Prison Reading Groups: What Books Can Do Behind Bars

Researchers at the University of Roehampton are celebrating the success of their Prison Reading Groups (PRG) project with the publication of their new report, ‘What Books Can Do Behind Bars’.

Posted: 5 August 2013

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Images courtesy of Matthew Meadows www.matthewmeadows.net

Professor Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey of the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University established PRG in 1999. In 2010, they received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council which allowed them to expand the project.

Over the last fourteen years PRG has helped set up and support over 40 groups in 31 prisons and similar settings. The groups are run by volunteers with the help of prison librarians, and are tailor-made to fit the circumstances and needs of each prison: monthly or weekly groups, read-aloud, groups for older prisoners, groups for emergent readers, Family Days and so on.

The report makes the case for the importance of reading groups as informal learning in prison, and provides extensive evidence of the benefits of the groups: from prison governors, policy makers, librarians, volunteers. Above all, it cites the powerful voices of prisoner members themselves on what reading groups can do for them while they are behind bars.

As library provision in the UK shrinks and increased pressure is put on the prison education budget, the founders of PRG are keen to ensure that their system of voluntary activity and informal learning is preserved within the prison network. The report ends with a call for more funding for this work.

The report’s authors said: “We’re delighted that this project has been a great success, with the model taken up abroad, as well around the UK. We’re particularly glad to see that it’s provided a good forum for higher level learners, who often struggle to find learning options in prison that engage them. We’d really like to see more universities and prisons creating learning partnerships as we believe they’d both benefit greatly from the initiative. But the most important thing is to get the funding for the project secured. The groups are an important positive factor in a prisoner’s life and we’d like to see that maintained.”

A full copy of the report can be downloaded from the PRG website: www.roehampton.ac.uk/prison-reading-groups/news

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