Prison Reading Groups
Professor Jenny Hartley
Since the late 1990s reading groups, from the macro (Oprah, Richard and Judy) to the micro (a living room near you), have been in the news. Sarah Turvey and I researched the phenomenon for a book, and over the last six years we have between us either run or visited reading groups in eight different prisons. It is not teaching as you know it, but we are proud of what we do. You do not have to be an English Literature lecturer to run a reading group, but it can feed positively and unexpectedly into university teaching. And it is very enjoyable.
Activities / Practice
The prison librarian is the point of contact. Some of them already run reading groups. If they do, they might welcome you as a visitor and appreciate the contact with a local university. If they don’t they might be interested in the idea. Our groups have started with notices put up in the libraries and on the wings, inviting prisoners to an initial meeting. This first meeting explains how the group will work, and chooses the book for the first session.
The groups we facilitate meet once a month at a regular time. Numbers vary, from three to fourteen. At some prisons there is a waiting list to get into the group. We like to be as informal as possible, but there are a few ground rules, which are agreed by the group. At HMP Wandsworth, which Sarah and I run together, we start by going round the circle to get everyone’s initial reaction to the book. Then, once everyone’s voice has been heard, we have a general discussion, hopefully with the rule of one person at a time and no interruptions. Listening – not just waiting for your turn but really listening and taking on someone else’s view – is as important as speaking. Sessions usually last about an hour. For some of the groups, one of the prisoners acts as secretary, issuing reminders and keeping records of membership.
The groups have been mixed in terms of ethnic and educational background. Ages range from early twenties to late sixties. Some members are highly sophisticated readers. Others have been encouraged by friends or enthusiasts to come along, but may not be confident readers. Last month I took a cutting into HMP Send, a women’s prison, about the Posh Spice ‘I’ve never read a book’ story; and one member told us that before coming to this group she had only read four books in her life. It is a challenge to make every reader feel there is something for them, and that the group is theirs. As in any seminar situation, the more articulate should not be allowed to dominate.
My first group started at HMP Coldingley with support from the Chaplain’s fund. Each man paid one pound, and kept the book. The small charge was a token of commitment, but it has proved difficult to collect and administer, and in our current groups the books are free. Prisoners like to send them on to friends and family; books that have gone well in the group also get passed round the prison. We have been fortunate in getting funding to cover the costs of buying the books from a variety of sources: Surrey Education Authority, the Rowntree Trust, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the Millennium Families Lottery Funding, and a Wandsworth Outreach programme. When funding temporarily ran out at Send, the librarian organised the borrowing of sets from stock. But it has to be said that having an attractive new paperback to keep is a definite lure.
Choosing what to read next is a group decision; we allocate the last ten minutes or so of the session to the process. Our job is to facilitate the choice by bringing in helpful information: single copies of new paperbacks, reviews, lists of best-sellers and Booker shortlists, pages off Amazon, magazines such asWaterstone’s Quarterly, the Richard and Judy selection, and so on. Perhaps an issue will come up: an argument at Send about the death of Diana led us to David Cohen’sDiana, Death of a Goddess(prisoners tend to be conspiracy theorists.) Or a theme such as reading books from different parts of the world – ‘that way we get to travel’.
Choice is of course part of the reading process, and everybody should be involved. Word-of-mouth recommendations are valued, ‘especially from close friends because books can sometimes communicate feelings that can’t be easily expressed directly’.
Sometimes it comes to a vote, and we might very occasionally veto a suggestion which seems inappropriate. Umberto Eco’sThe Name of theRose, one of the first suggestions at Coldingley, seemed to me the kind of book likely to put off some readers permanently. We buy the books, and bring them in to distribute at the end of the session.
A mix of fiction and non-fiction seems to work; and we have also tackled a poetry anthology,The Nation’s Favourite Poems.
Books read recently at Send:
Jodie Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper
Joseph O’Connor, The Star of the Sea
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
James Frey, A Million Little Pieces
Robert Harris, Pompeii
Books read recently at Wandsworth:
Stephen Smith, Underground London
Sarah Wise, The Italian Boy
Andrew Taylor, The American Boy
Tim Guest, My Life in Orange
Jules Verne, Journey to the Centre of the Earth
The first book we discussed in my first prison reading group session was Angela’s Ashes. I was apprehensive about potentially sensitive issues: abusive parents, ‘the feckless Irish’, alcoholism. But ‘the Irish’ only got one mention before being put to one side. It was a good book to start with, as prisoners like to keep up with what’s popular or controversial. Angela’s Ashes was currently at the top of the best-seller lists but attracting debate about its veracity and hostile reactions in Limerick. So this gave us some issues to take on. And while some could relate immediately to the accounts of poverty, others openly registered dismay – ‘I hadn’t realised things were so bad’. I had taken against the father; might they as men feel differently? Emphatically not; ‘it’s because we see it as the child isn’t it’. This led us to discuss point of view and the use of humour.
As with any reading group, the unpredictability is part of the pleasure. You can never tell what people will like, what they will latch on to talk about, what they will agree and disagree about. While the group at Wandsworth admired Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and identified elements of the narrator in themselves, the women at Send rejected it as a book for do-gooders. Groups at Coldingley and Send both thought Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemistwas profound and inspirational. I thought it was tosh but held my fire.
I have never seen books so bristling with post-its and comments; prisoners can read much more closely and carefully than some of my students. On the other hand, some of them have little staying power, and need to be encouraged. We once tackled a classic at Send. It was Pride and Prejudice and I made the mistake of not telling them to skip the Introduction. It had been too much for the first woman to arrive at the group: she had understandably given up. But then in bounced Michelle: ‘What a mouth that Lizzie Bennet’s got on her!’ To persuade Louisa to read on she acted out what she called the first scene of the book: Darcy walking on to the dance floor and deciding there’s no one there worth dancing with. A scene all the women in the group could recognise.
Authors often enjoy coming to a prison session, and have given groups some memorable moments. Howard Jacobson and Ahdaf Souief have been to Wandsworth, Tony Parsons visited Coldingley for an edition of Radio 4’s Book Club.
Kay Hadwick, the librarian at HMP High Down, recently won first prize as Penguin/Orange Book Club of the Year, for the group she started four years ago. External funding (achieved by hard work on her part) has brought in authors such as Fay Weldon, Philip Pullman, Minette Walters and Benjamin Zephaniah.
The relationship to one’s university teaching is oblique, productive in foregrounding questions relevant to both. How much should personal experience come into the frame, how to control discussion without a heavy hand, how to push someone to develop their ideas or test their arguments.
Measurable success, in the sense of recruitment – sending someone out of prison and on to study English at university – would be rare. Less measurably, group members clearly enjoy the sessions. They learn different ways to approach a book, develop their critical responses, read books they would not otherwise pick, and compare the books they have tackled together over the months. Communication skills improve. Members at Wandsworth and Coldingley have written enthusiastic articles for their in-house magazines and library notice-boards. All of this is of course rewarding for the facilitator, and only takes one evening a month.