Running a remote reading group

PRG volunteer Maggie Gallagher writes about running a remote reading group with librarian Neil Barclay at HMP Thameside.

I’m a volunteer with Prison Reading Groups and have been going into HMP Thameside on a monthly (occasionally twice-monthly) basis for the last five years or so to discuss books, short stories, poems and literature generally with prisoners.

One of the first casualties of the pandemic for me personally was the closure of the prison to outsiders. I had prepared a book (read it and thought up good questions to fire up a discussion) for an upcoming session, which was, of course, abandoned, with little sense of when that might resume.

PRG strove to maintain a toehold and created a regular handout called Bookstuff:  a mixture of wit, wisdom and literary trivia. It was fun (I always enjoy a good literary quiz question, or playing spot the famous opening line), but something more was needed.

In this time of closing in and closing down, reading was one of the few activities that was left to prisoners, something they could safely fill some of that endless time with. Prisoners know what lockdown means, even if the outside world didn’t really – until 23 March 2020 at any rate. Time goes slowly and the television isn’t always the escape that’s needed – especially in the early days when all the tv seemed to be about COVID-19.

So PRG decided to offer something else to participating groups. Book Talk is a website resource that suggests two titles each month, with the offer of up to 20 copies of the one chosen. Thus, across the whole prison estate there may be dozens of prisoners all reading the same book at more or less the same time.

But, just like readers in the outside world, prison readers like to talk about a book they’ve just read too – especially if they’ve loved it, or maybe even if they’ve hated it! So PRG and its volunteers thought we should do the best we can to provide that opportunity. Sadly, Zoom or Teams aren’t really options for the prison, but we did find a way.

With each title, Neil gives out a double-sided sheet with a blurb for the book and a set of questions. PRG and their volunteers devise these sheets, giving prisoners some food for thought and setting them off probing and writing down their own responses to the book. Then Neil collects in the sheets, scans them and sends them to me. I collate and summarise them, trying to analyse what the prisoners thought about each question. Sometimes there is total agreement, other times widely differing views.

There are texts where, for example, some thought the mother was to blame (as usual), while another thought the sister should have stood up for her sibling; or perhaps poverty was the main reason for the character’s downfall, yet another thought it was just the guy’s weakness and lack of courage…

And then I send the summary back to Neil. The final bit of the process is Neil organising for the prisoners to receive these summaries and see what their fellow readers had to say. But perhaps, the final stage should be us hearing back from the prisoners as to whether they had found the summaries interesting and thought-provoking? That is what I’d like to know!

Yes, these book clubs are remote ones, and giving and getting feedback is a challenge. But somehow, we are keeping going with our guiding principle of sharing the love of reading, and making that still possible, even behind bars.

This piece first appeared in a slightly longer version in the prison’s Reducing Reoffending magazine.

*Photo credit for Thameside library: Toby Richardson

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