‘We have not been in a prison, just a library . . .’

‘It lifts my spirits’; ‘Talking in the group made me want to read’; ‘A lifeline’; ‘Today we have not been in a prison, just a library’ . . .

Some of the tributes paid by members to the reading groups which are flourishing behind the bars of British prisons.

For the last ten years my colleague Sarah Turvey and I have been running reading groups in men’s and women’s prisons in the UK. It has been an exhilarating and rewarding experience; and we look forward to some exciting developments.

These are reading groups which meet in prisons once a month, much like any other reading group on the outside, to discuss a book which we have chosen together and read in advance of the meeting. Each group has about a dozen members; in some prisons there are waiting lists to join. The only funds we need are for books. Each prisoner gets a copy of the book we are reading that month (one of our few rules is ‘paperback only’). We do of course rely on assistance from prison staff, usually the hard-worked but supportive librarians, who help with notices, getting prisoners unlocked, and rooms organized.

And now we are expanding. In the past charitable grants, small trust funds, and support from the University kept us afloat. This year, an AHRC Knowledge Transfer award in partnership with the Prisoners’ Education Trust is enabling us to start and grow a batch of new groups, and build a network of communication between existing ones. Prison librarians who like the idea get in touch with us, as do potential volunteers to run the groups. We supply funding for free books for a year, plus visits, advice and mentoring.

Most members of our prison reading groups are reasonably fluent readers – although not always, and new groups are devising brilliant initiatives to work with emergent readers. Not all our members are confident readers. ‘I’ve only read four books in my life,’ admitted one dyslexic member; others had bad experiences of education. One benefit the group can confer is reading stamina: you are more likely to finish a book if you have a date to discuss it in a month’s time. But this is the informal end of learning, as opposed to the uphill slog of formal prisoner education, sustained by dedicated teachers like Jenny Rathbone, writing eloquently in UC last May.

If we are, then, the icing on the cake of prison arts and education, it could be said that we are invisible icing.

Reading has low visibility because of the absence of output: no play or opera, no artwork or poetry. The May 2008 issue of the PMLA devoted many pages to the impressive work of education and the arts in prisons, but had nothing to say about reading in groups. I am, however, fully convinced from my observation over the last decade that prison reading groups can have a huge impact, and in two ways: because of what they read, and because of how they read.

First, the what. The Director of the Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning, Tom Schuller, maintains that prisoners need to grow three sorts of capital: human capital (skills and qualifications), social capital (networks and shared norms), and identity capital (a sense of personal worth and belonging). In addition, I would argue, prisoners also need to develop a fourth asset: imaginative capital. This is where reading groups come in.

Reading for empathy and for extending our moral horizons are not new goals, but they are difficult to achieve. Prisoners are often wary of Offending Behaviour programmes and prescribed reading, whose designs on them are too obvious. ‘We know what we’re supposed to think.’ The imagination, it seems, must be ambushed unawares.

‘I never thought to say it’, remarked a member about Kate Summerscale’s account of a Victorian murder, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, ‘but now I’m feeling sorry for the detective; they’ve got him in far too late.’ In more meditative vein, the last seventy pages of Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man, in which a POW returns to the site of his former imprisonment, was described by one reader as ‘both painful and helpful’. He had been forced to rethink his attitudes about victims and his previous impatience. His line had always been, ‘Why can’t people move on; the past is the past’. This book had made him see, feel, even, the experience of something very much otherwise. It is the particular combined with the unpredictable which does the trick, as we see time and again: the trick of surprising someone out of his or her reading security zone, of sparking unexpected empathy, of jolting the reader into reflection.

Fiction can hold the key, although male readers often resist.

At a session attended by Penelope Lively to discuss her book Making it Up, a group member told her that in past he would never read fiction. He thought there would be nothing in it for him because of the lack of reality. However, he has had to go along with the group’s choices, and now ‘fiction has made me realise that there’s someone else in the room, and what’s going on in their head you have no idea, and fiction makes you think what’s going on in that other head.’ ‘Couldn’t have put it better myself’, commented Penelope Lively.

Perhaps the main point about what we read is that it is for the group to choose. As for any reading group, deciding what to read next can be a lengthy and tricky process. Our method is to bring in single copies of books, magazines such as Waterstone’s Quarterly, recent newspaper reviews and synopses from Amazon. The last part of each session is spent picking the next book. Choice is crucial. This is not a class, or a course with a certificate at the end, or bibliotherapy, where particular texts may be prescribed by a leader, in terms of aesthetic brilliance or artistic greatness (although we have read some of those), or moral or therapeutic potential. All of us as readers have to learn to choose, to make mistakes, to come across something by chance, to pick up suggestions from others, but discard some too. Reading resilience, in other words. Further, we also need to develop a sense of what might be a good book group.

This brings me to how these groups read: what reading together does. As well as reading stamina and resilience, there are those other skills developed by being in a group, such as learning how to persuade the group to choose the book you want, how to negotiate, and how to respect the choices of others. It is often the interaction of the group which members commend: ‘It’s good to talk with people you might not otherwise get to know and hear their opinions about a book.’

Could reading groups help with rehabilitation?

This would be difficult to evaluate, although we have heard from members who have gone on to university. We also know that the group can strengthen ties with the world outside. Members like to choose ‘live’ books being talked about outside; friends and family have joined in as virtual members via phone conversations or letters in the week before the meeting.

In broader terms, I would look at the public dimensions of this social reading: presenting your point of view concisely, waiting your turn, not interrupting (one of the very few ground rules we suggest), learning to listen, and to appreciate the legitimacy of different opinions, of another perspective. These may be things we take for granted, but some members come to them for the first time, and comment with surprise: ‘Oh, so it’s OK to disagree about a book is it, not like school’; ‘Who’d have thought we could spend all this time just talking and arguing about a book?’

A prison librarian recently reported: ‘The group has been especially beneficial to one member, a man who has been in prison for twenty-two years and who was very withdrawn and institutionalised – he has become far more outgoing and confident and both prisoners and staff have commented to me about the change in him. He is like a different person.’