Blog: Books behind bars

18 Mar 2015

Following World Book Day on 5th March, Rod Clark, Prisoners' Education Trust’s Chief Executive blogs on the importance of reading and literacy for people in prison.

“This year’s World Book Day, at Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET), we had cause to celebrate the many charities and staff members championing reading and literacy, marking a month since the reversal of rules restricting access to books, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. At the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Tuesday 3rd March, librarians working on the front line said the biggest issue for prisoners was the lack of access to libraries; due to staff shortages, there weren’t enough officers physically to escort them. The librarians talked about the many positive initiatives that they support such as author visits and the abundance of resources on offer, but although prisoners are allowed to visit at least 30 minutes per week in many establishments that is just not happening in practice. Last week, reports from families and friends said books they bought for prisoners were returned to Waterstones, one of the Ministry of Justice’s approved suppliers. And as the Big Issue highlighted, there are many people whose families can’t afford to buy brand new books.

Learning to read, and then continuing to read, not only helps people develop skills in literacy and communications but also gives them the opportunity to find knowledge in books, become inspired and passionate.

At two recent events, our alumnus talked about just how important books were to them. In Parliament, Erwin James, who studied a distance learning course funded by PET while he was in prison, and now writes for the Guardian, told MPs that he went to prison an ‘inarticulate brute’ but that ‘reading helped me to think and then, to learn’. He talked about the library in HMP Wandsworth, he which allowed him to take out six books a week, ‘helped keep me alive’. Friends and family would send him books regularly to inspire him. He said: “Without books I couldn’t have made the changes into the person I needed to be.”

At the English Pen event on 25 February ‘In a parallel universe’ former PET student Chris Syrus spoke about his hands-on personal experience of studying in prison. Chris said: “I was able to study Psychology with the OU through the funding of PET. Without their support and my family sending me in books. I wouldn’t be running my own social enterprise today.”

The event was organised to announce the winners of a creative writing competition organised by English Pen. Poems by the overall winner were read out by a creative writing tutor who had worked with him in HMP Shotts in Scotland. Some of the other winning and commended entries were read by Chris. The competition featured powerful poetry and prose submitted by prisoners across the UK. Judge and acclaimed author Meg Rosoff, said: “Within this body of work, I heard some amazing voices. Your voices. They were humorous, thoughtful, intelligent, wise, angry, sad and passionate.” She expanded on the experience of judging the competition in a recent article for The Guardian.

I joined Meg Rosoff for a panel discussion, alongside former prison governor, author and academic John Podmore and County Durham prison library manager, Jackie Wood. The panel discussed the immense value and importance to prisoners of access to books and while we welcomed the change in the incentives and earned privileges scheme which had lifted the restriction on family and friends sending books into prisoners, like those who attended the APPG, many people were concerned over the evidence of continuing difficulty in accessing libraries in some prisons.

Altogether the event was an inspiring reminder of the power of literature, the creative energy of prisoners and the commitment of many people working to give them opportunities to develop it.

In prisons across the country there are committed staff members, librarians, volunteers, and charity workers who are tirelessly trying to encourage and support people in prison to read. A huge number of educated prisoners spend their time mentoring their peers with literacy issues. They must be celebrated. It is thanks to them, men and women in prison gain the confidence to read and become inspired to think and learn through what they find in books.”