Reading in prison day

13 Jun 2014

Reporting back from a Prison Reading Groups event, Rod Clark, PET Chief Executive, writes:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—  

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

Even though I’m in the field of prison education, I don’t usually spend work time practicing textual analysis of a poem.  But that is what I, together with a hall full of prison staff, educators and volunteers, found myself doing on 13 June 2014 in the beautiful surroundings of Roehampton University.  It was the culminating session of a day devoted to the work of Prison Reading groups focusing on the value and use of poetry for groups of prisoners.  It brought out the power of artistic expression (in this case, Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken) in facilitating discussion and reflection.  And it was striking how even a familiar poem can take on a new resonance in the context of a prison discussion.

Stack of books in Pentoville library

It was a fitting end to a day devoted to the power of literature to release prisoners to articulate their concerns and the issues of their lives and discover possibilities beyond the routine of the regime.

The day was organised by the excellent Prison Reading Groups organisation and provided an opportunity to hear from volunteers and prisoners in groups across the country and from the organisations that support them.  We heard from author Melvin Burgess about how his contact with former prisoners had informed his work exploring the stories of troubled and violent youngsters in novels such as Kill All Enemies and Nicholas Dane.  We heard about the excellent work being undertaken to support emergent readers through initiatives such as the Shannon Trust’s reading programme and Quickbooks.  And, in a session on Learner Voice, we heard movingly from a serving prisoner and an ex-prisoner (both I am delighted to say whom we had supported at Prisoners' Education Trust) about the impact of reading groups and access to books in their lives.

Throughout the day the overriding messages were: the power of reading as a route to helping prisoners change their lives; the passion and dedication of those working in this field; but also, sadly, the constraints and difficulties in maintaining and building on these programmes in a world of tight staffing levels and prescriptive education contracts. 

It is often hard to bring groups together to welcome initiatives such as writers in residence and simply to support adequate access from prisoners to the library.  There can be no doubt of the impact that approaches such as prison reading groups can have in supporting prisoners in a process of personal growth and development.  As ever, the challenge is on all of us working in the system to realise that potential.  Reading groups may be a road rarely travelled in a prison regime – but perhaps it is the one that could make all the difference.