Filming in prisons: literacy learning

18 Sep 2015

Susannah Henty, Media and Public Affairs Manager writes:

"Last month Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) and Prison Learning TV visited two prisons and spoke to educational and charitable organisations for a film about literacy in prisons.

During this process we met enthusiastic prison staff, teachers and charity workers determined to help people in prison become learn to read and love to read. We met prisoners who are teaching others to read and volunteers who visit prisons each week to hold book clubs.

Before we started this process, we already knew of the many organisations and individuals committed to improving literacy and education in prisons and we wanted to showcase the work they do, to celebrate their achievements and allow others to see the benefits of providing a wide range of reading opportunities.

Some of these include entry level literacy classes, the Shannon Trust Turning Pages scheme, the Reading Agency’s Read Ahead initiative, the Story Book Dads charity, creative writing courses and Prison reading groups.

When we visited HMP Thameside, many of these initiatives were run in the library, which is based in the education department. A team of prisoner orderlies and a prison officer work with Neil Barclay, the Librarian, to offer a range of activities, at different times (including Saturdays) to encourage as many prisoners as possible to visit the library. Neil says some prisoners had never picked up a book before coming to prison and starting their sentences, but now they have become avid readers, “I never knew how important the library was until I took this job.” Here, one of the prisoners he has supported at HMP Thameside reports on how he found the filming process.

Thameside’s library orderly describes his experience of our visit:

“Last month HMP Thameside was asked to work with Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) on the production of a film about learning and education resources available to prisoners. HMP Thameside was one of two prisons which had this unique opportunity to showcase the variety of such services offered by our Library and Education departments.

The project was facilitated by the HMP Thameside Library and coordinated by our Head Librarian Neil Barclay. Filming started by interviewing one of Thameside’s language learners to talk about his experience learning French on Rosetta Stone – an interactive language learning software which is available to prisoners on three terminals in the library offering a total of 12 sessions a day. Due to constant efforts and supervision of the Rosetta Stone coordinator – Michael, sessions are easily accessible and scheduling flexible which allows prisoners to spend their time productively regardless of their engagement in other activities. This initiative works particularly well with our library’s foreign language books section allowing prisoners to utilize their newly acquired skills and follow through with learning once they’ve completed the course. The camera crew then moved on to film a Prison Reading Group (PRG) session. Book Club sessions attract a large number of prisoners every week who come to exchange opinions about pre-selected books.

Book Club sessions at HMP Thameside Library are frequently visited by distinguished authors willing to share their passion for literature and discuss their own work.

Thanks to Neil’s efforts in reaching out to potential guests we’ve had a rare and exclusive opportunity to talk to celebrities such as Andy McNab and Russell Brand and are due to meet Martina Cole in October. This time, although they didn’t meet an author the film crew had an opportunity to film a lively debate about Daniel Keyes’ ‘Flowers for Algernon’ and interview two of PRG volunteers Graham and Maggie.

Since opening in 2012 Thameside prison has been working closely with Shannon Trust to improve the literacy of prisoners who struggle with reading. Turning Pages is another initiative coordinated by the library and we are responsible for recruiting mentors, distributing learning materials and holding weekly meetings during which mentors can talk about and resolve any issues associated with the programme. We’ve had an amazing track record in this to date and currently enroll over 70 learners who are supported by 10 trained and passionate mentors. Following one such weekly meeting, one of our learners was happy to have his mentoring session filmed by the PET crew and interview two mentors Olsi and Kevin about the many benefits of the initiative.

Olsi said he gets a great deal of satisfaction helping others to read: “When I’m teaching, I’m learning.”

Next on the schedule was the charitable initiative Story Book Dads, which allows prisoners to connect with their young children by sending them recorded stories read from a wide range of children’s books available in the library. James was filmed as he enthusiastically enacted “The Scary Lion and The Little Owlet” for his 10 year old son. Stories are recorded by the prison’s Family First team in the Media Suite, a newly refurbished facility equipped with 8 new Apple’s desktop computers. Prisoners are encouraged to use the suite to learn Imaging Software skills and produce our prison’s monthly newsletter.

The following day, to conclude their tour, the crew moved on to film the education department and various classes on offer to prisoners ranging from functional English skills to Creative Writing. Finally, they visited one of the cells to see how the in-cell Content Management System (CMS) can provide prisoners with the best access to breadth of learning and education resources available at HMP Thameside. Using computers in their cells prisoners can select and apply for courses, schedule their own library sessions and send messages to the education department.

PET’s filming project was an encouraging experience to all of us involved in running the library and education departments. It sparked interest and excitement among the prisoners who were constantly peering from behind the camera like curious children. I was surprised to see how many of them came forward offering to express their views and experiences in front of the camera. Those of us who try to make HMP Thameside a place of rehabilitation with opportunities to make a fresh start were uplifted by the many positive contributions made by prisoners and passion they showed for initiatives they are involved in.”

We thank HMP Thameside and HMP Lewes and all the contributors for taking part in this film. The film is currently in post production, it will be available to watch on PET’s website next month.

To view our current films visit our YouTube channel.