aloud) so they can take part in the discussion and have something to say
  • Everyone gets the chance to speak
  • One person at a time, no interrupting and no side-conversations
  • Disagreement is the lifeblood of a good group but make sure everyone’s views are listened to and respected

But don’t forget that too many rules can be a turn-off; the point of the group is for everyone to enjoy reading and talking about books

What do you want to read?

Discuss this in the group so everyone gets a sense of other people’s reading interests and experience. Most groups aim to combine familiar genres with trying new authors and reading out of their comfort zone.

Do some research

If the group wants to read the same book in advance

  • Displays in the library will have a good range of books: new and classic, ones with film tie-ins or media hype, and ones from different genres: fantasy, thrillers, sci fi, biography, history, popular science
  • Check out reviews in newspapers including Inside Time; listen out for the National Prison Radio book club every night and book programmes and podcasts on tv and radio – Between the Covers, Open Book, A Good Read, Radio 4 Book Club etc
  • It may help for the staff member or volunteer to bring along 6-8 single copies of varied titles that look interesting

Choosing what to read

Becoming a reader is about choice and it’s important that the group decides what to read, whether through a system of nominations and a vote or more informal suggestions and consensus. Whatever method you choose, make sure everyone has a say.

At each meeting make sure you allow time at the end to discuss and agree your next read. Send these as soon as possible to Mima at with details of the title, author, number of (paperback) copies needed, and the name and exact address of where the books should be sent.

To help groups choose, PRG produces Book Talk, a monthly resource on our website that suggests two titles, with a brief description and discussion questions that can be downloaded and printed.

At the first meeting you’ll need to choose two titles. When you receive them, one of the titles needs to be handed out individually to members so they have time to read it before the second meeting. At that meeting, you will need to hand out the second title (for discussion at meeting #3) AND choose the title for meeting #4 (to be handed out at meeting #3) etc Please always let Mima know your choices as soon as possible so there’s plenty of time for the books to get there.

Funding from Prison Reading Groups (PRG) means that groups receive new copies of the chosen books and can keep them or pass them on to others after the meeting.

What to talk about

  • It’s a good idea to start the meeting with a quick response to the book by each member in turn so that everyone’s voice is heard from the beginning; arranging the chairs in a circle creates a good atmosphere and makes conversation easier
  • Some groups use ice-breaker questions to get things started: the character you most liked/disliked and why; the best single moment in the book; how satisfying was the ending; a short passage you would choose to give a flavour of the book to someone who hadn’t read it
  • Once discussion gets underway, enjoy it!


This is very important for PRG’s reporting to funders and for making new funding applications so we ask for brief feedback from each session. It doesn’t have to be long or detailed, just something to give the flavour of the meeting – whether people liked the book or didn’t and why, any interesting comments / differences of view. PRG has a standard feedback form to make this easier.

It may take time for the group to get going and there may be a few hurdles and complications. But don’t give up: there’s nothing like the challenge and satisfaction of reading and talking about books.


In addition to Book Talk and Bookstuff, you’ll find suggestions for short stories, poems and plays in Resources.