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Prison Reading Groups

Eleanor De, about 4 years ago

Writing for a newspaper is just one way to express creativity, build confidence and develop communication skills that can increase employment opportunities upon release. Reading is another key way in which prisoners can develop these skills whilst socialising and having fun.

Prison Reading Group (PRG) promotes the use of reading groups in prisons and provides support and funding for those who run them. Founded in 1999, the project now works with 45 groups in more than 31 prisons around the UK, from Edinburgh to the Isle of Wight.

The groups supported by PRG are very varied and include a range of participants: experienced readers and those who have never read a book before, young and old prisoners, people with addictions or mental health issues. PRG's groups are informal and strongly encourage reading for pleasure, allowing the groups to choose what they read. This flexibility extends to the meeting schedule and groups may meet weekly, monthly or anywhere in between, they may last just an hour or can run longer than 2 hours and group sizes can vary between 6 and 15 participants.

Significantly, participants also get to keep copies of the books provided which they can re-read or pass on to family or other prisoners. PRG recruits and trains volunteers who can facilitate the meetings, often with the help of the prison librarian.

Comments from volunteers involved with PRG's work include:

“I never cease to be astonished at how widely our conversations range and the diversity of views, always respectfully listened to; the appetite for learning to make up for lost education, and the eagerness to try new things" - Amanda Phillips, volunteer at HMP Grendon

“With books as a springboard, you discover interests, experiences and knowledge that might never have arisen in other conversation….It's important for the prisoners - a chance to connect with aspects of their lives and identities beyond the prison walls" - Oliver Harris, volunteer at HMP Wandsworth.

One of PRG's projects is the Family Days programme which started in 2014. With funding from the likes of the Booker Prize Foundation and Penguin Random House, PRG was able to provide books and book bags for over 450 children visiting parents in 12 different prisons. This provided a bonding opportunity for parents and their children and was such a success that in 2016 PRG managed to increase the programme to 26 days across 17 prisons, providing books and book bags to over 1,100 children.Another PRG project focuses on providing support for a reading group for women in a prison healthcare daycentre, catering for some of the prison's most vulnerable people. With funding from the Wellcome Trust, PRG has been able to establish a weekly reading group that meets to discuss carefully chosen stories and poems. One day centre staff member commented that “the women really love the group, it feels inclusive and safe - they all engage in it, whether reading and writing, listening or joining in discussions".

Looking to the future, PRG has further plans. This includes partnership with Give a Book to help expand reading projects for adult prisoners as well as the family reading initiatives and other projects such as Unsilencing the Library, a partnership with researchers from Oxford University to re-stock the library of the Compton Verney country house with books chosen by members of the PRG groups.

This will allow more prisoners to experience the benefits of the reading groups which have received positive feedback such as:

“I gained a new life in books, all thanks to our book club" and “It takes me out of myself and out of the prison…the best part of my week".

You can read the monthly blogs about the book groups here; most recently, participants have been reading To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. To support PRG or get involved with their work, click here.