Campaign to get 10,000 prisoners reading

17 Feb 2015

“I stole a book”, Nina Champion, PET’s Head of Policy, overheard the Deputy Prison Governor of HMP Brixton confess at the launch of The Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge in prisons on 9th February. Here she reports back on the event.

"It’s not often you would get a Deputy Prison Governor admitting to theft, but Sally Hill, Deputy Governor of HMP Brixton held up a dog-eared copy of ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ and admitted it was still ‘on loan’ from her school library, 25 years ago! (She did promise to return the book soon). Hill was asked by The Reading Agency to bring along a book that meant something to her at the launch of this year’s Six Book Challenge in prisons.

Hill admitted she wasn’t the best student and had even been suspended from school, however this book inspired her and got her thinking about inequality and injustice. It was clear that reading had changed her life and that is why she is passionate about the challenge and committed to giving the men at HMP Brixton the opportunity to read and change their lives.

At the event, Erwin James, PET alumnus, gave many examples of books that changed his life while inside prison. He described entering prison “literate, but not educated” and therefore made the most of the prison library – grabbing anything he could during the hour allowed including history, geography, fiction and others.

He was hoping to understand from books, in his words: “How I’d become what I’d become…I didn’t think I’d been born bad”.

He described books as a way for him to learn to live again and found them “enriching and nurturing”. The book, Prisoners of Honour, he said, taught him about the importance of values such as power, prejudice, integrity, and honesty. The Upstart, given to him by his psychologist, made him think about empathy. He said: “Books became my best friends”.  A book by John Healy, a man who went from drinking on the streets to becoming a chess master, was sent to him by his Probation Officer who said “Read this and be inspired”. James clearly was as he described his elation when years later, as a Guardian journalist, he got to meet Healy at a literary festival and even persuaded Penguin Books to re-print his book.

From reading, James was persuaded to start writing, and following a distance learning course in journalism funded by PET, he was successful in becoming a freelance journalist for the Guardian. So books not only changed the way he thought about life, they also opened up a career path he’d never dreamed possible.

The event, in the fantastic setting of The Clink restaurant in HMP Brixton, marked the launch of a new drive to involve 10,000 prisoners in the Six Book Challenge, an increase of 1,000 from last year. Working with National Prison Radio, The Reading Agency have recently aired radio shows about people who have completed the challenge, which involves reading six books, poems, articles or short stories and writing a short review of them in a reading diary. When the diary is complete prisoner readers can receive a free mini dictionary from  the charity Give a Book. Those who complete the challenge will also have their names read out on National Prison Radio’s ‘roll of honour’. Find out more about their joint winter campaign.

Prison libraries are crucial to the success of the Six Book Challenge and after speaking to several librarians at the event, it is evident that they are passionate about supporting it.

Many of them encourage prisoners to complete the challenge using the Quick Reads series, short books by well-known writers. Some of the most popular in this series in prisons were said to be: Gordon Ramsey’s Humble Pie, Andy McNab’s Today Everything Changes and John Bird’s How to change your life in 7 steps.

Whilst it seemed that male prisoners prefer to read books written by men, author and educationalist Dreda Say Mitchell, reminded those present at the event of the importance of providing books written by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic authors too.

She said books on African history had inspired her to go to university, while her brother headed to prison.

If you work in or visit prisons, please promote the Six Book Challenge for prisoners to help get 10,000 readers involved, suggest a book that might inspire someone to change their life – and maybe even have a go yourself!"

This article was written by Nina Champion.