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Prison reading groups

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Prison Reading Group

University of Roehampton

Prison Reading Groups (PRG) promotes the spread of reading groups in prisons and provides advice and support to those who run them. It began in the year 2000 with four reading groups and now supports more than 40 groups across the UK, impacting on more than 200,000 prisoner hours since 2010. The project has several aims including improving levels of literacy amongst prisoners, empathy with the lives of others through reading, critical self-reflection, connectedness with other prisoners and other cultures beyond prison. It was developed following research into reading groups (published as Hartley, Reading Groups, OUP 2001), which highlighted the benefits of reading groups.

A key philosophy underpinning the project is the enabling of choice, aiming for as much choice as possible for group members, prison librarians and volunteer group facilitators, including how groups operate and what members read. Groups are tailor-made to fit their circumstances: meeting weekly, fortnightly or monthly, read-aloud groups for emergent readers, audio groups for the visually impaired. The focus is on reading for pleasure, as many members have bad experiences of education, and therefore no certificates or prizes are awarded. Members of the groups are self-selecting and can vote with their feet at any time.

The project is evaluated through questionnaires and interviews of prisoners, volunteers and prison personnel. Comments from prison members are frequently positive and allude to some of the benefits that the project can bring:

“Books allow you to escape these walls for hours at a time; but it’s also great to be involved in an active discussion.

 “My daughter is doing English and I have been able to discuss things with her, it gives me pointers for how to discuss books

Prison Reading Group is positively endorsed by John Hayes, Minister of State for Further Education (2012) and praised in HMIP Report 2013. Internal and external partnerships flourish via our e-list for our facilitators, librarians, publishers and supporters; it is open to anyone interested in our work that wishes to join. We hold annual workshops to share best practice and encourage new thinking. We give papers and publish articles drawing on our knowledge and experience, and have compiled a full report, What Books Can Do Behind Bars (2013).

Prison Reading Groups won the Art, Design and Culture category award in the NCCPE's Engage Competition 2014.

  • The project aims
    • The project aims to bring a number of benefits to its members: 
    • - Improved levels of literacy
    • - Developing critical self-reflection
    • - Fostering mutual respect between inmates and prison staff
    • - Connecting prison members with a wider culture beyond prison
    • - Developing empathy with the lives of others through reading
    • - Improving of soft skills leading to greater life chances in the long term
  • Target audience
    • The project is designed and targeted at prisoners in the UK. This diverse group includes people with different reading abilities, ethnicity, gender and age. In recent years the project has expanded to include families of prisoners, halfway houses and drop in centres. 
  • Project overview
    • The watchword for the project is ‘choice’. It is recognised that in prison people are not given much opportunity to make decisions, let alone take part in collaborative decision making. The project team aim therefore to enable as much choice as possible for group members, prison librarians and volunteer group facilitators, including how groups operate and what members read. Groups are tailor-made to fit their circumstances: meeting weekly, fortnightly or monthly, read-aloud groups for emergent readers, audio groups for the visually impaired. HMP Holloway, for example, started four different groups: a monthly group on the lifers’ wing; a read-aloud group in the library; a weekly group in the mental-health wing, and an ad hoc poetry group in the Resettlement Centre.

      Prisoners are involved in setting the ground rules for the groups, at least a quarter of the session is given over to choosing the next book, and participation in each group is voluntrary. Members keep the books they read, thanks to funding and support from Give A Book, and from publishers Random House and Profile. The project team work continue to work with new and existing partners to enable them to tailor make a group to fit their circumstances. For example, they recently piloted support for Family Days in ten prisons within the PRG network: providing tote bags, stationery and age appropriate books for more than 400 children visiting parents in prison. 
  • Working with volunteers
    • Ongoing support is provided for volunteers who lead the reading groups. In the early stages volunteers are invited to watch an existing group and see how they are run. This gives them the opportunity to understand the project better and the commitment required. An experienced team member may also go to the prison with the volunteer to help establish a project. It’s not necessary for volunters to have had experience of working in prisons, however a basic level of competence in leading group discusions about literature is an asset. An e-list network and an annual conference enables all group members to exchange good practice in an informal and supportive community. 
  • Partnerships, publicity and marketing
    • When project started the founders Dr Sarah Turvey and Prof. Jenny Hartley had had no previous experience of working in prisons or the wider sector. However, having undertaken research into the benefits of reading groups, they felt that prisoners could benefit from them. Testing these assumptions with family and friends with experience of working in prisons, they were able to develop the idea. In the early stages it was not easy to make initial contact with prisons, particularly knowing whom to contact. However once the initial contact had been made the project team were able to build up the necessary trust to deliver the project.

      For ten years they ran four prison groups between themselves, but in 2010 received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to expand the project. This led them to partner the Prison Education Trust (PET) who helped provide access to contacts and multiple networks. Over fifteen years the team have built up a wide network of cognate organisations such as The Reading Agency, The National Literacy Trust, National Prison Radio, PEN. They are also founder members of the Prisoner Learning Alliance, a network set up by PET to advocate the development of informal learning in UK prisons. 
  • Evaluation
    • In 2013 a report on the project was published What Books Can Do Behind Bars. The report looked at the history of the project and drew on longitudinal data, alongside an evaluation that was conducted by Dr Steven Howlett of Roehampton’s Business School, and formerly Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Volunteering Research. Volunteers are asked to send back a log of each session. These logs enable the measurement of attendance, analysis of session content including high and low points. In addition an annual conference is held where enabling partners and facilitators of PRG to share good practice and challenges. The focus of the evaluation is to look at the contribution of the project to desistance, rather to prove that Reading Groups had stopped someone re-offending. 
  • Key to making it work
    • Flexibility has been crucial to enabling the project to grow. There are now well over forty groups nationally, so the two founder members of PRG had to find new models for delivering the project and facilitating its expansion. Whilst they still run their own Reading Groups they have recruited volunteers in order to run other reading groups and have remained receptive to other peoples suggestions about how they want to run their own groups. Volunteers are recruited with a diverse range of skills and experience.

      Starting small is essential for a project like this, working through a few contacts and networks from the beginning and growing the project from there. It’s also important for volunteers to recognise that they are taking on a ‘long haul’ commitment, a regular date once a month or so.  However, volunteers often enjoy working in pairs and find it a highly rewarding experience.