Starting a reading group in prison

These guidelines are for librarians and volunteers or readers inside who are keen to get a group going and run it themselves.

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 in prison libraries – 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 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 to talk about the same book that everyone has read in advance? Or do you want to read aloud short stories or poems or articles in the session itself? Or a mixture of the two?
  • Talk to your librarian – he or she will be able to help you with arranging when, where and how often to meet, recruiting members and getting hold of books
  • Encourage your librarian to have a look at the Prison Reading Groups (PRG) website
  • Making the choices: for some groups nominations and a vote work best, others decide more informally. Whatever method you choose, make sure everyone has a say

Recruiting Members

  • Start with a poster in the library and on the wings if possible. PRG has a sample 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 pass on the word
  • Get the librarian and the library orderlies on board to spread the word in the library
  • If your prison has National Prison Radio, write to them at HMP Brixton, London SW2 5XF with details (when and where it takes place, who runs it, what you’re reading, how to sign up etc) and the radio station will promote the group for you
  • 8 – 10 members is a good target 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 to get out of the reading group. Often it’s the chance to get out of the comfort zone and discover new authors and titles.

Other ice-breakers:

  • Each person talks about the last thing they read (including newspaper or magazine or even a notice on the wing) and something interesting they got out of it
  • 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

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 the Radio 4 broadcast once a month
  • It may help for the librarian or volunteer to bring along 6-8 single copies of varied titles that look interesting

Choosing

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.

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. Talk with your librarian about this.

If the target membership is inexperienced or hesitant readers, it may work best to do the reading during the session

  • There are lots of good collections of (short) short stories and stories by genre – crime, sci fi, horror etc
  • There are also collections of theme-based poems: love, comic verse, favourite poems of the nation etc
  • PRG can recommend anthologies and your librarian can probably photocopy individual stories and poems from collections to use in the session. Have a look at the Anthologies and short texts section of the PRG website

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 someone who hadn’t read it a flavour of the book
  • Once discussion gets underway, enjoy it!

Ongoing organisation

It can be a good idea to decide on a secretary / clerk for the group who will:

  • Be the contact person for the librarian and officers
  • Keep a list of members and their locations
  • Send out reminders in advance of each meeting
  • Pass book orders to the librarian and make sure the books are handed out
  • Organise the feedback from each meeting and make sure it is given to the librarian to pass back to PRG. It’s very important for PRG’s reporting to funders and for making new funding applications so we’re very grateful for it. It doesn’t have to be detailed, just something to give the flavour of the meeting. And there’s a template form you can get from the librarian. One member may want to take charge or perhaps you’ll take it in turn. Whatever works best for your group

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.

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

These guidelines are based on ones originally produced by PRG in partnership with National Prison Radio.