‘Books are great for learning about life‘
Posted: 20 November 2011
The Prison Reading Groups project (PRG) established by University of Roehampton staff has been nominated for the 2011 PrisonerActionNet Awards.
The awards recognise outstanding services that have strengthened a sense of identity and belonging for prisoners and ex-offenders, and are sponsored by The Monument Trust.
The nomination celebrates PRG’s success in helping prisoners to develop crucial skills: critical self-reflection; empathy with the lives of others through reading; mutual respect fostered in group discussion; connectedness with both family and the wider culture
Professor Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey, who both teach in the English and Creative Writing Department, have been working with reading groups in prisons for over ten years. In 2010 they were awarded a Knowledge Transfer Fellowship by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to help set up new groups in both prisons and resettlement settings and to provide on-going support and mentoring for those who run them. Their Fellowship partner is the Prisoners’ Education Trust.
For the last 12 years Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey have been involved with prison reading groups. In 2010 we were awarded a Knowledge Transfer Fellowship (KTF) by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to extend this work. Through the Prison Reading Groups project (PRG), we have now helped set up over 25 new groups in a range of prison settings including libraries, health wings, vulnerable prisoners’ units and on National Prison Radio.
Our KTF partner is the Prisoners’ Education Trust, which funds distance learning courses for prisoners. Together our aim is to promote both formal and informal learning in prisons.
There is no single model for the groups. The aim is to help each one develop the format that best suits its target readers: experienced or emergent; young offenders or the over 50s; those with mental health issues or on lifer units. Some groups meet monthly to discuss a book read in advance; others read aloud in the group and discuss it as they go.
Each new group is facilitated by a member of prison staff (usually the librarian) and a volunteer from outside. PRG provides support for facilitators and training for volunteers.
What is important to almost all the groups is choosing what they read, whether it is novels, short stories, poems, plays, speeches or biographies. And there’s fantastic variety, from classic novels like Adventures of Huckleberry and Wuthering Heights to the shortest of short stories and poems.
In early September over 50 librarians and volunteers from 18 prisons came together at Whitelands to share experiences of their groups and to explore ways of reaching more prisons and prisoners.
Delegates reported high praise from reading group members:
The groups are varied: some meet monthly to discuss a book chosen and read in advance; others read aloud in the session and discuss it as they go. Where possible, groups have outside volunteers as well as co-ordinators inside the prison.
Jenny and Sarah are delighted by the nomination but say the best tribute to PRG are the comments of members:
‘Books are great for learning about life‘
‘It’s a real joy to be able to disagree and remain friends afterwards.’
‘Today we have not been in a prison, just a library.’
Jenny Hartley’s book, Reading Groups, conducted with Sarah Turvey, examines the history and current practices of reading groups in Britain and beyond. It was the first (and still the only) survey of UK reading groups.
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