PLA case study #1: Sarah Turvey, Director, Prison Reading Groups
What does Prison Reading Groups (PRG) do?
PRG promotes the spread of reading and reading groups in prisons and provides funding and support for those who run them. The project began in 1999 and now works with over 40 groups in more than 35 prisons nationwide.
The groups are informal and encourage reading for pleasure as the best way to become a reader. Members choose what they read and the books are theirs to keep or pass on to family or other prisoners. Wherever possible, PRG recruits and trains volunteers to facilitate the meetings, usually alongside the prison librarian.
PRG also supports Family Days in about a dozen prisons, providing books and book bags for children visiting a parent in prison. Our Family Days volunteers offer expert advice on children’s books and book corner activities as well as help on the day.
Why is this important?
Books promote empathy and the ability to enter into lives and experiences not our own. Reading groups encourage sociability through critical discussion and reflection. They also connect people: with themselves, with one another, and with the world beyond prison. Talking about ‘buzz books’ – whether Booker prize winners or the book of the blockbuster film – helps members define themselves as readers and gives them a stake in the wider culture. The groups can also connect prisoners to family when books are passed on to partners or children and discussed in phone calls or visits.
What is your role at PRG?
I have worked with PRG since its beginnings in 1999. My current role as Director is to oversee our core activities, to help maintain and develop our partnerships, and as far as I can to influence public opinion and policy around prisoner learning. I also facilitate two of our groups, at HMPs Wandsworth and Bullingdon. I am very well supported by Philip Coales, PRG’s Co-Ordination and Development Officer, and by our close partnership with Give a Book. I am also proud to be a member of the PLA. It has given PRG greater understanding of the larger contexts of prisoner learning and how we can work most effectively within them. In return I hope that PRG provides a useful voice for informal learning and the importance of prison libraries.
What are you busy with at the moment?
We are currently planning PRG’s annual Reading in Prison Day on Friday, June 17 at the University of Roehampton in South London. Speakers include Helena Kennedy QC, Chair of the Booker Prize Foundation; Lesley Graham, PET alumnus and former member of the reading group at HMP Send; and Nina Champion, Head of Policy at PET. The event is free but booking is essential. To do so, email
Can you give an example of someone who has benefited from your work?
Our groups have a wide range of target memberships, from emergent readers to very experienced ones. Success depends on the librarians who do all the inside negotiating to make groups happen and keep them going, the volunteers who bring such brilliant enthusiasm and imagination to running their groups, and above all to the grit and determination of the members. ‘D’’s story, as told by a volunteer, shows this in action:
"'D' was very nervous when we first me in the prison library. He could read simple sentences but he told me that he read so slowly that by the time he got to the end of a sentence, he’d forgotten the beginning. Reading was like taking medicine. He didn’t like doing it, but he knew it had to be done if he was to stand a chance when he was released.
"He joined the group but it was difficult for him and he was alternately bored and disruptive. But the volunteer refused to give up and insisted that they just needed to find the right book. 'D' stuck with it and eventually found the hook in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne.
"At the end of the session, ‘D’ asked to take the book back to his cell. It took him some weeks to finish, but he devoted twenty minutes a day, and every time we met he told me in detail the story so far. Far from trying to remember the beginning of each sentence when he got to the end, he was forging his way through the book to find out what would happen next."
What is the biggest challenge you face in doing your work?
For PRG the biggest challenge is access. Many prisoners still do not get weekly visits to the library. Some do not get there even once a month. The library is at the heart of meaningful prisoner learning and Mr Gove needs to make sure the pledges about prisoner access are met.
Could you recommend a book that worked well in a prison reading group?
In one of my groups we recently read The Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad's story of the Afghan family she lived with for four months. Her account is both very intimate (some thought intrusive) and highly critical of her host and Afghan society. The book provoked a fascinating debate about Islam, Afghan culture and the ethics of non-fiction writing. The men had very mixed views about the book but the discussion was a scorcher!
On Friday 17th June 2016, the University of Roehampton will host the Prison Reading Groups’ (PRG) ‘Reading in Prison Day’. Speakers include Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, author Cathy Rentzenbrink and PET's Head of Policy Nina Champion. For more information and to book your place click here.
The Guardian recently featured an article on PRG work at HMP Thameside.